Within the span of time between equinoxes, where the Winter Solstice is found, lie the darkest days of the year. In Dancing in the Dark, the River Witch reminded me that there does seem to be a skewed perception among people that associates the dark[ness] with evil. There appears to be a list of causes for this unbalanced perception, from primal fear to modern cinema, but it is unhealthy because ignorance is the darkness where evil truly dwells. Therefore, it seems appropriate to try to foster a better understanding of the dark[ness] at this time of year.
Food and protection from the elements (shelter and clothing) have been the fundamental concerns of survival since the dawn of humankind. The days start to get shorter and the nights longer immediately after the Summer Solstice, but it isn’t until after day and night reach balance at the Fall Equinox that we really notice the loss of warmth from the waning daylight. The earth is going to rest, and the press is on to gather in the harvest and fuel for the hearth fires. A poor harvest or prolonged winter could spell doom. The picture of hungry wolves baying at the door while the wind howls across the cold, barren land is burned deep within the collective consciousness. This is primal fear associated with dark days and the threat of suffering or death.
People fear the unknown and darkness hides much. Even today, the urban mugger or rural wild animal may lurk in the dark and catch us unaware. This is primal fear, also. Today, our modern news media can magnify such fear. However, more often than not, this deep seated fear is leveraged by modern cinema or the “friend” having a good laugh at our expense. Nevertheless, we have some very basic causes to associate the dark[ness] with a potential threat of harm or death, and therefore evil. However, this is only half of the story.
People formed bonds of clan, tribe, and community for the mutual benefit of survival. They sowed, cultivated, and harvested together. They hunted together, and their numbers provided a better defense if attacked by man or beast. They had long days of hard work, though. They sowed in the Spring, cultivated in the Summer, and harvested in the Fall, but when the earth went to rest in the winter, so did they. First they would gather together for the harvest feast or festival, the root of our modern Thanksgiving holidays. They now had time to socialize, tell stories, laugh and joke, sing, and even dance as they waited for winter to pass. It was also a good time for reflection, planning, and teaching the young.
Ancient people around the globe also had their shaman, whose job was essentially to peer into the dark, to glean knowledge for the welfare of their people. Directing the hunters to find game was one way they were to help their people. They were also spiritual healers and psychopomps who helped the spirits of the dead cross over. Ancient people had their own understanding about the natural cycles . Primal fear provides a seed for associating dark[ness] with evil, but it alone doesn’t explain the unbalanced perception of modern people.
The spiritual guidance of the shaman would eventually be supplanted by the priests and priestesses of religion. It seems a natural progression for spirituality to develop religion as a means to teach about spirit, particularly as communities got bigger. Religion is an expression of a revelation of spirit. Spirit, as an energy or life force, seems most akin to light. The already established primal fear makes it an easy leap to associate the opposite of life-force, death, with the opposite of light, dark, and therefore bad stuff – evil! Religion has contributed much to the association of the dark[ness] with evil, as evidenced by Christianity.
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19 KJV). John speaks of spiritual light and darkness here. History and modern news media reveal that most of the evil men do is done in broad daylight, too. However, quite a mythology has developed around the Devil (a.k.a. Lucifer, Satan, etc.) as the “Prince of Darkness.”
The name Lucifer has its root in Latin and means light-bearer. In some Christian circles, it is his appearance as an angel of light that make his deceptions so easy, seductive and dangerous. In Devil Is Christian Not Jewish, Rabbi Maller says “the Jewish view of Satan is not a Devil…but rather an angel of God whose role is to tempt and test people.” This reminds me of when Jewish comedian Lewis Black noted that the Old Testament was their [Jewish people’s] book, and when Christians have trouble understanding it, they should ask a Jew. There does appear to be a discrepancy in the association of the “epitome of evil”, Lucifer or Satan, with darkness.
American cinema (a.k.a. Hollywood) uses Christian mythology to enhance the horror genre because the U.S. is predominantly Christian, and it is what they know best. Even if the alleged evil one has nothing to do with the dark[ness], stirring up the primal fear magnifies the adrenaline rush. The scariest scenes in much of the horror genre usually involve dark places or occur at night.
The term Prince of Darkness was used in 1667 by John Milton in his poem Paradise Lost, but it is found as early as the fourth century in the Acts of Pilate (see Answers.com). John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) concerned a container of liquid that was the essence of Satan. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) selects a different embodiment of evil, but still associates evil with darkness. However, in some horror films, like The Exorcist, the Devil’s minions are the subject of the story. I do not think an exhaustive list is necessary to substantiate that modern cinema has strengthened the correlation of dark[ness] with evil.
Demeter weeps as her daughter, Persephone, is carried off to the underworld by Hades. Pagan mythology has made its contributions, too. Modern Pagan beliefs include a correspondence between the cycle of the year, the cycle of life, and the cycle of the day.
Spring is the time of new life and birth. It is the season of sowing and watching vegetation sprouting from the earth. It is a time of youth. It corresponds with the dawn, or morning, when we awaken in the cycle of the day.
