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Reclaiming Darkness in Paganism: A Call to Balance

By John J. Coughlin
(Editor-in-Chief of the NYC Pagan Resource guide and author of Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick. Used with permission. Visit http://www.waningmoon.com)


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. 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 how the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (will abbreviate as JCI from here on) cultures see it. The JCI worldview is based on dualism where the world is broken down into two very separate and distinct parts. These parts are independent of each other and can be either complimentary or in conflict. In the case of JCI thought, light and dark are in conflict and are associated with the battle of good (light) vs. evil (dark).

Paganism on the other hand has adopted a worldview based on monism, where all is seen as part of one encompassing whole. Dualities such as light/dark thus exist as polarities - two aspects of a whole, best symbolized as a Yin-Yang. In Paganism light/dark is no longer the same as good/evil, but rather associated with such complimenting principles as creative/destructive, external/internal, attracting/repelling, clarity/mystery, active/passive, solid/flowing, static/dynamic to name a few. The moralistic connotations that were opposed upon the light/dark dualism by JCI 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 began to use the dualistic imagery of light (good) from JCI thought in association with the word "witch" to reclaim it from the JCI association of darkness (evil) we unconsciously altered the polarity of light/dark in Pagan thought to fit this imagery.

Additionally, in the mid-late 1980's came an increase in availability of books on the Craft. As Paganism became more mainstream, less attention was a given to formal study and practice. People would read a book and decide they were witches, perhaps going through the motions of a self dedication ritual as published in one of the many witchcraft 101 books on the market. Covens were formed by novices and contained only 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 "fluffy" form of Paganism and other practices for the masses. Paganism became overrun with beginners lacking direction and clarity.

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 (i.e. personal understanding of Pagan symbolism based on monism). Of course this same process can happen to a dedicated solitary. 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.

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. Popular Pagan religions such as Wicca become "fluffy" loosing their depth. Such Pagans are not receptive to challenges to their comfortable niche in Paganism. Here they find release from the overburdening aspects of their former JCI religions and the security and encouragement of the more flexible Pagan paths. 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 now 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.


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This page last updated March 10, 2004