When I moved to Minnesota, everyone back home voiced concern about how cold the winters would be. Nobody warned me about how dark they would be, nor how long the dark would last. For years, I complained, but gradually I have come to embrace the dark. The dark invites us to slow down, to rest, to sleep, to dream. It is a time to open to our depths, and to others. There is a kind of magic in the dark. Without the harsh light of judgment, in the dark we are more likely to share our secrets and stories, our wounds and our wonderings, our hearts and hopes with each other. As the deciduous trees lose their leaves, the sky opens as well, giving birth to the night sky. The winter dark gives us the gift of stars, giving me a sense of my place in the universe. They arrive like old friends. The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades appear in the evening, and Orion greets me every morning. When Hale-Bopp was visible from earth, I looked for her on my late-night drives home, and there she would be, my constant companion on those cold winter nights. The stars remind us that we are not alone, that we are all related, for we are all made of the stuff of stars.
Lately I’ve been missing the dark. When I first moved to my home in the woods, the night was dark. As the city has grown, and more houses have been built, and streetlights added, the dark is eclipsed by a never-ending twilight. In our human efforts to resist the dark, we have forgotten the earthly command to rest, and we are all suffering the consequences. Light pollution affects our health, diminishing the release of melatonin – paving the way for loss of sleep, increased anxiety, and a host of other ailments. Other animals’ health is affected as well, as is the migration of sea turtles and birds who navigate by the stars and by moonlight. We light up the night in order not to get lost in the dark, but perhaps we have lost our way by being too much in the light. Like the spring bulb that needs cold and dark in order to bloom, so do we need the nourishment of the deep dark to restore our creativity and power.
In our longing for darkness, it is not just the physical dark that we crave, but the metaphysical -the deep well of the ancient dark divine, the original matrix. As China Galland mused, “The longing for darkness [is] also a longing for the womb of god.”[i] In her Longing for Darkness, Galland reminds us of the persistence of this longing, and her emergence as Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Asherah, Tara, Kali, Parvati, Durga, as well as Mary and the Christian mystics writing of the motherhood of the divine. Her iconographic representations abound throughout the world, from the temples to Tara throughout Asia to the many shrines to the Black Madonna throughout Europe. It’s no wonder that it is within this time of deep darkness that Mary is celebrated within Christianity – Mary not as passive, but as the strong, courageous, fiercely protective, earthy maternal divine.
Lucia Birnbaum reminds us that the first African mother is everyone’s genetic inheritance, honored for millennia as Erishkegal, Isis, Lilith, Kali, Oshun, Hagar. It was only with the rise of patriarchy that the dark feminine divine was demoted, displaced, erased, and forced underground. Yet she continues to rise in our psyches and our deepest longings. Each year, thousands walk hundreds of miles in pilgrimage to visit these shrines, all seeking connection with dark, divine, pre-patriarchal female energies of which we are all sorely in need.
Galland writes, “To say that one is ‘longing for darkness’ is to say that one longs for transformation, for a darkness that brings balance, wholeness, integration, wisdom, insight.”[ii] Certainly, if there was ever a time when we have needed to restore balance, and to gain insight and wisdom, it is now. We are a world profoundly out of balance. It is theorized that dark matter is what holds the stars and galaxies together — matter, from the same root word as mother – mater. Banishing the dark mater has thrown us off balance. I image a world thrown off its axis, wobbling through the universe. The preponderant energies of hate, violence, oppression, domination and patriarchy have thrown us off kilter. We need the qualities of the dark feminine divine — compassion, justice, equality and the transformation of violent hierarchical patriarchy to a peaceful, radically egalitarian democracy. We have been there before; we can return.
bell hooks[iii] wrote of how as a child her spirit was nurtured in the homes of Black women. Black women resisted oppression by creating places to heal and be affirmed, and have one’s dignity restored – places where possibility could rise again. The matrix of the dark feminine divine is such a homeplace, fostering both our resistance and the creation of new possibilities. Like the places of renewal and resistance hooks found in the homes of Black women, in dwelling with the dark feminine divine, she found that we encounter “ . . . the ground of our being, the place of mystery, creativity, and possibility, for it is there that we can construct the mind that can resist, that can revision, than can create the maps that when followed will liberate us.”[iv] We can begin by, as Audre Lorde said, “re-member[ing] what is dark and ancient and divine within yourself”,[v] for it is in these dark places within “. . . where hidden and growing our true spirit rises. . . . “[vi]
In this time of darkness, may our spirits rise to these places of possibility – the gifts of the dark mater.
[i] Longing for Darkness, 54.
[ii] Ibid., 152.
[iii] I was writing this section when I learned of bell hooks’ death. I dedicate this piece to the legacy of wisdom and love she gave us all.
[iv] “Lorde,” 243.
[v] Sister Outsider, 69
[vi] Ibid., 36.
Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers. San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 2001.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. NY: Harper One, 1988.
Galland, China. Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna. NY: Penguin, 1990.
hooks, bell. “Lorde: The Imagination of Justice.” in Byrd, Rudolph et. al. eds. I Am Your Sister:
Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. New York: Oxford U. Press, 2009.
______. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: The
Crossing Press, 1984.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.