Friday, 23 September 2016


Today is the equinox, the time when the hours of light and dark are in balance; and, in the southern hemisphere, it is the mid-point of the light half of the year (or the beginning of it, depending on how you look at the Wheel of the Year). The light was born again at the winter solstice, and ever so slowly began to increase, and from now until the summer solstice, the hours of daylight will gradually begin to exceed the hours of darkness. And yet, because each season holds within it its opposite—in this case the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere, which is the mid-point/beginning of the dark half of the year there—I have been thinking about, yearning for, the Darkness.

William Morris - Night Angel Holding a Waning Moon, 1857/1869
When I decided to write a piece in praise of the Darkness, I began to ponder what I would call it. What, I asked myself, is the antonym of ‘enlightenment’? My first thought was ‘benightedness’—and I was right. But I only had to look at the definition of the word to know that ‘benightedness’ was not what I wanted to write about.
In the West in particular, we have a fear and dislike of the Dark, which has led to darkness being seen as negative, even evil, and associated with death, in contrast to the eternally positive light, which is associated with goodness and life.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines enlightened as: ‘having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook’, and ‘spiritually aware’. Some synonyms are: knowledgeable, wise, civilised, cultured, advanced, sophisticated, open-minded, and so on.

Compare this with benighted: ‘in a state of pitiable or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance’, and ‘overtaken by darkness’. Some synonyms are: uneducated, illiterate, uninformed, backward, simple, primitive, uncivilised, barbaric, savage, crude … the list goes on.

And here, it seems, is the problem. Darkness is so thoroughly negative in connotation that we tend to gravitate towards the light at any cost, losing the wisdom of the Dark in the process. 

Simeon Solomon - Night, 1890
Yet consider this: While the leaves of plants are ‘photophilic’, loving light, and therefore moving towards it, the roots are ‘photophobic’, disliking light, and moving away from it, down into the dark earth. The roots (arguably more so than the leaves) are what make the plant’s life possible, anchoring it in the ground, and drawing up water and nutrients, and those roots live and thrive in the dark. Moreover, the seed from which the plant grew in the first place began in the dark, germinating because of the fertile, moist darkness surrounding it, pushing out its dark-loving root, as well as its light-loving leaves.

As Glenys Livingstone writes, ‘It is in the compost, the de-composition, in the darkness, that new life is nurtured, fertility is found. It is in the acceptance of death that wisdom is gained, and life is lived more fully’. (1)

The truth is that everything begins in the Dark. It is what we emerge/d from, and what we will eventually return to—Life circling towards Death and back to Life again. Black absorbs all light, because the Darkness contains everything, including the Light; and it is in the Dark that the Light shines brightest. 

Darkness can be seen in more positive ways. Jay Griffiths, writing of the Christian/Western perception of forests being benighted places, says that in contrast, the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest of northwest Congo sing

their great song of praise to the forests: “If Darkness is, Darkness is Good.” Knowledge is mothered by darkness in the Amazon; knowledge from the “plant teachers” [is] learned at night, while the soñadores, the dreamers, find their wisdoms in the dark. In the forests, you see the tenderness of darkness, how it folds things into itself, nature nurturans, for all good things are cradled in darkness first: seeds and babies, sleep’s dreams and the heart’s love, compost and starlight. (2)

Why are we so afraid of the Dark? Because we are afraid of what we do not know? Of what we cannot see? Of what we might find there?

I suppose our fear is a natural response. And yet, we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore, devalue or mis-define the Dark (and when we do not face our fears).

Livingstone writes: ‘In Greece, perhaps as early as the Paleolithic era, the Divine Female was known as Nyx, Black Mother Night … She was the full Emptiness, the empty Fullness … Her Darkness was understood as a “depth of love”, not a source of evil as later humans named Her.’ (3)

Gustave Moreau - Night, 1880
I completely identify with this idea of Darkness as Love, for the Darkness can be a very nurturing, enclosing and safe place, particularly if I imagine myself being held in the velvety black womb of the Earth. Rebecca Solnit elaborates on this idea:

Darkness is amorous, the darkness of passion, of your own unknowns rising to the surface, the darkness of interiors.

