Light and Darkness

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LIGHT AND DARKNESS are basic natural phenomena as well as symbolic or metaphorical meanings that are often equated with the pairs of Being and Non-Being, primordial chaos and world order. According to the most ancient conceptions from the early civilizations of the Middle East, light and darkness are experienced in rhythmical alternation and hence as being contingent on each other. Darkness is the mysterious, impenetrable ground and source of light; and light becomes associated with creation. It grants and is therefore a symbol for the primal conditions of life: warmth, sensuality, and intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. In the course of the history of ideas, however, another concept was developed, in which darkness is an outcome of failure within the creational process.

If light and darkness are interpreted as alternate stages relieving one another, they are viewed as complementary rather than oppositional. Stipulating one another's occurrence, both are necessary phases of the life cycle that is altogether perceived as a harmonious totality. While the passage from light to darkness is performed without further problems, the reemergence of light out of darkness is precarious. Therefore, the vanishing of light into darkness has always caused anxieties and given rise to special rites and precautions. However, even with such implications, this conceptualization of light and darkness needs to be distinguished from the other, later one, in which the predominance of light no longer means its ever-new salvation through but its final salvation from darkness. Ideas about the possibility of a total, eternal victory over and abolition of darkness come along with a worldview that has detected a fundamental corruption of and within creation. Its flaws result from the mixture of light and darkness, which happened accidentally and against the original plan. Such a conceptit may be called binary or dualistic as opposed to the original complementary conceptdoes not interpret light and darkness in a mutual conditionality and, accordingly, in their relativity, but as only self-identical, irreconcilable entities rather than states.

This considerable change in conceptualizing light and darkness as well as other comparable polarities (male-female, right-left, heaven-earth, day-night, sacred-profane, exogamous-endogamous, truth-falsehood, and so on) is observable from about the sixth century bce and may be explained by the emergence of transcendental, logical thought, which characterizes the "Axial Age," according to Karl Jaspers and adherents of his cultural theory (Benjamin Schwartz, Shmuel Eisenstadt, and others).

While complementary notions of light and darkness, which can be studied, for example, in ancient Egyptian religion, always stick to imageries resulting from close observation of natural processes, the dualistic concept is largely independent from the appearances of light and darkness in the cosmos, as will be shown in the discussion of Iranian, Gnostic, and Manichaean ideas below.

History of Religions

Many cosmologies begin their accounts of the creation with the emergence of light (or the sun or an equivalent light principle) out of a primeval darkness, and conversely many mythologies describe the end of the world as a twilight or darkness of the gods, that is, the disappearance of light in a final darkness that engulfs all. There is an obvious connection between light and the sun as the source of light, though not all gods of light are always and necessarily solar deities. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the conspicuous presence of sun, moon, and stars, these celestial bodies often appear as manifestations of the gods. There seems to be a correlation between light and the "ouranic" gods of the heavens, on the one hand, and between darkness and the "chthonic" gods of the earth and the underworld, on the other. Originally, there appears to have been no ethical valuation of the opposition between light and darkness, but since the sun above is also all-seeing, he (that is, the god connected with the sun) becomes guardian of the law, of the faithful keeping of treaties, of justice, and ultimately also of the ethically good.

Generally speaking, light serves as a symbol of life, happiness, prosperity, and, in a wider sense, of perfect being. As a symbol of life, light can also serve as a symbol of immortality. Darkness, on the other hand, is associated with chaos, death, and the underworld. However, even if this polarity appears to the modern mind as an opposition with one positive and one negative side, it must not be forgotten that in nonlogical, complementary thinking the two are not exclusive to each other. At a cosmic as well as at a social and individual level, darkness guarantees the continual existence of light by its regular renewal.

