Tag Archives: darkness

Druidry and my love of darkness

One of my projects at the moment, is writing a book about Druidry and the darkness. People who support me at the Bards and Dreamers level over on Patreon  are getting monthly excerpts from the work in progress and will get the complete pdf when I’m done – in fact, anyone who supports me on Patreon will get the complete pdf if they want it. (https://www.patreon.com/NimueB)

I like giving my work away. I also like being able to eat and keeping a roof over my head, so Patreon helps with that. During lockdown, Patreon money has represented half of my dependable income. We’ve been getting by on very little.

Back to the darkness… one of the things this project has done, is got me thinking about where my relationship with the dark began, and what the key early influences were. This led to a rather surprising discovery.

As a child, I was obsessed with the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. Revisiting some of the material from that, it struck me how much The Music of the Night had influenced my sense of what darkness is, and means. It was a song I sang enthusiastically as a young human, probably with more joy than skill. These days it is right at the limits of what I can get my voice to do. I’m not a trained singer.

For various reasons, I ended up doing a paint and cosplay wallow in the darkness with this song, recently. Younger me used to do a lot more dressing up and it was part of how I used to navigate my gender identity, such as it was. I may get back into that. I definitely need to invest more time in play, mucking about and things that aren’t entirely orientated towards making a living. It’s often a thing for creativity – that you need it to pay to justify doing it, but it is the time invested in the not economically focused things that actually make the creativity possible, and therein lies all kinds of challenge!


Summer turns to autumn

The journey into autumn has certainly begun in my part of the world. The blackberries were early this year. The hawthorn berries have ripened to deep red, and the somewhat diseased horse chestnut outside my window is getting into autumn leaf colours. The tree always does this, and has survived with its diseases for many years at this point.

I’m conscious of the changing light levels. I find the lack of natural darkness difficult around midsummer, and do better with sleep during the part of the year when there’s simply more darkness available. So I’m feeling my body ease into that calmer state of having more time in proper darkness. It comes as a relief.

The days are cooler, but that could change again, sometimes autumn is warmer than late summer. The feeling in the air is different in the morning – first thing in the morning is always the time when I most notice this seasonal shift. It coincides with back-to-school, although we are not back-to-school any more. We’re a few weeks from off-to-university, and another shift that is bigger than the seasonal process, but aligned with it.

This summer behind me did not feel like a summer at all – either so hot that I couldn’t be outside, or weirdly cold. Thanks to lockdown and my inclination to remain cautious, the summer had very little of my normal summer activities in it. This whole year has been weird on that score, nothing has felt rightly itself.

I head towards autumn feeling emotionally engaged with this season of loss and falling away. Whether that will last is another question. It’s important to me right now to remember that autumn is also when you plant some things – anything you want to have come up in the spring, for a start. Trees are best moved or planted in late autumn. Many creatures become pregnant in the autumn to give birth in the spring. The falling away is not the whole story of this season, and it is not the whole story for any falling away period in a person’s life, either.

 


Darkness in spirituality

I find myself increasingly uneasy about the way the language of darkness is used in spirituality. We equate lightness and whiteness with good, darkness and blackness with evil. There are clear racist issues in this. It’s also a line of thought I think owes much to the Middle Eastern sky Gods who are all very much about the penetrating light of the divine.

Paganism is full of Earth Gods, underworld Gods, night Gods and other deities of darkness. Inside wombs and cauldrons there is darkness, not light. There is absolutely no reason to associate light with goodness and darkness with evil – both are necessary and both are harmful in excess. You can die of too much light, dried out, burned, or cancerous. There is comfort, sleep and healing to be found in the natural darkness of night. There is mystery and beauty in the dark places – and the way our ancient ancestors went there to do beautiful cave paintings is well worth contemplating.

There may be some value in talking about human actions and choices in terms of good and evil. Often, talking about light and darkness in this way just allows us to externalise our own choices and reduce our feelings of responsibility. A person can be in darkness or in light and their actions are of their own making. What we do in the privacy of darkness – sex particularly – isn’t necessary shameful, just something we don’t want to share with everyone. If doing it in broad daylight seems like the more honest and virtuous position – I rather feel the politics of the last few years should have scuppered that illusion.

