Caspar David Friedrich's painting, Woman Before the Rising Sun (alternatively titled Woman Before the Setting Sun) elicits a profound awe at the majesty of nature. The woman’s outstretched hands convey something like prayer or a supplication of wonder at the sight of dawn (or dusk). Friedrich's paintings, in general, demonstrate a transcendental realm where nature reigns. His art conjures astonishment at humanity’s tremulous presence on Earth.
Hiroshige’s Wind Blown Grass Across the Moon accomplishes something similar. While it would be a chauvinistic mistake to make a one-to-one comparison, Hiroshige’s portrayal of grass contrasted against a full moon is similar to Woman Before the Rising Sun; both evoke terror and wonder in the face of Nature.
Volumes could be written on African art alone. Take the Yoruba, for the,
...deft, luminous peace of Yoruba religious art blinds us therefore to the darker powers of the tragic art into which only the participant can truly enter. The grotesquerie of the terror cults misleads the unwary into equating fabricated fears with the exploration of the Yoruba mind into the mystery of his individual will and the intimations of divine suffering to which artistic man is prone.
There’s an ominous quality to these arts—in paintings, film, music, literature, the emphasis on nature occulted, yet also gloriously pious, conveys a sense of awe, of the universe’s scope and our infinitesimal place in it, of God, of beauty and mystery. There are so many fascinating examples amongst various cultures I can’t possibly do justice to the varieties of art that explore the connection between God, Nature, and fear.
Of course, we’re dealing with Rudolf Otto’s awful terror, his oft-discussed Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. It’s the numinous reverence at the heart of religious, as well as artistic, and literary fervor. Rather than give my interpretation of Otto’s concept, I’ll let his own words clarify the idea,
We will take to represent this [absolute overpoweringness] the term majestas, majesty—the more readily because anyone with a feeling for language must detect a last faint trace of the numinous still clinging to the world. The tremendum may then be rendered more adequately tremenda majestas, or “aweful majesty”.
...there is the feeling of one’s own submergence, of being but “dust and ashes” and nothingness. And this forms the numinous raw material for the feeling of religious humility...
Regardless the art or time, there’s this difficult to define liminal (as opposed to liminoid) stage where ecstatic fear and religious ecstasy in the face of one’s faith, or the natural World, coincide. That groveling submission before something so beloved it intimidates and inspires is paramount. What are its origins? Why this submissive dread, this overwhelming fascination with the ineffable that invariably informs so much art, so many religions, and horror fiction specifically? Most importantly, does the numinous reside within the believer and non-believer; the deist, polytheist, monotheist, atheist, and the secularist throughout human history? As Almond states, “...the numinous experience may be conceptualized in theistic, trans-theistic, and non-theistic terms”.
I have a distinct memory of when I was 5 and we’d just moved from Southern California to Oregon, to our new home, a house hidden away in the woods on an isolated 32-acre forest-covered mountain. I remember the first night there, standing by myself outside, looking into the dark woods free of any light pollution in such a distant place. I was dumbstruck by the majesty and mystery of it all. Like Sanderson in Blackwood’s “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”, I too was consumed by what I can only describe as a pantheistic fervor and raw atavistic fear at what I could not comprehend lurking within the darkest depths of the forest. I experienced that pious terror in the grandeur and power where nature, religion, and horror embrace.
The vastness of the natural world may invoke reactions similar to those moved by pious revelations, and this is of great relevance to the terrifying grandeur of weird storytelling. The uncanny is omnipresent and seems to be an innate aspect of being human, of how we view the world and how the irrational, surreal, and disturbing distortion of the physical world invokes unease.
As a species we’re captivated by infinite expanses—it informs our concepts of an afterlife, religions, our gods, inviting fear and wonder. This reaction to never-ending spaces and concepts is likely innate. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt write in their groundbreaking study,
...two features form the heart of prototypical cases of awe: vastness, and accommodation. Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self's ordinary level of experience or frame of reference. Vastness is often a matter of simple physical size, but it can also involve social sizes such as fame, authority, or prestige. Signs of vastness such as loud sounds or shaking ground, and symbolic markers of vast size such as a lavish office can also trigger the sense that one is in the presence of something vast. In most cases vastness and power are highly correlated so we could have chosen to focus on power, but we have chosen the more perceptually oriented term “vastness” to capture the many aesthetic cases of awe in which power does not seem to be at work.
I’m reminded of the brilliant writings of R.H. Benson, whose Catholicism informed his ghost stories as sage warnings against spiritualism, a heartfelt condemnation or offense at the intrusion of the supernatural. In his novel The Necromancers, a “Thing” has traveled from “a spiritual distance so unthinkable and immeasurable, that the very word distance meant little.”