When light is personified and worshiped, it tends to become associated either with the sun or with hearth fire, or both. Solar worship was central to ancient Egyptian religion. Thus, the ancient Egyptian god Amun became identified, in due course, with the sun god Ra as Amun-Ra (whose predecessor may have been Ra-Atum). As the sun god, Amun-Ra was threatened every day to be swallowed by Apophis, the serpent monster of darkness (the night). Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton; fourteenth century bce) even attemptedunsuccessfullyto impose a quasi-monotheistic sun cult on Egypt. After the reinstallation of Egyptian polytheism in the Ramessid era, theologians developed a new, monistic concept, according to which sun and Sun-God were only expressions of the visible side of reality, whereas the source of existence was the secret divinity shrouded in darkness. Later, the same idea became prominent in Hermeticism, the various mysticisms of the Western world (including Islam), and in Esotericism. Sun worship and symbolism also figured in Mesopotamian religion and established themselvesprobably because of Asian influencesin later Roman religion, with the great Roman festival of Sol Invictus ("invincible sun") subsequently becoming the date of the Christian celebration of the Nativity.

The complementarity of light and darkness was most radically formulated and transferred into ritual life in the ancient religions of Mesoamerica. According to Mayan and Aztec belief, the continuation of the sun, light, and world order could even for a limited time only be guaranteed by sacrifice of godheads and humans. Ages of creational order, which were cyclically replaced by periods of chaos and darkness, were initiated through an archetypal act of self-sacrifice. After its sacrificial death, a mythical figure appeared in the east as the sun and established itself as the ruler of the world. In order to persist, it needed the sacrificial blood of humans. Finally, however, the sun would not be able to resist the attacks of enemy gods and the whole cosmos would perish in an apocalyptic cataclysm.

In ancient Iranian religion, the empirical, natural polarity of light and darkness is of surprisingly little importance. Attributes of light are ascribed to Ahura Mazdā, the Lord Wisdom and highest god of the sky; to Asha, the implicit order of the world; and to paradise and afterlife. Yet, the devas, evil spirits and enemies to Ahura Mazdā, are also of shining quality. In Zoroastrian literature it is explicitly stated that Ahura Mazdā figures as creator of both light and darkness. Thus, despite the blatantly dualistic structure of Iranian religion, a light-and-darkness dichotomy was not obtrusive in it. This might be explained by the high degree of abstraction characterizing the Zoroastrian faith in the morally good. Compared to Egyptian and even to Greek thought, Zoroastrianism made little use of natural imagery in its concept of Being as it is represented by Ahura Mazdā and of Non-Being, which is the domain of the latter's enemy, Angra Mainyu.

Light is an attribute of many divinities. As regards the religious history of the West, the eastern Mediterranean area (Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) seems to have been the cradle of many gods of light who gained considerable importance in the Hellenistic period and played a major role in the mystery cults of the period, although here too it is difficult to distinguish clearly between light and solar deities. Most mystery rites performed their function of mediating salvation by having the sun/light deity bring the "initiate" (mustēs ) "from darkness unto light." Divine manifestations are usually described as epiphanies of light. In the Magical Papyri, the gods frequently are endowed with light attributes, and in the collection of writings known as the Hermetic Corpus, spirit and light are practically identical. In fact, as man rises to greater spiritual heights "he is turned into light" (Corpus Hermeticum 13). Similar motifs are frequently mentioned in the Indian Upaniads. Here too, Absolute Being (brahman ) as well the mind through which spiritual knowledge is acquired, is identified as light. Accordingly, the central experience of the inner self as identical with brahman is depicted as a light experience.

Light symbolism in Western religions (including Islam) was decisively influenced by Greek philosophy, which gave to light a simultaneously intellectual and ethical connotation. Here again it is difficult to distinguish sharply between light and sun symbolism or to evaluate the precise extent of the influence of Syrian and Egyptian sun cults. Greek philosophy seems to have shifted the meaning of light as a primal symbol of life to one of consciousness. For Minoan religion it is still obvious that a sun cult was connected to tombs and the belief in an afterlife. For Greek philosophers, however, the sun as the "light of the world" represents mainly cosmic reason. Light also represents Wisdom since it is through her that things are apparent. A particular feature, which then had a great impact on the Western history of ideas, was the connection of the light and darkness theme with a presumed opposition between the physical and the spiritual.

Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers took the light and darkness dichotomy as a starting point for their metaphysical speculations. While Anaximander (c. 610550 bce) stated that becoming and decaying of all things were connected and Heraclitus (c. 500 bce) still viewed change as the only reliable norm of the world, Parmenides of Elea (sixthfifth century bce) attempted to trace one stable principle behind or within the phenomenal oppositions like the one of light and darkness. The method of pursuing this aim was, however, not a mental reunification of empirical antagonisms but, on the contrary, the confirmation of their heterogeneity and their separateness. Therefore, the ultimate reality of Being, an opposite of which, according to Parmenides, does not exist, was to be sought beyond the visible world. As a mediating and encompassing principle between light and night, Parmenides set up anankē (fate), who could still be represented mythically by the goddess Aphrodite.

Pre-Socratic philosophy (for example, Parmenides, Pythagoras) already associated light and darkness with the light and heavy elements, respectively, and hence ultimately with spirit (soul) and matter (body). According to Plato (Republic 506d), the idea of the Good (which illuminates the soul) in the supersensual world corresponds with Helios (the sun) as the light of the physical world. The opposition of light and darkness is thus not so much an ethical one as a distinction of degrees of purity between the higher world of ideas and its copy, the lower world. According to some thinkers, it was the fire of the heavenly bodies that begot human souls. The ascent from a low, material, "dark" existence to a higher, spiritual, and divine level of being is expressed in terms of illumination (photismos )a concept that came to play an increasingly important role in mysticism. The main connecting link between philosophy and mysticism in the Hellenistic world, especially regarding the terminology and symbolism of light, was Neoplatonism. The Neoplatonic system supposes a downward movement of light in the course of the creation process. This concept entails that the lower hemisphere, which is Earth, is heavier and darker than the upper one; matter is thus considered light in a degraded condition. Accordingly, the relationship between light and darkness is here not construed as one of necessarily alternating states and or as one of binary oppositions completely exclusive of each other; light and darkness are rather construed as different grades of the same substance.

Light symbolism spilled over from the mystery cults and the philosophical traditions to influence magic, Hermeticism, and Gnosticism. Some expressions of Hermeticism have inherited the Greek dichotomy of light and darkness, even though the Hermetic tradition is genuinely rooted in the ancient Egyptian worldview, which is free of any depreciation of the material cosmos. The devaluation of matter had a more important impact on Gnosticism. Gnostic dualism equates the opposition of light and darkness with that of spirit and matter, and hence tends to develop a hostile attitude to "this world," which is the creation of an inferior or even evil power. Salvation consists in leaving behind this lower world of darkness and rejoining the principle of light. Often, salvation is brought about by the supernal light principle (or a part of it) descending from above in order to redeem the particles of light (for example, souls) from the realm of darkness into which they have fallen and in which they are imprisoned. The idea of an inferior nature of the material, which had made its first appearance in Orphism and probably from here entered the Platonic tradition, was intensified by the mythic imagery of a fall that had not been foreseen in the original plan of the creation. This dramatization of the subsequent downward movement of the light rays or particles, which became impure only because of the distance from their source, led to an approximation of the Greek conceptualization of the light-darkness polarity to the Iranian type of glaring dualism in Gnosticism. Thus, the monism of the light, which was philosophically perceived as one substance of different qualities, could very easily turn into a dualism of two irreconcilable substances in Gnostic mythology. (It must be stressed here that this kind of light-darkness dualism is not genuinely Iranian. It resulted from a fusion of Greek speculations about light and darkness and the Zoroastrian overall dualism as the structure of the cosmos.) Gnostic texts present a wide range of interpretations of the light and darkness theme. Some of the myths are heavily dualistic, while other Gnostic treatises in a more philosophical style stress the homogeneity of light and darkness.