Light and dark are both good in their own ways, and both potentially problematic. Walking a dark path, working at night, celebrating underworld Gods – there’s nothing inherently evil here. This may in fact be taken as a path of great healing and compassion. As for light working – I am reminded of a conversation earlier in the year with a woman who has made a living as a light working, talking about ‘the compassion trap’ and how it was ok not to care about the death of a baby… Perhaps it was no coincidence that the baby in question wasn’t light or white. People who spend too much time staring into the light are not necessarily good or kind. I’ve encountered more backstabbing from ‘peace and love and light’ folk than ever I have anywhere else.

What would it mean to identify as a follower of the darkness? What would it mean to refuse to use the language of darkness to describe negativity? What would it mean in terms of how we might be unconsciously thinking about race? Can we let go of the idea that a good witch is a white witch and a bad witch is black? Can we make more room? Can we not have this lingering sense that white is superior and black is not a good way of being?


Seeing stars

Last week some people with hard hats came and took away our orange street lamp bulbs, and replaced the units with new ones. Instead of the orange glow, we have a much nicer light, and none of it comes in through the windows.

Light pollution is so normal that we often don’t consciously notice it. The invasive orange glow has permeated every conventional home I’ve ever had. When we lived on the boat it was possible to moor up in dark places and be free from direct street lighting, but that made the orange glow of nearby towns very obvious.

Orange street lights block out the stars – not only for the people nearest the streetlight, but for miles around. The night is made small by light pollution, we’re locked into the little orange bubble of human civilization and we don’t see or know the darkness.

I’m wholly enchanted by the new lights. I can look over the top of the streetlight, and see the stars. The orange bubble has burst, and in its place, I have the magic of the night sky without having to step outside – and on a cold, wintery night, that’s a real blessing. It’s also much easier to achieve proper darkness, and thus proper rest.

I don’t think technology is the magic answer to everything, nor do I think it is an evil we must escape from to get back to nature. Technology used wisely, is a blessing.


What colour is evil? (poem)

Gun metal grey, perhaps,

Or the sickly yellow of a gas attack.

The red of wounds, bloodied innocence,

And the private green of lurid envy.

Multi-coloured hate for different skins.

Pastel tones of apathy, magnolia conformity

The black dog standing on your chest,

Lethal blues prophesy suicide.

Little lies we claim are white.

While Agent Orange pours silence onto jungles.

Pink flush of the shamed cheek

Camouflage colours for the sniper.

Gender colours, yellow stars, brown shirts.

Greenwashing the present

Whitewashing the past

Painting over the cracks, we try to hide

Rainbow hues in the latest oil spill.

 

Darkness is womb, a seed in soil.

The respite of sleep.

 

Toxic human projects

Come in every known shade.


Through the dark days

Yesterday, Mabh Savage wrote about how we encounter the dark half of the year. It’s well worth a read. I found myself agreeing with her a fair amount, and then being surprised by this, and then realising why. For many years I was one of the people she objects to – the kind of person to face the winter with dread, and sigh with relief as the solstice comes with the promise of light returning.

This year I’ve done pretty well. It has been warmer than usual, (which helps me hurt less) but also very grey (which can get to me). I’ve felt in tune with the length of the day, and have not been caught out by how early it gets dark. This winter has felt less like a desperate struggle, and that, I think, is the crux of the matter.

There can be an absolute joy in the dark part of the year, in snuggling inside, cosy with lights, food, friends and some rest after the busyness of summer. When winter is a nightmare, it’s a consequence of not having the resources to meet the demands. An unheated home, insufficient food, illness, exhaustion, fear about paying the bills… these things make for tough and miserable winters. If summer means not being cold all the time, then of course you shiver in the dark days and long for the return of the sun. Been there, done that.