Vastness. Light years. Parsecs. Immeasurable gulfs. There’s a tattoo of the numinous inked in our brains, and so this indescribable dread in the face of the supernatural or Nature’s majesty is unavoidable. Few writers captured this so passionately as Benson.
John Gatta points out that the poet William Cullen Bryant makes an interesting point relevant to the numinous in Nature (referring to Bryant’s poem, The Prairies),
Only by looking beyond this vacancy, and beyond the current vitality of insects, birds, and ‘gentle quadrupeds,’ can [Bryant] imagine the prehistory of human races that once inhabited this land. He then finds the landscape haunted by ghostly powers.
Gatta goes on to refer to Thoreau with a similar observation,
And insofar as the sacred corresponds most broadly to an experience of the numinous—that is, to an encounter with something “wholly other,” beyond the usual bounds of human culture, the nonhuman world of nature is evidently allied to the numinous. Confirming nature’s “wildness” has at least a potential religious value then, insofar as it helps us, in Thoreau’s words, “to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
God, Nature, and horror are inexorable aspects of our being.
Our brains assume the persistence of our thoughts, emotions, personalities, and minds after death. Studies have proposed that children implicitly support belief in an afterlife, as it is impossible for the human brain to comprehend non-existence.
There is tantalizing research on humans being “implicit”, or “intuitive” theists—that is, primates programmed to interpret design in disorder, patterns in nothingness, order in ambiguity. We are set to attribute intention to natural objects.
We are “promiscuous” teleologists, interpreting natural phenomena as being there for us. The world revolves around Homo sapiens, and any perceived design is surely the consequence of supernatural forces choosing to single out humanity. Horror taps into this atavistic theism in that it may fill the reader with a form of awe that allows one to contemplate whether there’s something beyond this physical world, an order, an ineffable truth that sets us to gape at the majesty of chaos. The conceit of an ineffable cosmos caring about us is a seductive thought, and even permeates secular humanist ideologies in exemplifying the virtues of our accomplishments through art, science and such, as if we’ve achieved some pinnacle on the Great Chain of Being.
Even if we’re born with the assumption of agency, and the glories of the numinous may be part and parcel of that genetic bundle, theism isn’t universal. Otto assumed Christianity when proposing his mysterium, tremendum et fascinans. The concept of the numinous is still important despite Otto’s monotheistic default. Humanity’s insignificance in the face of storms, the ocean and its depths, vistas, massive mountain ranges, the vastness of the cosmos, in the complexity of the infinite, of numbers, Fibonacci patterns, fractals, infinite repetitions in the natural world, is universal and doesn’t require theism to inspire and thrill. Nature is awe-inspiring. Nature is terrifying. We’re all the product of the same evolutionary processes; we have a numinous seed planted in our heads regardless of the culture or era we were born into.
The numinous remains relevant to non-theistic expressions. There’s something more, if not universal, applicable across a wide swath of humanity, Theistic cognition is so deeply ingrained that even atheists, agnostics, and less religious people display implicit responses consistent with religious beliefs.
Of course, much of this may run the risk of putting too much credence in sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, as explanations for human behaviors. All too often the rather tenuous findings of sociobiology are cherry-picked and shoehorned into specific political opinions. But when it comes to the numinous, I think an acknowledgment of its persuasive influence across cultures, among various faiths and philosophies, in wildly different artistic expressions, merits some consideration. This humbling, frightening astonishment occurs whether contemplating one’s place in the universe, the nature of the gods, or peering into the dark recesses of a vast unexplored forest.
Nature and pious wonder are inexorably bound. The mystery and beauty of the natural world inspire a breathless admiration comparable to religious mania. This universe is awesome in its scope and impenetrable depths; this existence is awesome in the terror it invokes at our inability to fully comprehend its secrets.
All we can do is wallow in our venal imperfections. We’re all gazing out upon the abandoned, dead universe with something like jealous admiration and fear, dreaming of no longer being alone. We tremble before the majestic realization that we will never know anything with certainty.
Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. Oxford University Press, 1958.
Almond, Phillip C. Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World Religions. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014.
Keltner, Dacher and Haidt, Jonathan. “Approaching awe, a moral spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” Cognition and Emotion, 17, no. 2, (2003).
Benson, R.H. The Necromancers. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909.
Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2004.8. Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. “The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity.” Developmental Psychology, 2004:40.
Kelemen, D., & DiYanni, C. “Intuitions about origins: purpose and intelligence in children’s reasoning about nature.” Journal of Cognition and Development, 6, (2005).
Uhlman, Eric Luis, Poehlman, Andrew, and Bargh, John A. “Implicit Theism.” In Handbook of Motivation and Cognition Across Cultures, edited by Richard Sorrentino, Susumu Yamaguchi, Cambridge: Academic Press, 2008.