In Mandaeism and Manichaeism, a fundamentally dualistic structure in conceptualizing the world was prevalent, but this does not mean that light and darkness were consequently subsumed under it. According to Mandaean myths, the sun, the moon, and the seven planets are evil beings, yet the splendid appearance of the King of Light is compared to the sun. In Manichaeism, too, light symbolism was strongly emphasized, but there were also lights of the cosmos that belonged to the reign of darkness. While the sun and the moon were very important light beings and played a considerable part in the salvational processes, the stars were considered evil. This shows that the opposition between good and evil in Mandaean and Manichaean religion was expressed by the light-darkness dichotomy, but good as light and evil as darkness could be attributed to different phenomena. Particularly in Manichaeism, light and darkness became abstract qualities rather than appearances in the natural world. Similarly, there is no indication that the "King of the Darkness," who attacked the "Hemisphere of Light" and thereby initiated the Manichaean cosmogonic drama, represents the material world or any particular realm of the universe; rather, he seems to be opposed to any imaginable mode of existence. The "Father of Greatness," on the contrary, is the lord of the world as it is known and experienced by human beings, even though it is infiltrated with particles of darkness in a metaphorical sense. This observation confirms that the Manichaean kind of symbolism does not generally correlate to the appearances of light and darkness in the cosmos. Paradoxically, Manichaeism turned the strictest kind of dualism and light-darkness dichotomy ever developed in the history of religions into a positive attitude toward nature and the cosmos. It is notable in this context that the same elements, namely fire, water, and wind, occur under the reign of light as well as under the one of darkness, while only air under darkness is corrupted as smoke.

Of all the gnostic-type religions, Manichaeism emphasizes the light symbolism most. Since Manichaeism also penetrated Central Asia and even farther east, as far as China, it is not impossible that certain forms of Buddhist light symbolism were influenced by it. This must be particularly taken into consideration with certain light- and sun-related representations of the Buddha: the cosmic Buddha (Mahā-vairocana) in Vajrayana Buddhism, who is equated to the sun, and Amida (or Amitābha), the Buddha of Eternal Light in Pure Land Buddhism.

Certain aspects of Manichaeism have analogies in Christianity, but the exact nature of these analogies and of the relationship between Christianity and gnosticism in general are still a matter of scholarly controversy. Surprising analogies with the gnostic systems can also be found in the medieval Jewish Qabbalah, especially in the form that it assumed in the sixteenth century.

The Hebrew Bible begins with an account of the creation of light, followed by the creation of the sun and the celestial bodies, but it has no original light or solar mythology. In due course, however, light became a symbol of divine presence and salvation: "The Lord is my light and my salvation" (Ps. 27:1); "In thy light we shall see light" (Ps. 36:10); "Let us walk in the light of the Lord" (Isa. 2:5); sun and moon will no longer be the sources of light, for "the lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light" (Isa. 60:19). The association of light and sun is preserved in many other biblical passages, especially Malachi 4:20: "The sun of righteousness shall arise."

Early Christianity inherited both the biblical and the contemporaneous Hellenistic (philosophical as well as religious) light symbolism. Christ was the sol iustitiae (see Mal. 4:20), and hence there was nothing incongruous about celebrating the Nativity on the date of the pagan Roman festival of the "invincible sun." According to the Gospel of John (8:12), Jesus said of himself, "I am the light of the world," and his followers would possess the "light of life." Easter is therefore celebrated with fire and light rituals. In the Roman Catholic rite, the paschal candle is carried into a pitch-dark church with the thrice-repeated exclamation "Lumen Christi." In fact, the equation of God with the Absolute and the pure light essence finds expression also in the creed where the Son (Christ) is defined as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." The Logos is also described as light in the prologue to the Gospel of John. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was a typical light experience.

The Jewish Qumran community had already divided Israel into "children of light" (to be ultimately saved) and "children of darkness" (doomed to eternal damnation)a distinction that was subsequently taken over by Christianity. The Prince of Evil and Darkness, Satan, was originally an angel of light, and hence one of his names is Lucifer (Gr., Phosphoros ), literally "bearer of light." The imagery is derived from Isaiah 14:12, where the king of Babylon, who in his overweening pride fell from glory to destruction, is called the morning star who fell from heaven. But the same term (phōsphoros, "morning star") is also applied to Christ in the Second Letter of Peter. The expectation of the advent of Christ was like "a light that shineth in a dark place until the daystar arose" (2 Pet. 1:19).

