According to Marija Gimbutas, the religion of Old Europe celebrated the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. Agricultural peoples understand that seeds must be kept in a cold dark place during the winter if they are to sprout when planted in the spring. People who work hard during the long days that begin in spring, peak at midsummer, and continue through the fall, are grateful for the dark times of the year when they can rest their weary bones on long winters’ nights. Long winters’ nights are a time for dreams, a time when people gather around the hearth fire to share songs and stories that express their understanding of the meaning of the cycles of life.
The Indo-Europeans were not an agricultural people. Herders, nomads, and horseback riders, they celebrated the shining Gods of the Sky whose power was reflected in their shining bronze armor and shining bronze weapons. When the Indo-European speaking peoples entered into a Europe, they married their Sun and Sky Gods to the Earth Mother Goddesses of the people they conquered. These were unequal marriages in which the Sun was viewed as superior to the Earth. The unhappy marriage of Hera and Zeus reflects this pattern, as do the many rapes of Goddesses and nymphs recorded in Greek and Roman mythology.
The elder Goddesses who refused rape and marriage were relegated to the dark crevices of the earth, which were viewed as the entrance to the underworld. These “chthonic” Goddesses emerged from under the earth in fury, causing death and destruction. For the Old Europeans, the snakes that emerged from crevices in rocks in the springtime were harbingers of renewal and regeneration. Like seeds, they slept in a cold dark place over the winter but emerged in spring to shed their skins and lay their eggs. The underworld was understood to be a place of transformation—not as it would later become, a place of death and destruction. The snake was a symbol of regeneration, not a symbol of evil.
According to Marija Gimbutas, white was the color of death in Old Europe, while black was the color of transformation and renewal of life. The Old Europeans understood life to be cyclic. Every thing would surely die, but just as surely life would be reborn. It was the Indo-Europeans who taught us that death is an ending to be feared. And it was they who taught us that light is to be revered and darkness to be avoided at all costs. It was they who developed the light-dark binary in which white is positive and black is negative. The Indo-Europeans entered into India as well as Europe. The notion of en-lighten-ment found in Hinduism and Buddhism is a legacy of the light-dark binary of the Indo-Europeans. The Indo-Europeans were lighter-skinned than the people they conquered: thus the light-dark binary could be used to justify the dominance of the lighter-skinned warriors and kings.
The light-dark binary is pervasive in the New Age focus on light and love. There is nothing “new” in that! Those who follow earth-based spiritual paths often claim to celebrate the darkness equally with the light. But do we? Or are we still in thrall to the Indo-European glorification of white and light? We celebrate the longest day at midsummer and the longest night at midwinter. And yet there remains a difference. At midwinter we rejoice in “the return of the light.” There is no parallel celebration of “the return of the dark” at midsummer. Rather it seems that we celebrate the light at both midsummer and midwinter.
What would it mean to embrace and celebrate the darkness as much as the light? If we allowed ourselves to sleep all through the longest nights, what dreams might come? Could we learn again that the cycle of life comes in threes: birth, death, and regeneration? Not in twos: good and evil, life and death, black and white. darkness and light?
We might begin by getting “a good night’s sleep” on these long winter nights. I think our bodies might begin to show us and to tell us that the darkness really is as important as the light.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.
13 thoughts on “Can We Celebrate the Dark? Can We Sleep? by Carol P. Christ”
in my PaGaian Cosmology ceremonies, dark has always had equal celebration. At Summer Solstice WE celebrate the turning into the dark, and at Lammas WE celebrate the waxing dark, and the dark’s beauty. I agree with you that so many, even amongst Earth-based practitioners, never adequately celebrate the dark at either Solstice and again not at Lammas: I have always addressed that in my cosmology. :)
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Glad to know we are on the same page, Glenys.
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Reblogged this on Thesseli.
Yes, let’s get a good night’s sleep. Let’s let it get fully dark where we sleep and dream and are nurtured by those dark goddesses. I’ve always believed (and said) that too much light is harmful. Metaphorically, in that too much light blinds us to what’s really in front of us (or around us). Literally, in that too much light–an atomic blast?–destroys life and people and goddesses, too. Without shadows in the light we cannot navigate. Without shadows in the light we bump in to things. I, too, honor both the year’s longest and shortest nights.
Many thanks for writing this very wise post. Happy solstice!
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Violence, as some of us know peaks during those days of heat and longest light – sobering to reflect upon.
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Inspiring post. When I was a Quaker, listening to message after message about the Light, I was moved more than once to speak of the nurturing Dark of the earth and the womb, the warm dark nights when corn ripened. When I was a child, living in the rectory across the driveway from the church, Christmas Eve was the magic time, the church lit only by candles, filled with the scent of evergreen, magi wandering up the dark driveway, reindeer landing in the field across the street. Silent night and stars on snow. Christmas day, stockings notwithstanding, could not hold a candle to Christmas Eve. For candles, you need darkness.
To all a good night and sweet dreams!
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Elizabeth, what a beautiful, evocative comment! Thank you.
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I relate, Elizabeth – the magic of candles and stars on a dark winter evening in Advent/Christmastide have always been about the balance, to me, the harmony of light and dark. Darkness without any light would certainly be terrifying, and so it makes sense to me that humans tend to lift up light in general. But even midsummer celebrations are often bonfires at night, when you can enjoy and appreciate the fire more than you would during the day. The balance is so beautiful.
Oh how I love this essay. I am so at home in the dark; I love the deep night skies, the constellations, the long winter nights during which my dreams surface like jewels… and I sleep so deeply. I am one of those few people who celebrate the dark, and in fact I find it depressing that as you say at both solstices we are compelled to celebrate the return of the light -” The light-dark binary is pervasive in the New Age focus on light and love” repels me. Every year I begin to celebrate the dark after All Soul’s Day. I do this by lighting up the ground beneath my tree, by tipping and making wreaths, by burning candles, listening to music and by sitting by the fire…These winter months are so peaceful – and never long enough for me… Thank you thank you for this wonderful essay – will post on my blog.
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Thanks for this, Carol! I really appreciate it as I grow tired of the “celebrate the light” schtick. It irritates me as profoundly as do the weather forecasters who moan because rain is expected, or is actually falling. Where do these bozos think food comes from, if not from the union of rain with earth and seed?
It’s good to push back against patriarchy’s tired tropes, and I appreciate the efforts of the writers who do it, including yourself.
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I tend to think of it more as a balance than a binary. A harmony, a dance. I have never been saddened or bothered by winter darkness, lucky me, and I find the dark evenings lit by gentle lights and candles and fires to be incredibly soothing. I do think the binary is overdone and often simplistic. I like your thoughts about it and enjoyed your message.
Thanks for articulating this! I think the “return of the light” bit always bothered me, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Now we’re planning to observe the winter solstice with a meditation time in total darkness.