Seasons of the Dark

by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

a version of this was published in Conscious Living issue 77 p.86-87, Spring 2007.


We in the Southern Hemisphere are just emerging out of the dark part of the year’s cycle around the Sun: the Winter Solstice in late June being the point of that transition. We are now entering the first light quarter of the year’s cycle. The quarter just passed is the darkest quarter, which is the period from Autumn Equinox/Mabon to Winter Solstice/Yule (in Australia that is from March 20-23 to June 20-23: see the Wheel of the Year diagram).

The mid-point of that quarter – the “cross-quarter day”, known as Samhain, or in popular culture as “Halloween”,  is the ceremonial marking of the ending of things – all kinds of endings – because it is deep Autumn when last Summer’s leaves are turning and falling: ‘Samhain’ literally means ‘Summer’s end’. It may be felt in the bodymind as the air cools, and the dark part of the day continues to lengthen. Something is clearly over. We may feel it more if we are personally in the midst of an ending of some kind, or the dark and coolness may themselves evoke memories of past losses and grief. This seasonal time of Samhain is a time for letting go to the Dark – the sacred Dark, understanding and accepting its place in the creative process of Life: that is, a new breath cannot be taken until the old one is let go of. And it is the space between the breaths that Samhain – the Dark Moment of the year – particularly celebrates. It is about letting go to uncertainty, as old forms melt down, and break apart. So it is at the same time, a surrender to new possibilities.

Samhain may be understood as the New Year in this Earth-based spiritual practice, and as with any New Year, it is a time for re-solutions, the conceiving and imagining of the new. It is only in the darkness of the night that the stars may be seen. It is in the darkness of the womb that new life may implant itself. The ancient forebears of Old Europe who marked these Earth-Sun holy days, had noticed that with every ending there is a new beginning: though it may take some time to get to it, we may rest in – or at least accept – the fertile emptiness. Samhain has been imagined poetically in traditional celebrations as “the vast sunless sea”,[1] or it may be expressed as the Void, the Womb of All. It is the season of the Old One, the Crone, whose process is one of transformation: if we have the eyes to see clearly, death and endings are transformations, and a process in which the Cosmos is constantly engaged. To be alive in this Cosmos means to be participating in that process. Nothing stays as it is. In our light and youth obsessed culture the Old Dark One’s gift and particular imaginal fertility has not been recognised; and it is a gift of renewal and possibility.

Winter Solstice then is the seasonal moment following Samhain that marks the peaking of the dark, and the turn back into the light. It is a continuation of the theme of the fertile Dark, but it is also celebrated as the “birth” of light, the birth of All, as the Sun begins its journey back to the South, as Earth’s tilt creates this experience. The revelation of the Winter Solstice is that it is the fullness of the dark that gives birth to all manifest form. This Earth-based religious moment was adopted by Christianity for the celebration of Christmas, which in the Australian context is clearly out of sync with the Winter Solstice Moment in June: a further alienation from roots in the Dark Earth.

The cross quarter seasonal point just past Winter Solstice is known as Imbolc or in more popular terms as Candlemas: it is early Spring … still cold, perhaps more so, but the light part of the day is clearly lengthening. So it has traditionally been the time for the ceremonial marking of the new and growing light – a celebration of the new Young One, each particular new and unique being. In pastoral cultures it is the time of lambing and chickens, which must be tended carefully: so it is with anything new and tender, within our psyches as well.

Samhain, Winter Solstice and Imbolc are intimately connected. They are each an aspect of the creative dynamic that brings all into being – into the forms that we see and touch, eat and smell and hear. Together these three seasonal moments are a movement towards manifestation – syntropy. And it begins in the Dark, in the ending of the old. This Life that we live and love is in fact built on all that went before: death is the basis upon which new life is possible. That is true for our physical, emotional, and evolutionary/cosmic beings all at once – they all share the same creative dynamics. Many popular religious and spiritual ideas and expressions have it all backwards – life does not begin with birth and light, its foundation is in the chthonic and the dark. The Dark is the source, and the sacred space/material out of which all being arises. Rejuvenation requires a downward and inward endarkenment – it is time that our notions of well-being and success took this into account, and found ways to celebrate it and affirm it. Without the fertile dark, without death, none of us, nor our beloveds would be here. Without the occasional journey to this realm, none of us would have any wisdom.

This creatively connected flow from the dark space of Samhain, through the birthing place of Winter Solstice to the new being of Imbolc is a dynamic that may be identified poetically with the three aspects of the ancient Goddess – Crone, Mother and Virgin respectively. They may be identified with the phases of the Moon, noting that the Dark Moon has a fullness out of which the new crescent emerges. These three aspects have ancient origins that were perhaps originally lunar, and repetition of the three’s in various forms in ancient artwork as far back as 24,000 B.C.E. has been noted by archaeologists. They have also been identified with the Triple Spiral motif uncovered late last century at Newgrange in Ireland, thought to represent the sacred heritage of ritual celebration of eternal creation that the seasonal wheel of the year expresses. It is a consciousness wherein Dark and Light dance through a flow of the three phases, beyond any duality, held in the whole and unifying embrace of the wheel of the year. Light and dark, birth and death, joy and sorrow, are One: this may be known more often as we sink deeper into the wisdom of Earth’s holy-days.

NOTES: Starhawk, The Spiral Dance.

© Glenys Livingstone Ph.D. 2007

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