I call this post the “Meaning of Shadow” because its a discussion of what darkness and shadow means in our modern society, literature, and as mytho-poetic archetype.
We have a vast history, in Western Culture and in Christian culture as well, with darkness. It seems anything to do with shadow, darkness, blackness, and shade involves evil. We often associate darkness with the Devil, with Satan and with pure evil and horror. We all get scared of the dark, as if the lack of light brings with it the sudden presence of something sinister that’s hidden around us. Its almost like the symbols associated with darkness involve “bad” things, or things designed to hurt us, scare us, entrap us. With the constant movement of the weather, the seasons, and the day this psychological drama of light and dark plays itself out, and in Western and Celtic religions and culture, it stands for good vs evil. God vs Satan. And so we have a deeply entrenched attitude towards “dark things”, towards light vs dark, and shadows.
I once asked my Grandfather, who was a Methodist Minister and educator in the Christian Church for 70+ years, what is Hell. He stopped and thought about it and told me “its the absence of God”. It is basically darkness or the place where good and light and energy cannot reach. Where God cannot touch us and move us and help us to know about him and his works, is Hell. This in truth sounds like total void and blackness….an absence of light and an absence of God.
Yet, having read so much mythology and books on the subject, its clear to me there is a deeper meaning which we only get glimpses of in our Modern Western Culture. Its interesting to see many people today embrace “dark things”….dark symbols and not as much evil but things associated with dark archetypes. From music to film to clothing to even religious movements, we see an embrace of “darkness” all the time. Often our heroes, as Joseph Campbell tells us, are what I call “Dark UnderLords”, like Batman, for example. The interesting thing is many of these dark heroes do NOT create evil, but appear to have some important life-sustaining element that’s tied to Western Cultural Archetypes. That is the premise of my article here….that the symbol of darkness and the heroes and features of it are incorrectly associated with demonic and harmful elements but in fact drag us back to an ancient culture that understood the important of the Dark Underworld Heroes.
The fact is that darkness is not about evil but about the Land of the Dead, or the place where lives our ancestors. It may also be about primitive Man’s fear of the unknown or wilderness and the beasts that surround him when the sun sets. But its much more about ancestor worship and the dark underworld where lives the souls of those we love and who guide us and protect us. The darkness comes from the fact that we cannot know light without dark. Our ancestors knew we are trapped in a “cycle of opposites” and that darkness is the world of the dead like light is the world of the living and in that vein, darkness is simply a viable “alternate world” for us. Its purpose is that its presence is a force that sustains the world of light and the two are twin brothers in a universal dance of opposites.
This is then the crux of my argument for the fact that we have lost the ability to understand in our modern religions what darkness really and truly means. In Celtic and Indo-European culture, it that which we stand on that feeds us this world of light and as such is that magical other world where we will go symbolically when we die. In other words, it is another World of Light but for the dead and for the souls. If we envision it this we we could say we need darkness in our lives and in our symbols. We are drawn to it. Sustained by it and when we see dark heroes (Batman, Darth Vader, King Arthur, etc.) we are witnessing an ancient connection to the Lord of the Dead and the gatekeeper that symbolically keeps the two worlds of light and shadow apart, yet who welcomes us and protects us in the other world. The Celtic and Britons knew the importance of the underworld king. But why do we not understand it enough to see its power and acknowledge it? It takes dark books and film and art and music to feel its power and accept it. Yet in our conscious minds and in society we attack it and fear it and associate dark imagery with evil and hate and destruction. In fact, it is not always about that, and its why we need to grow as a culture and embrace it and understand its not about Satan and an evil presence but about a close partnership with light and dark and separation and yet unification of the powers of two worlds….the two worlds in our unconscious we both need to sustain us.