Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Because I am a hobbyist as well as a magician and Pagan, I read widely in modern occultism. That has led me to plow through quite a bit of modern ‘Left Hand Path’ and ‘Dark’ occult material. Most of it I find unimpressive, but that’s true for all categories of occult literature. However I have for some while had a bug about the whole subject, and about whether ‘dark and light’ make any sense in a polytheistic paradigm. The other morning I read Morpheus Ravenna’s good piece on the Morrigan here and I thought I’d try to generate some ideas on the topic. Folks who haven’t read my own long essay on right-vs-left hand paths might enjoy that as well. 
I’ll start by summarizing. I don’t think that there is a spiritual or existential conflict between good and evil. Good and evil are social paradigms that vary according to time and culture. They do not exist in non-human nature, animate or inanimate. Sometimes the spirits seem to choose sides, for a while, but seldom reliably. Good and evil are not cosmic principles that appear as persons – they are human rules in a rule-book. Thus, I don’t think there is a conflict between dark and light. I don’t believe that light and darkness are acceptable metaphors for good and evil – in fact to refer to the night as a symbol of evil or moral impurity is a terrible devaluing of a holy thing, in my opinion. Holy means whole, and the world cannot be whole or holy without both darkness and light.
Now, modern LHP types tend to associate ‘good’ with personal liberty and empowerment, and ‘evil’ with imposed morality and oppression. They set goals for themselves such as ‘becoming a god’. That’s a nice goal, though one can tell from the stories that it doesn’t guarantee happiness. Now, I come from a lifetime of valuing personal freedom as one of the greatest goods. I’m a Thelema-sympathizer, though I’ve never worked a Thelemic system. I take my initiations as granting me the freedom and power to live as I will. To me this seems integrated, part and parcel of the spiritual path inherent in that of the Pagan magician.
The thing that confuses me is the effort to divide polytheism into light and dark. I’m just amazed when modern occultists want to talk in terms like ‘infernal’ or ‘diabolical’, or even refer to Hell and the Demons, seeming to want to set their mythos in a post-Zoroastrian God/Satan thing. To be fair, at least one modern writer goes all the way into the Zoroastrian thing, choosing the Bad Guy as his god. He seems to think it will make him extra-strong. Many are simply enchanted, it seems to me, with Hollywood notions of Big Red Devils with mighty powers. Now, I have no gripe with folks who want their magic to look like they imagine magic looking, but I’m uncertain of the benefit of dressing it in special-effects devil-suits. They might say the same for my preference for Iron-age characters...
Trying to simplify, Pagan pantheons just don’t have a strong element of conflict between either ‘good and evil’ or ‘freedom and conformity’. There is no ‘Prince of Darkness’, or “Rebel Hero” figure in most Pagan pantheons, despite various unconvincing efforts to locate him as Loki or Prometheus or Set. The powers of opposition to the gods are actually partners with the gods, all working together to create and maintain cosmos. There are no examples, in Pagan religions, of ‘anti-cosmic’ powers. 
I think that part of the problem is the notion that there would naturally be one true morality for all, whether villager or warrior, mage or carpenter. It doesn’t look as if that was the case, to me. The virtues and expectations of the warrior were vastly different than those for a farmer, or for a poet. So, while conformity might the good for the common villager, lore clearly shows that the poet and mage drift away from societal norms to go their own way on whatever strange roads they take. So in a polyvalent system, both conformity and individualism are equally good, just variously good for various people.  This pretty much disarms the notion that the Gods of Cosmos want slavish obedience, the sort that might spark some individualist rebellion and Quest for Freedom. 
One fairly sensible context in which ‘dark’ might mean something like modern darkists seem to want is to categorize it as a symbol for danger. If nature is to be our model for the divine, then we must acknowledge that some aspects of it will just kill yer ass. If there are spirits of the rays of sun and moon, there are also spirits of cholera, and knife-fights, and the sharp rocks that break bones. Darkness is a natural symbol for such things, because humans can’t see as well in the dark. That makes us more subject to both accident and attack. Darkness is also home to many predators, who must also have their spiritual equivalents.