It helps that I’ve invested the time in being ready for the winter. We painted the walls in the flat cheerful colours, so even on the grey days I don’t feel colour deprived. This has made a huge difference to my mood. Art, posters, plants and soft furnishings add to the cheer. We came off the boat a couple of years ago with little to furnish a home, and it takes money and time to sort that. We got new windows for the flat, and insulated the door, and I made a draft excluder, and we are warmer as a consequence. We aren’t working constantly, there’s time to rest, and the resources to enjoy life a bit more. A huge shift from boat days when we had to run the boat engine for an hour to have lights into the evening.

I own a set of fell runner’s crampons. These make it possible to walk safely on ice and on frosty ground. I’m not agile, or confident in slippery conditions. Owning spikes has made the winter a lot less frightening for me. I got them the year I lived in the Midlands and it really froze. To collect my small son from school I had to walk across a steep and entirely frozen road (I hadn’t taken him in). Any car coming down that hill would have no scope for breaking and stopping, and as other roads were clearer, people were mistakenly coming down. I set out to cross all too aware that I could fall, or be knocked down, and it was terrifying. When this is what winter looks like, it’s bloody difficult to embrace the season. Crampons allow me to walk up and down icy slopes without fear. That changes everything.

Of course if you have a tumble drier, winter laundry is no issue. It’s an ongoing struggle for me, but not as bad as it was on the boat. If you have a car, winter conditions can be less awful for travelling than if you walk. Frozen ground means a likelihood of chilblains for me. If you have central heating and aren’t obliged to keep a wood stove going, this is also a lot easier. I spent one winter in a cottage with single glazing and just the one stove for heat. That was memorably tough.

This year I can enjoy the snugly indoorsness of winter. I can rest in the darkness. I am not in a state of perpetual anxiety. I feel enormous gratitude for the relative wealth and abundance in my life that has changed my relationship with the season. I’m all too aware that for many people this year, poverty will mean the choice between eating and heating, with nothing to do but long for the spring. If you are blessed, then enjoy what this season has to offer. If you can spare some of that abundance for people who are struggling, I promise you, it makes a big difference.


Sleeping with the seasons

Getting up in the dark is one of the things I find hard about this part of the year. I’m invariably sluggish, rising at the call of the alarm clock, and reluctant to face a day that hasn’t really shown up yet. In summer, I become a much earlier riser, often active by six. It’s not about indolence or failure to be a morning person, my body resents getting up in the dark.

Of course this whole business of having to get up in the dark to go to work and school is relatively modern. Back before electricity, before gas lighting, and street lighting and the industrial revolution, people more usually got up with the light, because there wasn’t much point doing anything else. Only in emergencies or those few lines of work calling for overnight vigil, would people be getting up before the sun.

It’s a fine example of the double edged nature of progress. Yes, having energy for lighting makes it possible for us to do so much more. And what do we do? We work longer hours. We work night shifts. We haul reluctant teenagers up at times their bodies are especially clear just aren’t a good idea. We live by clock time and not by the inclinations of our own bodies.

If you don’t have modern artificial light, there’s not much work you can do in the near darkness of firelight, and you need good quality candles to be able to read, or do any of the more fiddly crafts. In the absence of light, winter evenings must have been a time of conversation, music, storytelling, or just gazing absently into the fire. Progress means we can now each sit in a brightly lit room and stare at the screen of our choice to find out what everyone else’s evening meal looked like. I’m not sure in what way this counts as progress, I am increasingly confident that we are no better off for these uses of our technologies.

This morning I had the luxury of being able to rise with the light. It creates a more relaxed pace. I work more effectively when I feel settled in myself, starting later can mean getting more done. However, our culture has little interest in effective work, or efficient, or clever work. What we celebrate is hard work and lots of it, where putting on the lights to work longer is simply the way it has to be. Where being ever less natural is seen as a virtue. These are things we need to be questioning.


Against a dark background

On Friday I saw a memorably dramatic rainbow – the consequence of especially strong light against a really black storm cloud. The vivid colours owed everything to that combination. This is often the case. The combination of sunlight and cloud shadow at play across the hills creates the most dramatic views. It’s the clouds that make the sunsets rich and memorable too. Take out the darkness, and light on its own often doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is one of the themes at play in Personal Demons, and Hopeless Maine generally. The light shows up better against a dark background. This is a literal truth with regards to the art – the glows, moons and magical lights are so much more vivid when there’s contrast. (www.hopelessmaine.com if you have no idea what I’m talking about). It’s true from a writing point of view as well. It’s difficult showing off courage, heroism or integrity to good effect if the setting is in pastel shades and mostly fluffy. The deeper the darkness, the more brightly lights shine in contrast to it.

