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The Shadow Knows

By Evelyn Henry

All of our lives we are taught to fear the dark. From childhood we are taught to stay out of dark places. We stereotype dark skinned people as "bad". The bad guys wear black hats. Dark bars and night hangouts are considered "seamy." The arch-fiend of Christianity is the "Prince of Darkness," the opposite of all that is light and good. We are taught this is what we should strive for -- always toward the light, away from the darkness, which is bad.

But is it? If it is, why is darkness present in the world? Could it be that the dark side represents something we need?

If you subscribe to the theory that nature provides what we need for wholeness, would that not include the dark side? Observance of the polarity in nature reveals that fact. Each day has a night. The moon has a light and a dark side. The seasons change each year from long, light-filled summer days, to long, dark winter nights. Night is the time to refuel our energies. Winter is the time when the Earth retreats into herself to recoup her energies. Animals take advantage of this time to do the same, retreating into dark caves and underground burrows in hibernation.

In each of these instances, the dark side is present with a place and time for rest and renewal. Does it not follow then that we, with our animal natures, also need the darkness -- even the dark side of ourselves we sometimes call our "shadow" selves? Why, then, do we deny it -- shut it out of our lives?

The topic of our shadow selves seems to be getting more media attention. The hit movie "The Shadow," was based on the old radio show of the same name, which opened and closed with the line "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." In a grisly opening murder scene, the movie vividly illustrated why the Shadow knew this -- because he had experienced his dark side. He had seen and done every conceivable bad thing in his world, including murder, promiscuous sex, drugs. The Shadow's experiences also opened up his telepathic ability; he was able to know and see inside the heart of the criminal, to be able to head off the evil before it harmed anyone else. Knowing and experiencing his dark side created in him an understanding others did not have.

Books and articles on the "Dark Goddess" aspect of our lives have also begun to appear more frequently. "Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness by Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, tells how "...the dark, earthy and immensely powerful dark goddess has "...been a key force in world history.

Two other books: "The Dark Goddess: Dancing With the Shadow," by Marcia Starck and Gynne Stern, and "Mysteries of the Dark Moon" by Demetra George, also talk about the shadow side of human nature. Personifications of this darkness include myths of Lilith, Hecate, Kali, Innana, Sekhmet, Pele, and Medusa.

These goddesses represent aspects of human nature we are often taught to repress. As a consequence, psychotherapy has become a booming business over the years. Psychological studies have shown that repressed emotions and feelings tend to surface, sooner or later. And often, like pressure building under a volcano, they explode -- sometimes violently. This is because we have been taught in our traditional Judeo-Christian society to deny the dark side. We are to be all sweetness and light. We are not to show anger, not demonstrate our sexuality, not show a broad range of emotions, be calm, centered, always a good parent, and is, above all, we must look good according to society's standards.

How can working with the "dark side" help here? Again I submit that if you believe darkness is a given part of our nature, then denying what is meant to be a part of our lives can leave us unbalanced, less than whole. Everyone knows someone who has gone to extremes in their lifestyle or belief system; the pendulum swing from angel to devil -- from atheist to zealot. When all around us is evidence of polarity in the wholeness of nature, denying our other half can be neurotic folly.

When we look deep into our souls, examine our innermost spirit, most of us will readily admit that we are not all goodness and light. We all hide things we would rather not recognize, much less let others see. Those are the things society has told us are bad. They are bad because our society has no way of integrating them into normal life. Therefore, we relegate them to the dark. Anything dark is also associated with death, which is the ultimate "bad" thing. However, in many societies death is not considered bad. It's considered a gateway to life, a part of a cycle, a circle that never stops. Taoism with its Yin and Yang symbol, representing light within dark, is an example. Tarot, with it,s "Death card, which stands for "Transformation, is another.

The dark goddesses are products of ancient societies that recognized death and darkness as a part of the whole. "The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow," begins with Lilith, a goddess first mentioned in 2400 B.C. who was Eve's predecessor. Lilith was Adam's wife before Eve. She was strong, sensual, sexual, independent, with a mind of her own.

The myth tells that Adam wanted her to lie beneath him in order to create offspring. Lilith would hear none of it. Both she and Adam were created from the same dust, and she saw no reason they should not be equal. She became angry and flew away to the Red Sea where she engaged in "unbridled promiscuity," bearing over a hundred demon children a day. The Kabbalah describes her as a seductress. In the Sumerian culture, she was Inanna's handmaiden, bringing men from the streets to the temple prostitutes.