Summer is the time of growth. It is the season of cultivating crops. It is the long days of heat and work of adult life. It corresponds to midday when we tend to be most active in the cycle of the day.
Autumn is the time of maturity. It is the season of the harvest. It is reaping the benefits that come with time, including wisdom. It corresponds to the evening, when the sun sets in the cycle of the day.
Winter is the time of rest. It is the season of death when the earth goes cold and barren. It corresponds to midnight, the darkest time in the cycle of the day. The cycle continues, however!
Spring now corresponds to re-birth, and the winter now corresponds to the darkness of the womb from which new life springs. Christians and Pagans have something in common here. The womb metaphor is supported in Genesis 1:1-2 (KJV):
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
The Pagan belief in rebirth is the same as the Christian belief in resurrection. The main difference is that Pagan’s tend to believe in an indefinite repetition of the cycle, while Christians believe in a single resurrection. Regardless, an association has made between the darkest days of the year, the darkest part of the day, and death. While dark[ness] is equated with evil on many levels, the association may go the deepest with death.
It may seem ironic, contradictory, and even hypocritical for people who claim to believe in some form of afterlife to fear death and darkness, and equate them with evil. This may be due to the difference between the higher level intellectual belief and the lower level (deep) instinct for survival. The conflict between intellect and instinct may create a great enigma (twisting the mind) where a dark place is created within the human psyche that many cannot face. It becomes a dark place to be avoided, a taboo, an evil to be shunned.
We have grand cathedrals and temples, major religions, and clergy to help us understand life. We have psychiatrists and psychologists to help us if religion can’t help. However, we also seem to have people with an inordinate fear of death. Some even appear to abandon loved ones in order to avoid facing the reality of death. We have also removed ourselves well away from the natural cycles through technology.
Electric lights, oil heat, and modern construction enable us to work or play at any time of the day, and in any season. Modern transportation, refrigeration, and supermarkets ease or eliminate concerns for food. Satellite, cable, and the internet provide us with a myriad of choices in entertainment, too. We don’t even have to physically meet the people we socialize with because of the internet. We have not only removed ourselves from natural cycles, but we are also distancing ourselves from other people. Watch what people do in the next power outage.
What do people do when the lights go out? They will visit with others around them for awhile, like they normally do when the lights are on, but what happens if the power is out for a long time? They run out of things to say and may move on to another group for conversation, if there is another group. Sooner or later, they will start to fidget because they want to do something, but the things they are accustomed to doing are not available. I find whiners particularly obnoxious. Now, go back up and re-read the third paragraph under “Primal Fear.”
The Beauty of Darkness
Have you ever noticed that people change when gathered around a campfire? The change is subtle. They may talk about the same old things, but maybe they are more relaxed. I think the dancing flames mesmerize them. Perhaps another primal memory is stirred; the memory of the hearth fire.
The hearth fire was central to the home in days of old for cooking, warmth, and even light. It is where family and friends gathered. They entertained each other, and in so doing they entertained themselves. The family histories were passed down orally, and the young didn’t struggle to remember the stories about their bloodlines because their “Game Boy” wasn’t calling to them. I do not wish to idealize this setting, but I feel certain that the bonds established between people then went much deeper than they do now. Dysfunctional seems to be the catch word of modern times.
There is a time halfway between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. Most Americans know this time as Halloween. It is the Pagan New Year, but more importantly, it is when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. It is when spirits can easily cross over and walk among us; it is the time of the wild hunt. This makes sense if we think of the life-force or energy that we call spirit as akin to light.
Like the stars in the heavens, the subtle light called spirit is easier to discern when our world is not overwhelmed with the energy we call daylight. Discern doesn’t necessarily mean spirit is visually seen, either. Perhaps we feel a presence. In the low light of the hearth fire, with or without candles, perhaps our ancestors felt each others spiritual presence as well as seeing each others physical presence, and this made for stronger familial bonds. There are contemporary stories about one family member knowing another is in trouble even when miles apart… and no cell phone was involved!
We might also hear a presence. Personally, I like the night because it is relatively quiet; I can even hear myself think. The energy of diurnal humankind can overwhelm the day with noise, but their nature is to sleep at night. This brings to mind an Old Testament scripture:
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:11-13 NIV)
The God of Abraham was not found in the loud spectacles, but He came as a gentle whisper.
Darkness also frames light well. In the midst of the dark cycle of the year, we have the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night. From this point forward the days begin to get longer, so it is celebrated as new light coming into the world. It is an ancient festival (or celebration) of light that is so compelling that Christianity chose to celebrate the birth of Christ at this time because He brought new light into the world. This brings us back to the womb concept mentioned earlier and this scripture from the Old Testament:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Gen 1:1-5 KJV)
Even in Judeo-Christian cosmology, the divine creation was born out of darkness. Light was created after the heaven and earth. There is a question that begs to be asked because of these first scriptures, but I wonder who else might see it.
The River Witch wrote “about the turn of the seasons and how they are balanced.” The dark cycles brought balance to humankind because we are part of this world also, not separate from it. At least in the western industrialized world, humankind has successfully separated themselves from the natural cycles and have become dysfunctional and fearful. That is not healthy.