In darkness things merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you are doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they are born. (4)

So Darkness is fertile, the place of love and creation of all kinds, and this should help us to see it in more positive ways. Yet the fact that it is dangerous, as well as linked with the Dark Feminine, is another reason why the Dark is feared and labeled evil. For the Darkness is the Old One/Crone/Hag, the Destroyer–Creator—and the reality that She requires us to face, that of old age and death (that is, change and transformation), is a reality which, in the West, we try very hard to avoid. It is true, this aspect of Goddess is indeed fearsome and confronting. She is 

primarily in relationship with All-That-is … The Crone/Old One is that movement back into the Great Sentience out of which All arises, thus she sees into the elements behind form. She is often depicted with wide open eyes; often associated with the gaze of owl or snake—and knowledge of the Dark. (5)

Yet, though the Crone is formidable and fierce, Livingstone points out that Her fierceness strengthens women, helping us to recognise our own power, and to bravely seek knowledge of our Selves. Perhaps this is another reason why the Dark is feared, for the Dark gives women the power of self-knowledge, and the patriarchal forces of this world are afraid of women’s power. 

All the more reason for all of us—women and men—to learn how to embrace the Dark, in the knowledge that there is no Light without it, just as there is no Life without Death. We simply do not have the option to accept one thing and refuse the other. While to be ‘enlightened’ may mean to be ‘spiritually aware’, no one can truly achieve that awareness unless they have embraced ‘endarkenment’ too (the descent to the Underworld, the place of Soul, and the integration of the Shadow, amongst other tasks). As Bill Plotkin says, ‘Our spiritual growth is meant to go in both directions, toward the fertile darkness and the glorious light, each of us having the opportunity to bridge earth and heaven—the underworld and the upperworld—through the trunks of our middleworld lives.’ (6)

Tree Sketch (Emergence), 2012
So, what word could we use to call ourselves lovers of the Darkness? 

While ‘photo’ (from Greek) relates to light, ‘scoto’ relates to darkness. So we could say of roots that they are scotophilic, dark-loving, rather than photophobic. I have also discovered the words ‘nyctophilia’ and ‘lygophilia’. Though none of these options are particularly memorable or attractive. Perhaps in the end we just have to remember that Darkness is Love, is Wisdom, is the womb and birthplace of everything. We should embrace it. After all, it is only when we are be-nighted that we get to see the stars.

I will leave the last word to Ursula Le Guin:

“And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live … Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing—instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there … in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.” (7)

1. Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion, iUniverse: Lincoln, NE, 2005, p. 100
2. Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey, Penguin: London, 2006, p. 76
3. Livingstone, p. 82
4. Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, Granta: London, 2013, p. 185
5. Livingstone, p. 100
6. Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and the Psyche, New World Library: Novato, California, 2003, p. 34
7. From Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World, quoted in Griffiths, p. 76


  1. A wonderful post, Therese, thank you!! I find Autumn/Winter to be my fertile time... stuff I learn ferments and brews... Time to think seems to expand as the daylight hours contract. And I LOVE the word Endarkenment :) xx

    1. Thank you. I'm so glad you liked it, because I had a blissful afternoon last weekend writing it. Endarkenment seemed like a better word to use then 'benightedness', which could come across as very negative. Here, the light is increasing and the days are warming, but I still need to be with the Darkness sometimes, even if it is just the darkness inside myself. There is so much to learn from the Dark. x

  2. Lovely...

    So full of information and prompts, to think more, ourselves.

    And the idea of having to accept all, was a theme of Joseph Campbell. Something like.....We must say yea to all..... I can't find the quote itself, right now. Sorry.

    1. Thanks, Luna. I really enjoyed writing it, I felt completely inspired. And I can guess what Campbell was getting at. We do need to accept both sides to things, and learn to find balance. So as it gets lighter and warmer here as spring progresses, I feel the need to explore my inner Darkness, as much as I am enjoying the burgeoning growth and sunshine. x


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