Lilith represents several things women have long repressed -- freedom, independence, and sexuality -- the "Wild Woman." Society has told us that these traits are to be quashed if we're to be considered "good." Men, on the other hand, have been given a level of freedom, independence where their sexuality was not considered bad if expressed, even wildly ("Boys will be boys, you know").

Women seeking to become more independent and not be afraid of their freedom or their sexuality would do well to meditate on Lilith, who represents the dark "other side of femininity - that of strong open emotions and desires, and the fearlessness of displaying them. Woodman and Dickson,s take on this is "The feminine leads us to the sharp edge of experience. There we have to feel our feelings in our bodies; there our secrets become visible in the darkened, unvisited corners of our psyches. Only then, when we start to heal the split - to bring dark into the light and light into the dark, can we begin the journey towards transformation to wholeness.

Transformation can be a frightening experience, especially when it comes to motherhood. We are taught that when we become a mother, we are supposed to be the rock solid foundation of our children's lives. The Good Mother is an angel incarnate: supportive, kind, cheerful, good cook, neat dresser, humble, sweet, and nurturing at all times.

Was your mother always like that? If you are a mother now, are you always like that? It's a rare woman who is. Because of this unreal and distorted mother image, many women (and men) are today choosing not to be parents because they feel they cannot live up to this icon of rectitude. Women (and men) who hold these idealistic beliefs about motherhood are often shaken to the core the first time when they feel emotions other than perfect love for their children. These intense feelings -- grief, anger, fear, despair -- engendered by the everyday tasks of mothering, are rarely talked about; but they are feelings that can shake women (and men) to the roots of their being and cause them to doubt their parental abilities.

We have nothing in our society that recognizes or validates such feelings. In contrast, Hindu societies venerate Kali, triple Mother-Goddess of creation, preservation and destruction. Kali appeared on the scene about 400 A.D. Kali is the "hungry sow who devours her young," the image of the "terrible mother," who gives life as well as takes it away. She is connected with the cycles of the moon, and womens' menstrual cycles, nature at her most fundamental cyclic best, which regularly demonstrates creation and destruction, light and dark.

Kali's destructive side speaks to mothers clearly, not only about the roller coaster emotions and frustrations involved with child rearing, but in knowing that a mother has the power to mold a child in their early years in order to make the child fit into society. This may mean that some part of the child will be "killed" in the process.

Starck and Stern compare this to gardening by stating "The good gardener weeds out extra seedlings; so must a good mother weed out unwanted traits in her children. Often this 'weeding' kills some part of the child's creativity or spontaneity. The mother who is afraid for her child's safety will curtail her or his adventurous spirit; the mother who is worried about her own image and that of her family will try to mold her child into a person whose behavior is accepted by the community in which they live."

If this could be done painlessly, life would be easy, and none of us would harbor any bad memories of our mothers. Instead, many of us remember swearing "I'll never do this to my kids," after a fight with mom, yet find ourselves doing just that thing as adults. Sadly, many of us also vividly remember mothers who were vicious, cruel, perhaps alcoholic, who left deep and lasting mental, emotional and maybe even physical scars.

It is just this type of mother image that Kali represents. Starck and Stern say "Kali-Ma, the Dark Mother, holds the two edge sword; she has the power to slay the demons as well as the ability to be compassionate. At a certain point it becomes necessary to take Kali's sword and cut through the illusions that protect us from seeing and acting on the truth."

Kali and Lilith are only two of the goddesses that represent the dark side of nature. Pele, Hawaiian volcano goddess, teaches us to recognize and deal with anger.
Innana and her journey through the underworld can teach us that depression and hard times can be cyclic (especially for women), and that there is enlightenment and wholeness to be gained by coming through the darkness.

Medusa teaches us to accept our flaws, and to ignore society's obsession for physical perfection.Meditation with Sekhmet can help us recognize the validity of our feelings. Hecate can help us make choices and accept change.

One of the best examples of exploring the dark side comes from a classic fantasy movie "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy is the product of an upright Christian family -- people who never speak harshly or think dark thoughts about anyone. Dorothy is bored with her life, she wants more. She's told she must not demonstrate her anger and hate for Miss Gulch, who confiscates her beloved dog, Toto.

