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.