Reclaiming Darkness in Paganism: A Call to Balance

John J. Coughlin


On the Internet I use the handle "DarkWyccan" which often brings mixed reactions among Pagans; some are simply curious what I mean by "dark", but many others are downright offended. Immediately I am associated with evil and chastised for fostering the negative stereotypes of witchcraft. (Actually the "Dark" in the name refers to my style of dress and penchant for macabre imagery but that's another story!)

Indeed the word "dark", like "witch" has long been used in association with the concept of evil in modern Western Society. As Pagans we know that a witch is not necessarily evil. We have worked hard to reclaim the word "witch", if only so that we can personally break free of our own social conditioning that a witch is synonymous with "evil". In seeking to reclaim the word "witch" we have often distanced ourselves from other such loaded words that carry the public's projection of evil. The easiest way to accomplish this distancing was to focus on imagery associated with goodness, such as "light".

However, there is an inherent problem with this. How pagans see the duality of light/dark is not the same as is traditional in modern Western society, which has been heavily influenced by Christian thought over the last several centuries. The Western worldview is based on dualism where duality is broken down into two very separate and distinct irreducible parts. These parts are independent of each other and can be either complimentary or in conflict. In the case of traditional Western thought, the symbolism of light and dark is deeply rooted in the Christian ethical dualism symbolized as the battle of good (light) vs. evil (dark).

Paganism on the other hand has adopted a worldview based on monism, where duality is more often perceived as aspects of an encompassing whole. Dualities such as light/dark thus exist as polarities - two opposite yet complementing aspects of a whole. The yin-yang, which shows each "side" as part of a greater whole, each containing an aspect of its opposite within it, is a familiar symbol of polarity.

This polarity of light/dark in Pagan thought is no longer the same as the dualism of good/evil, but rather associated with such complimenting principles as creative/destructive, external/internal, attracting/repelling, clarity/mystery, active/passive, solid/flowing, static/dynamic, masculine/feminine, and order/chaos, to name a few. The moralistic connotations that were opposed upon the light/dark dualism by traditional Western thought simply do not apply under the monistic approach. (Don't confuse "monism" and "monistic" with "monotheism", that is another issue completely.)

Being raised in a society based on dualism we have a natural habit to want to break things down into components, even when we have chosen to take on a spirituality based on monism. Thus, as we Pagans (often coming from a Judeo-Christian background) began to use the dualistic imagery of light (good) from Western thought in association with the word "witch" to reclaim it from the negative association of darkness (evil) we unconsciously altered the polarity of light/dark in Pagan thought to fit this imagery. Duality in a monism is not the same as duality in a dualism.

Additionally, as Paganism became more mainstream in the 1980's and 90's, less attention was a given to formal study and practice, and sadly many authors over emphasized the concept of "insta-witchcraft" as 101-style books flooded the market. Covens and even traditions were formed by novices and yet attempted to take on students. This had (and is still having) drastic results when mixed with New Age influences that strip away the cultural context of various beliefs and negative associations, to provide a more palatable, trendy form, which is geared for the masses. Paganism has become overrun with beginners lacking direction and clarity. Although I am a strong proponent for the validity of solitary practice, the sudden shift in majority from coven-centric to solitary practice has not come without a cost.

Normally, when one begins to study and practice a Pagan religion, there is a shift in his or her worldview of dualism in spirituality to monism. This shift is an internal process - an initiation - and happens to both the solitary and coven member alike. The external self-dedication or initiation ritual uses imagery to help catalyze this internal initiation; alone such rituals are but empty forms and useless. One of the reasons coven novitiates must wait a year and a day before a formal initiation is to allow the novitiate time to experience the mysteries of the Craft; a personal understanding of Pagan symbolism in the proper context. Of course this same process can happen to a dedicated solitary with discipline and motivation. A shift in worldview can only occur through practice and experience. One must work under the principles of the new worldview before it "clicks" and becomes a part of us, and this takes time and effort, two things many unguided novices (or unqualified teachers) fail to see.

This is much akin to culture shock. When we cannot relate to a foreign culture, its practices that do not compliment our own culture may seem strange or even barbaric. If, however, we were to live within the context of that culture we would eventually start to see those practices within the proper context and perhaps appreciate (or at least better understand) the local practices that we once scoffed at.

What has been happening in the Pagan community more and more is an influx of people taking its symbolism and mysteries out of the context of monism and translating them to fit their own context based in dualism. Light and dark become opposed and polarities are thrown out of balance as anything associated with darkness is disowned. Popular Pagan religions such as Wicca become "fluffy" loosing their depth. Such Pagans are not receptive to challenges to their comfortable niche in their spirituality. Here they find release from the overburdening aspects of their former Judeo-Christian religions while finding the security and encouragement of the more flexible Pagan paths. The flexibility can be taken to the extreme of assuming that anything we no not like can simply be discarded without concern.

Unless this imbalance is corrected, the true mysteries that Paganism offers are lost. Pagan traditions are becoming empty shells of what they once were and the sense of community is becoming shattered by "witch wars" and silly politics. Before we can salvage our beliefs we must first reclaim "darkness" and encourage this reclamation from within. The road ahead will not be an easy one, but with effort those serious about the Craft can slowly pull itself out of the pit of ignorance and again embrace the true teachings and mysteries that Paganism offers.

To end on a positive note, I have noticed many new books beginning to emphasize practice and steer away from the cookie cutter books that follow the same template of generic information with filler spells, rituals, and catchy graphics. Many new books since the end of the 1990's have begun to concentrate on the principles and meaning behind the practice and to rely on sound research and personal experience. Sadly there will always be unscrupulous authors and publishers who will continue be motivated by profit alone, but it is comforting to know that some established authors have begun to appreciate their responsibility and not underestimate their influence - for better or worse - on the Craft.

John J. Coughlin is Editor-in-Chief of the NYC Pagan Resource Guide and author of the book Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick. Visit http://www.waningmoon.com for more information or contact the author at darkwyccan (at) waningmoon.com.

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