In order for Dorothy to come to the conclusion she reaches at the end of the movie, she must journey through the dark. This is represented several times in the movie; the tornado, the dark haunted forest, the dark castle atop the dark mountain, facing and overcoming her many fears to obtain the witch's broom. Both light and dark mythical goddess figures are evident in the movie from the beginning -- the Good Witch of the North (which represents the good earth), and the Wicked Witch of the West (representing the setting sun -- death). In the end, Dorothy realizes that her power lies within her, she never needed to leave home to find it at all. Through her journey through the dark, she became whole.

But none of these goddesses can help at all if we don't accept the fact that the dark side, our "shadow selves" is a necessary part of a whole and complete life. To do this, we must face the darkest innermost hidden parts of ourselves. It's not easy. Everything we've been taught rebels against it.

The first time you try it, your heart may pound. You may be experience fear or revulsion. You may fail. However, you will have made an in-road for later exploration, should you become stronger, to make another attempt.

How do you start?
Don't tackle everything at once. Choose one thing at a time. Make a list. What, to you, represents your dark side? What do you not want the world to know about yourself? Your list might include:

  • I sometimes scream at my kids and want to hit or beat them.
  • I want more sex than my husband can give me. That's not normal, is it?
  • I hate my mother. She always tries to dominate me.
  • I want to explore occult/New Age religions, but I'm afraid to.
  • I hate my body. I'm afraid of becoming fat/old.
  • I don't like my church/religion, but I'm afraid to leave it.

Then what? First of all, make this statement. Say "Yes! This darkness is a part of me. These are my feelings. This is who I am -- a woman who is not perfect. I am light. I am dark. Within myself, I am whole. I am the Goddess' perfect child."

There are other things you can do. If you can, find some like-minded people -- a support group. Finding others who have the same fears as you can give you the courage to challenge those fears, and the support you need while working through them. This is not as hard or impossible as it may sound. It's a general rule of nature that once you begin putting energy in a certain direction, what you need will manifest in time.

Give yourself time every day to think about the specific problem/challenge. Set aside a certain time to write down your feelings about what you've chosen to focus on. What does "darkness" mean to you? Free associate -- don't hold anything back -- absolutely nothing. Don't let your "internal editor" stop you for anything. Put it away for a while. Go back later and analyze it. Internalize it. Then, write about how you feel about what you've read. Is it as bad as you thought?

Construct a special space or altar that contains things that represent your dark side. If you cannot find a statue of the dark goddess you have chosen, perhaps a black or red candle, a dark stone, animal bones, a container of dust and dirt, a snake icon, a picture of a spider, a globe to represent the moon, use your imagination. Meditate on each object separately. What do they represent to you? Are they inherently bad? Why are they considered so?

On my personal altar, I have a black goddess on the left in a very sensual and sexual pose; a white pregnant goddess on the right in a kneeling and subservient position; and a small statue of the proud Venus of Wilendorf in the middle. This arrangement, to me, best represents the integration of my light and dark sides.

Finally, if you are free to do so, and you have the courage and temerity to flaunt the rules, you may consider making an actual foray into your dark side. If you can do so safely, in a detached manner, and consider it "research" into a problem you're trying to solve, you may find it more beneficial to undergo the actual experience of the thing you fear, rather than merely intellectual cogitation. Throw caution to the wind and start a study of magic or the Tarot. Take a class on sexuality to help understand this most basic human, natural drive. Question your religious doctrine -- you may find it is no longer helping you grow, or you may find a deeper study makes you grow strong.I don't recommend this for everyone, only those mature and objective enough to know how far to go into the experiment without harm to body or psyche of anyone concerned.

My own experience with the dark goddesses has taken me down a path of several goddess myths and stories. I have struggled with and overcome an inferiority complex over body image (Medusa). Most recently, I have been working with Lilith, trying to incorporate her (heretofore forbidden) drive for freedom of expression and assertion of sexuality into my thinking and lifestyle. I look forward to working with Hecate, the Crone of Wisdom, when the time comes. I'm enjoying every minute of it; the feeling is like an opening flower. Each instance brings new light into my life, as well as a greater feeling of wholeness.

Polarity is undeniably a part of this world. The dark side is all around us, everywhere we look, in everything we experience. As the Christian Bible says "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven." It follows by simple observation that all seasons are not right for all things; some are to be put aside, hidden, taken from the light into the dark for a time. Yet they remain a part of everything, a part of the whole, resting until the time in the great cycle to appear again.


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This page last updated October 3, 2004