Practically all religions give symbolic expressionin mythology, worship, and iconographyof their valuation of light as a symbol of blessing. Even when light and darkness are not diametrically opposed as two hostile principles but are conceived as complementary cosmic modes and creative agents (the Chinese yin and yang), there is a marked preference for light. Thus, yang is light, heaven, active, constructive, masculine, while yin is the opposite. Chinese religious history, too, has its goddesses of light as well as its sects and religious movements (including secret societies) in which light symbols play a role. There even was a women's sectofficially classified as a "heterodox sect"called the Light of the Red Lamp, which gained some notoriety through its connections with the Boxer Rebellion around 1900.

The significance of light is also illustrated by the ritual use of lamps or candles in temples, on altars, in or near tombs, near holy images, or in processions, and by the lighting of fires on special occasions. Christmas has become a festival of light; so is the Jewish anukkah, the Hindu Dīvālī, and many other rituals, festivals, and customs in both the ancient (compare, for example, the ancient Greek torch race known as Lampadedromia or Lampadephoria) and the modern world.

Light symbolism is also conspicuous in religious iconography: saints or divine figures have a halo surrounding their head or their whole body or a flame above their head. This is particularly conspicuous in Buddhist iconography, especially in its Mahāyāna forms (for example, in many maalas ). Amida is easily identifiable by the halo of "infinite" rays emanating from his head. Similarly, the Buddha Mahāvairocana (in Japan, Dainichi-nyorai), the "Great Illuminator," who radiates the most intense light, appears in many Tibetan maalas as the radiant center. For many Buddhist sects, such as the Japanese Shingon, he is the supreme reality. In Japanese Buddhist-Shintō syncretism, he was also identified with Amaterasu, the sun goddess (and chief goddess) of the Shintō pantheon. The holy city of Banaras in north India is also called Kāśī, "city of light." From the seven-armed candelabrum in the Temple in Jerusalem to the secularized ritual of a permanently burning flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the symbolism of light has shown a power and persistence unparalleled by most other symbols.

The Qurʾān, too, has its famous "light verses." In due course, a prophetic and ultimately metaphysical doctrine of light developed. With the assimilation of Neoplatonic philosophy into Islam after the ninth century, light began to be identified with the divine light principle (that is, the intellect, according to some philosophical thinkers) emanating into this world, a process corresponding to the elevation of the human soul to the divine light. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to behold the pure light and beauty of God. Light speculations can be found among orthodox Muslim theologians, mystics, and gnostics (including those that were suspected of gnosticizing heresies).

Mysticism and Esotericism

Enough has now been said to indicate the special role of ideas and experiences of light (illumination, photismos ) in mystical systems. It seems that mysticism almost automatically resorts to a terminology of light. Greek Orthodox mystical theology emphasizes the doctrine of the divine, "uncreated light" through which the mystic achieves union with God. The New Testament account of the transfiguration of Christ (Luke 9) supplied the basis for this mystical theology, and hence Mount Tabor is one of its central symbols. This doctrine, rejected as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, exhibits some interesting analogies with the qabbalistic doctrine of the sefirot. Sufism, especially its Persian branch in the fourteenth century ce, unfolded an original way of speculation about mystical significances of light and darkness in their relation to the Sufic doctrine of the oneness of existence (wahdat al-wujúd ).