This is exactly where the lightists fail, imo. Dangerous things often have great power, and the place we most fear is likely to be where a great treasure is hidden. If we fail to use the bulldozer because it scares us, we have merely failed in courage – the same is true for many powers that might get called ‘demons’ by the timid. For most mortals, death is the ultimate danger. Thus deities associated with death – whether the natural death, death by war, or plague, or even just having one’s abode among the Dead – are often depicted as dark.
However I despise the notion of equating the Underworld with Hell. Underworld Gods and beings are not opponents of the Gods of the Heavens. They may be mighty, and even dangerous, but powers of Hades are on the same team as the Olympians. So depictions of Underworld Gods and spirits done up like horror-novel monsters just seems disrespectful to me.
The other legitimate kind of danger in spiritual matters is the wrath of powerful beings. Many of the forms of Eastern deities that get called ‘dark’ are ‘wrathful’ forms of the gods. These are often pictured as demons in fact, horns, fangs, severed heads etc. Sometimes these are specific aspects of otherwise pleasant or beautiful gods, sometimes they are more independent. In any case, these wrathful gods are always part of Cosmos, always serving the general maintenance of the worlds. Personally, I’m interested in developing some work with wrathful Gaelic beings – it appeals to my romanticism…
Finally, a less complimentary meaning of darkness in traditional interpretation is as ignorance. This is the common metaphor of most Indian literature. Darkness is, well, hard to see in. The truth is less discernible, errors will be made and, again, harm can result. Is this a post-literate metaphor, in which sufficient light is needed to see the holy written spells? Does it tend to dualise well-lit interiors as good and forest night-shadows as ill? I’m afraid it still does. For moderns I’m inclined to see equal good in the knowledge one can get from night and dark as in that had from light and day. That very equanimity may be the result of my civilized life, in which light is easily obtained and darkness relatively free from hazards.
So, in an attempt to bring this ramble to the topic of Morpheus’ article, I must say that I’ve never actually divided the Gods of my pantheon into light and dark deities, and have never considered whether a god or spirit is ‘light or dark’ before undertaking to work with them. I work with Underworld Gods when that’s right, and deal with the Dead as part of holy order, not as any sort of outsider spirit. I deal with wild non-human spirits when I need to (not often). I’ve never had much use for martial gods, as my life hasn’t led me there, but I approach the Red Goddess as an initiator, and as a power in the stories of gods with whom I have a closer connection. Let’s assume you’ve asked, and I’ll advise folks against trying to find a darkside and lightside to traditional Northwestern Pagan lore. The ancients didn’t think that way, and imposing it over the lore can only produce distortions.


Kari Barber said...

Excellent, Ian, you always give me something to think about. My own Norse hearth culture folks fall prey to this, of course. Regarding deities of death resembling monsters, though- well, they preside over decay. Hel for example being portrayed as half-rotten seems appropriate- decay isn't evil, it's nature. It's necessary, and it's the part of death that ensures room for life. I just wanted to add that, even though I know the ways in which all of Loki's children are portrayed by modern Heathens definitely puts them in the more "evil" camp- looking scary and rotten isn't always a sign of evil. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful and interesting post!

IanC said...

Exactly - scary & dangerous does *not* equal 'evil'.

Gwynt-Siarad said...

Excellent post Ian. I agree whole heartedly with your thoughts.

Teo T said...

Very interesting post. I've found Paganism a fascinating subject of study recently, and reading through your blog has really enlightened me! I work for a new social blogging site called glipho.com, and was just wondering if you would be interested in sharing your posts there with us? It wouldn't change your blog in any way, and I know our community would love to read through your work here. Let me know what you think!

All the best, and blessed Beltaine,