Darkness is a common symbol, frequently appearing in speech, religion and literature.
Instinctively, you probably have a good grasp of the meaning of darkness. But what are the hidden symbolic depths of darkness?
In short, darkness represents the primordial matter or chaos out of which all Creation is made. As the opposite of light, darkness represents ignorance, lies, bad judgement, disasters or even death. In some cases, darkness can also symbolize God’s divine secrets and mysterious nature.
Darkness symbolizes creation
In most mythologies, darkness is the primal matter and chaos from which all existence came into being.
Because darkness is viewed as the primordial matter, it has become associated with maternal and fertility symbols.
Darkness, when influenced by events such as God saying “Let there be light”, the breaking of the Cosmic Egg, or the Big Bang, dissolves and gives way to creation.
This process is similar to how a seed lies dormant in the soil, but can spring into life when the conditions are right.
In this interpretation, darkness does not symbolize gloom or negativity.
Instead, darkness is the primordial chaos, the formless raw substance that predates all creation.
It is important to note that primordial chaos does not represent disorder, or the triumph of evil versus good.
Primordial darkness is simply the unorganized state of matter before God (or any other divinity) gave it form, shape, and order, transforming the darkness into the cosmos we observe today.
In this sense, darkness is the origin of all things, the canvas upon which the beauty of creation was later painted.
In the Bible, the book of Genesis, for instance, informs us that before light existed, “the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (1:2).
As mentioned previously, darkness is associated with the feminine principle because darkness is seen as the passive principle which receives light (the active, masculine principle), ultimately leading to gestation and birth of the natural world and creation in general.
This symbolism suggests that before the active principle (light) can act, there must first be a passive principle (darkness) to receive and nurture that action.
However, the creation that comes out of darkness also includes all aspects that torment the human condition: sleep, death, poverty, sickness, and old age.
Thus, darkness isn’t just the source of life and creation, but also the origin of all human trials and tribulations.
Darkness is the opposite of light
Darkness has long been considered the opposite of light, which makes darkness another aspect of dualist philosophies such as good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, and life and death.
It’s important to note that light/darkness dualism only exists as a symbolic morality formula after creation emerges after the primordial darkness.
After the appearance of light and darkness, any reintroduction of darkness symbolizes backsliding, and the destruction of progress made by enlightenment.
The splitting of primordial darkness into light and dark represents the dawn of consciousness and differentiation, allowing opposing forces to appear and interact.
In Christian thought, Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge also represents the splitting of primordial darkness (in this case, ignorance) into knowledge of good and evil.
Often, light is depicted in contrast to darkness, symbolizing illumination, knowledge, spiritual awakening, and moral virtue.
Fear of the unknown, evil, concealment, and the metaphorical ‘Powers of Darkness’ are often linked to darkness. Darkness is seen as the dominion of witchcraft, haunting spirits, despair, madness, and death.
In Christian symbolism, black—the darkest shade—is often associated with the Devil. Satan, as the ‘Prince of Darkness’, represents the embodiment of evil, shrouded in darkness.
In Eastern philosophy, darkness symbolizes Yin, one half of the Yin-Yang philosophy.
Yin is characterized as passive, receptive, and feminine, often associated with darkness and the moon, and contrasts with light (Yang), which represents the active, masculine principle.
Darkness as a symbol of wisdom and mystery
Darkness, despite its association with ignorance or evil, can also represent mystery, wisdom, and profound knowledge.
The ancient Greeks, for example, considered Night (or Nyx) to be the ‘Mother of Good Counsel’.
The saying ‘Night brings good counsel’ is found in most languages and suggests that wisdom and good ideas often come after periods of rest, stagnation, and sleep.
A similar idea is found in the Bible (“For God may speak in one way, or in another, In a dream, in a vision of the night” – Job 33:14-16) as well as the Koran (sura 42).
This suggests that the darkness of the subconscious mind or dreams can provide unexpected advice and guidance.
Mystics often use darkness as a metaphor to represent the unknowable aspects of God, or the mysteriousness of God’s plan.