While mysticism of light and illumination (cf. the technical term via illuminativa ) is a commonplace that hardly calls for a detailed accountBuddhist meditation systems also lead through innumerable light spheres and worldsthere is one noteworthy and highly paradoxical exception. That is the doctrine of mystical darkness, variants of which can be found in many religious traditions. A comparable concept becomes already apparent as the concealment of god in the Ramessid theology during the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt (thirteenth century bce). The idea can be interpreted as a mystical translation of the mythical night. It can also be equated to qabbalistic Ayin (Nothingness), and Indian, Chinese, and Japanese concepts of Shunyata (Emptiness). The Christian doctrine of mystical darkness appears first in the New Testament as Kenosis. Kenosis is mentioned in Philippians 2:6 and presumably goes back to a pre-Pauline source. It designates Christ's negation of divine power in order to take up the sufferings of humans and the whole world in his own person. The concept of mystical darkness was then taken up and elaborated in the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite (probably c. 500 ce), a pseudonymous writer whose mysticism combined Neoplatonic and Christian elements. His influence, mediated to the medieval West by John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810after 877 ce), was strongly felt in the later Middle Ages. Philo Judaeus (c. 20 bceafter 42 ce) had already declared that the divine splendor was so radiant as to be blinding. For Dionysius, God is so utterly unknowable, and his essence so utterly beyond our reach, that all our knowledge of him is perforce "negative." The experience that he expounds in his Mystical Theology is essentially an "unknowing." It is beyond human thought. It is not light but, from the point of view of human understanding, utter darkness. (This doctrine reappears in the famous fourteenth-century English mystical treatise The Cloud of Unknowing.) The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross similarly describes the path of the soul to total union with God as the ascent through two "dark nights": that of the senses (that is, loss of all discursive thought, feeling, and images) and that of the spirit. In other words, mysticism is not the enjoyment of charismatic graces, illuminations, or supernaturally infused higher knowledge. Using an Old Testament image, it is not the Pillar of Fire that went before the camp of the Children of Israel at night, but rather the Cloud of Darkness. In this tradition, we do not, however, deal with an option of darkness as opposed to light in the ordinary sense but rather with a dialectically paradoxical response to the traditional and commonplace "mysticism of light," which is here represented as totally inadequate to describe the nature of the mystical union with the utterly unknowable absolute divine transcendence. Even more thoroughly, the Persian Sufī Muhammad Gīlanī Lāhījī (died c. 1506 ce) explained the experience of divine oneness by use of a paradoxical merging of light and darkness in terms like "Black Light" (nur-e siyāh ) or "Bright Night" (shab-e rowshan ).

See Also

Dualism; Manichaeism, overview article; Moon; Mystical Union; Nimbus; Sol Invictus; Stars; Sun; Via Negativa.


Apart from the entries "Light and Darkness" by J. A. MacCulloch et al. in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1915), Gustav Mensching's, "Die Lichtsymbolik in der Religionsgeschichte," in Studium Generale 10 (1957): 422432, and "Licht und Finsternis" by K.-W. Tröger, Bernd Janowski, and Kurt Erlemann in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th ed., vol. 5 (Tübingen, 2002), there are only specialized works that deal with the topic, and mostly only with light symbolism, in a certain religious tradition or even only in a certain text. Volume 18 (1965) of the German journal Studium Generale provides a number of separate articles on light and darkness in ancient Egyptian religion, ancient Iranian traditions, Greek poetry, and alchemy.

Further single treatments are listed below:

Aalen, Sverre. Die Begriffe Licht und Finsterniss im Alten Testament im Spätjudentum and im Rabbinismus. Oslo, 1951.

Bultmann, Rudolf. "Zur Geschichte der Lichtsymbolik im Altertum." Philologus 97 (1948): 136.

Cumont, Franz. Lux perpetua (1949). New York, 1985.

Filoramo, Giovanni. Luce e gnosi. Rome, 1980.

Fröbe-Kapteyn, Olga. Alte Sonnenkulte und die Lichtsymbolik in der Gnosis und im frühen Christentum. Zurich, 1943.

Goodenough, Erwin R. By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism. New Haven, 1935.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. "The Paradox of Light and Darkness in the Garden Mysteries of Shabastarī." In Creation and the Timeless Order of Things. Essays in Islamic Mystical Philosophy, pp. 3865. Ashland, Ore., 1994.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God. Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Cambridge, 1995.

Wetter, G. P. Phos. Uppsala, 1915.

Woschitz, Karl Matthäus, Manfred Hutter, and Karl Prenner. Das Manichäische Urdrama des Lichtes. Studien zu koptischen, mitteliranischen und arabischen Texten. Wien, 1989.

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987)

Julia Iwersen (2005)