Fiction is not the same as real life though. I am currently tempted to get that tattooed onto my forehead, because the inability of people who ought to know better to get their heads round this one is driving me crazy. Again. Fiction has narrative shapes and a coherence that life frequently lacks. On second thoughts, can I please be allowed to tattoo the words ’fiction is not the same as real life’ onto the forehead of the next person who hits me with this rubbish? Gah. Moving on…

In fiction seeing those contrasts between light and dark is rewarding. It emphasises story and character. Mostly in real life, experiencing the contrasts is an absolute bitch and I for one would be happy to give it a miss more days than not. Yes, the compassion of some shines out a lot brighter for the background of everything else. Yes, the wisdom of some shines forth in just the same way. Yes, I have a growing perspective on the difference, and no, I did not really want any of the dark half of the experiences that have shaped my opinion. I’d have been quite happy going through able to trust and think well of most people. It’s that old innocence/experience quandary again. I miss the state of innocence when I believed that the world was a better sort of place.

What I want is the world I used to believe existed, where trust was not the province of the naïve, greed was not good, and trying to do the right things for the right reasons counted for something. A world in which truth is respected, and people respect themselves enough to want to be truthful. A world in which money is not the be all and end all, and power is used to help, not to abuse.

And on that day, Satan will very likely be skating to work.
I keep coming back to the same issue, that I have choice, and I am not utterly powerless. That whole ‘be the difference’ mantra often seems to be an exercise in seeing how many different ways I can get myself kicked. But if I give up, I have given up and accepted that I can do nothing. I’m still not willing to do that, even though I am bone weary of the metaphorical bloody noses and rounds of getting crushed. I am so tired today, and so short of inspiration, and I feel like the cold has got right into my bones, and into my soul and the darkness of winter before me seems long and harsh too. But I’m not giving up. I’m not going to do anything of any great use today, I suspect, but just holding the idea, the possibility of getting up again and having another go is better than admitting defeat.

There are often more storm clouds than there are moments of beautiful light and glorious rainbows, but there are moments of glorious light and beautiful rainbows, and that is going to have to be enough.


A surfeit of light

One of the features of the modern age is our mastery of light. I’ve talked before about the suggestion that pre-industrial sleep patterns were very different, with two separate ‘sleeps’ and a time of wakefulness in the dark between them. I’m currently reading Lee Morgan’s fascinating book on witchcraft – Deed without a name. The author has flagged up another contribution to ideas around sleep and darkness. Our ancestors used to spend a lot more of their time in gloom, twilight, candlelight, firelight.

If we are awake, we tend to have bright light (romantic diners and dingy pub gigs aside).  Illumination has become normal, and goes interestingly alongside enlightenment. We live in an age that aspires to know everything and that tends to view everything as potentially comprehensible. If we don’t understand a thing, its because we’ve not yet got the right maths to measure it with, the right technology to observe it, the right theory to rationalise it. We bring everything into the light, where we can clearly see the edges.

Twilight is a place of uncertainty where a crouching man merges with the plant life and you can’t tell whether its mice or spirits making the noises in the undergrowth. Candle light and firelight fill the corners with dancing shadows, reinvent the world as mysterious and turn the familiar into the uncertain. Our ancestors had this as part of their normal, every day reality. Not all things could be brought into the light, and light was not available at the touch of a button to dispel all confusion. To a mind that encounters shadows, gloom and twilight on daily basis, the unknown is inevitable. The unknowable is a daily feature. To the person who lives with light levels they can immediately control, the sharp edges of the world are always visible.