Just as darkness represents everything our eyes cannot see, so too can darkness represent everything our rational mind cannot understand.
In this interpretation, darkness represents the nature of the divine realm, which we cannot understand using only human reason or ordinary consciousness.
In the Bible, for example, The Lord is said to dwell in thick darkness, as stated in 1 Kings 8:12, suggesting that divine presence and profound truths are often shrouded in darkness.
As such, darkness can represent knowledge hidden behind a mystery that can only be discovered through certain methods such as death, meditation, etc.
Darkness represents ignorance, deception, and bad judgement
Darkness is most often a symbol of ignorance, concealment, and bad judgment.
This interpretation of darkness is strongly connected to the dualism of light and darkness, where ‘seeing the light’, signifies gaining knowledge or enlightenment.
By contrast, ‘being in the dark’ is synonymous with not knowing the truth or being prevented from learning the truth.
After all, it’s in the darkness where truths can be hidden, actions can be concealed, and realities can be masked.
This ties into the practice of deception and lying, where the truth is deliberately hidden from someone, and kept out of the ‘light’ of transparency and honesty.
Finally, darkness is also connected to poor judgment or misguided choices. This is because making the right decisions often relies on possessing good knowledge, or at least a good understanding of a situation.
Without the necessary information, making the correct decision will often feel like navigating through darkness, hoping one makes the correct choice by accident.
Darkness represents the unconscious mind and the absence of awareness
The unconscious mind, like darkness, is an inaccessible and enigmatic part of a person’s mind.
It is the warehouse of our raw feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Exploring it can be difficult since a person risks finding traumas and painful memories they would have preferred to keep hidden.
Darkness also symbolizes depression and ‘black moods’. For example, the metaphor of ‘being in a dark place’ is a common way to describe depression.
Darkness is also where our conscious mind seems to go whenever we fall asleep. It is as if time vanishes, perception vanishes, and all that remains is a short-lived darkness followed by the morning of light.
In this sense, the darkness of our daily sleep can be considered preparation for the permanent darkness of our deaths.
Darkness represents disasters, misfortune, or even the Apocalypse
In most religions, darkness is a metaphor used to describe disasters, misfortune, or even the end of the world.
The Aztecs performed human sacrifices to nourish the gods, afraid that if they didn’t, the sun would cease to rise and the world would be destroyed in darkness.
The Egyptian Apophis, the serpent god of darkness, fought every night with the Sun god Ra to prevent the Sun from ascending into the sky at dawn.
Likewise, in Norse mythology, Fenrir’s children, Skoll and Hati, would chase the Sun and Moon across the sky. During Ragnarock, the two wolves would finally catch up with the celestial deities and cover the world in darkness by eating them.
In all these myths, darkness signifies the destructive potential of chaos, which is so great it has the power to destroy all of creation.
Christianity has a similar perspective on darkness while also associating it with spiritual poverty and difficult times.
Darkness in the Old Testament often represents a time of hardship or trials, where hope seems absent, like a night sky devoid of stars. The fall of ‘chief men’ or leaders often blankets a nation in darkness, leading to ‘national convulsions’ or societal unrest.
The Biblical book of Amos (5:18) proclaims, “the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light,” portraying the Apocalypse or Divine Judgment as a time of darkness.
In this case, darkness is a period of divine vengeance and retribution that brings about destruction and despair.
Darkness is a symbol of death
Darkness represents the unknown, and death is arguably the greatest unknown.
Just as we don’t know what lies in the dark, we can’t comprehend what comes after death.
This uncertainty creates fear, leading to the association of both death and darkness with a sense of dread and mystery.
In many cultures, darkness is believed to be the realm or state where the dead reside, mirroring the fact that many cultures bury their dead.
On a metaphorical level, darkness is the absence of light, and light is often associated with life. Therefore, the absence of light, or darkness, can symbolically represent the absence of life, which is death.
Darkness is thus a potent symbol of death. It represents the end of life, the mystery of the afterlife, the resting place of the deceased, and the notion of eternal rest.
Darkness is thus a reminder of life’s fleeting nature and the inevitable journey each of us must undertake into the great unknown.
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