We assume, I think, that the sharp edges and boundaries made apparent by our reliable light sources are real, and that the uncertainties of twilight are illusions brought on by an insufficiency of light. To our ancestors, those uncertainties were real. But here’s a thing. Our light is artificial. The gloom of twilight, the strange partial light of a full moon – these are real conditions. Darkness and shadow are real. Times of warped perception are real. What we have chosen to irradiate is a real and potentially meaningful state.

We throw light on things. We push away the shadows of superstition. We illuminate the issue. We cast it in a new light. We throw the spotlight on it. We put it under the spotlight. Darkness is ignorance. Darkness is superstition. Our man-made light is the really real reality and we believe in it. The light tells us that everything has edges, everything can be known. Yet the further the science goes, the more we see the dark spaces filled with something we cannot illuminate. The more physics I read, the less I feel I know and understand. Perhaps what the turning on of light must inevitably show us, is the sheer extent of the darkness.

Twilight is my favourite time of day. I love the way the light and shadows create a different kind of reality, one with softer edges and less certainty. I love spending time in firelight and candle light, and I wonder what would happen to my perceptions if I gave up electrical illumination entirely, and accepted either the darkness, or the candle. Would I think and feel differently? I’m inclined to suspect I would. In the twilight, mystery is natural, uncertainty is natural, doubt is natural. Perhaps we need a bit more of that to balance up what we’ve learned from switching the lights on.


Into the darkness

I thought I was aware of the cycle of the seasons. I thought I knew about the changing levels of light we enjoy in the UK. I am learning that I had no idea. Until this winter, I’ve lived places where street lighting means there is no real darkness, even in the house. Most of my time, electric light has been there at the touch of a button and I’ve not thought about it that much.

Out here on the canal, there are no street lights, and we’re generating our own electricity. So, while there are lights at the touch of a button, the power to run them is not guaranteed. It creates a totally different consciousness. Living in a smaller space, I have become more conscious of ‘outside’ and for a lot more hours every day at the moment, outside is dark. It’s also cold and wet, and not very inviting.

In the autumn we were using candles in the evening. As the nights closed in, we gave up on this because it was making me horrendously depressed. There are some handicrafts I can do by candle light, and listening to the wind up radio remains possible, but on the whole without light, I am sorely limited. It’s like having access to hot water, the internet and the radio. Light, it turns out, is an intrinsic part of my feeling connected with civilisation and without it, I get miserable. It’s not about what I can do, and it’s not anything seasonal-affective (I think).

Now, this raises some interesting questions for me. As a pagan druid, my relationship with nature is hugely important to me. In the spring and autumn, letting the natural light levels shape my day felt really good. I thought embracing the darkness of winter would be equally good. A new and spiritual journey into the true nature of things. What I got, was a feeling of utter misery and disconnection. Just having light on the boat until 8 or so at night, even if I don’t use it to work, makes me feel better. It may not be a coincidence that at this time of year we get all the harsh weather, there have been storms, high winds, heavy rain, ice… none of these things are within my control, although I am insulted from them sufficiently, they still affect me. Light, I suspect, allows me to feel a bit in control, a bit like I am not entirely at nature’s mercy. This is also interesting. As a pagan druid, am I not supposed to be open to nature? As a human being, I think I’ve found where my limits are, and that’s a good sort of thing to understand.

Being a druid, for me, is not purely about nature. It is also about civilization, inspiration and all that is best about humanity. A big part of how I think about druidry involves standing with one metaphorical foot in a wild place, and the other in civilization, belonging to both and mediating between the two. Much as I can’t cope physically with the external temperatures of winter, I am also not capable of handling the naturally occurring lack of light. I learn a thing about myself. Not being interested in suffering for the sake of it, and not believing that being miserable is spiritually good, I have accepted this. I have as much light as I need, and I now also have a very keen understanding of how that works. Only by testing my boundaries can I learn stuff like this. No doubt I’ll be pushing other places in the future.

My animal body has all kinds of curious needs and responses. Part of my quest to understand the natural world calls to me to understand nature as it manifests within myself. And like every hole digger, nest maker, hibernator and migrant, I too have to adapt to the seasons. Apparently, that means not journeying deep into the darkness. It doesn’t suit me after all, not in this kind of quantity. So that’s my goth reputation shot then!