One lightning bolt and one 65-foot sycamore tree

Light, Shadow, Darkness (1)

In an article about occult and paranormal subject matter, asking about such simple concepts like light and dark risks sliding into the territory of cliché. One of the central clichés of New Age writing is about “light,” which is rarely addressed in any other than uncritical and vague terms. Outside of mundane illumination, I imagine the most common cliché of light comes out of Near Death Experiences (NDE): “Come towards the light!” and “The light at the end of the tunnel.”

Of course, within a spiritual context, light has traditionally been the “good,” with dark being “evil.” Although often these days represented neutral in terms of gender, in earlier eras, cultures represented light as masculine to the feminine darkness. Most people acknowledge a belief that light is better: sighted people like to see. Cultures have associated light with purity, power, knowledge, vision, insight, grace, spirituality, animation and vitality (Shakespeare’s Othello speaks of extinguishing Desdemona’s “light” in 5.2), love, divine favor, truth, activity, public visibility (“bring it to the light of day”), light sources themselves (“turn on the light”), enlightenment (however you wish to define it), information, answers (especially to enigmas), fire and warmth. Heaven is bright, and angels are typically conceived of as “of light.” Quakers have spoken of “That which is called life in Christ the Word, was called light in us,” and Christian deity has his light—along with the persons who manifest that light on Earth. Many Christians have referred to religious revelation of any kind as “light.”[1] Dion Fortune founded her own Inner Light organization.[2] Naturally, binary thinking has represented darkness as the opposing Other to light.

These associations are commonplace, and some folks have problematized the simple binary associations (light is good, darkness is bad). However, I want to make the case for light’s role in the imagination (imag-ination) and art, for light’s active and reactive qualities in terms of the shared faculties of conception (conceiving of ideas and images) and perception. Towards these ends, I want to look at a few (non-comprehensive) theories on light—at least as a metaphor—and metaphysics.

Within broader theological and magical perspectives, light has tended to represent what creates reality in the first place. Jewish mysticism deploys light as a metaphor “to describe the various emanations and manifestations of the Divinity” because “everyone” knows light exists, because light is incorporeal, because light allows sight and color to occur in “actuality,” because light “delights the soul.” At the same time, intense light blinds after a point while also spreading “itself instantaneously.” Light’s immateriality becomes representative of a deity transcendent from the world of matter.[3] In a similar manner, hellenic theology also points to light as a foundation for reality and insight.

The idea recurs that light invests or transfigures matter, including bodies. After all, Aristotle frames the soul as the form of the hyle of the body. The intellectual light of humans participates in the same kind of light that deities emanate. For example, the Christian Transfiguration emphasizes this radiance: “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”[4] Along these lines, light has often had a divine or supernatural association, and many writers have connected deity to its Indo-European root dyeu-, meaning to shine, and connecting to the sky and gods.[5]

Parmenides views light and darkness as equal binaries drawn to each other in order to constitute reality. He writes of his ecstatic vision in which the “daughters of the Sun…convey [him] into the light” until he meets his goddess who tells him that light and dark exist in almost equal proportion, but even with “everything…full at once of light and dark night, both equal,” it is the mingling of light and dark that produces reality. Parmenides’s goddess views this relationship not as a corruption of some perfect light but as a sexual union producing something new: a female divinity who “rules over all painful birth and all begetting, / driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female,” with Eros (the god of love) the “First of all the gods” created.[6]

Just as light makes things visible to our eyes and we see images, so does the spiritual light connect to imagination, enchantment, and spiritual illumination. The divine emanations of the initially limitless light resolve ultimately into shapes and forms, images and ideas that give shape to things. For example, Aristotle locates form as something potential within hyle—stuff, matter. You can try to conceive of hyle as stuff without shape or form, and form, shape, and image are imposed onto hyle or crafted out of the object and into actuality, resulting in specific things. For example, Aristotle frames form (eidos, idea) as something existing in potential within substances (hyle): “In the case of a bed, the matter [hyle] was the wood, the form was the shape of the bed, the agent or efficient cause was the carpenter, and the final cause is for being slept on.” In a similar vein, Aristotle sees the human soul as “the form of a living human body,” for the “form of a thing is the actualization of a potentiality of the matter [hyle].”[7] The light of the human mind (together with artisanal skill) helps bring forth the potential image and form within material, even if that image is the life the soul desires to actualize through incarnation.

Neoplatonic theurgy recognizes and embraces this light metaphor, and writers like Proclus recognize that the transcendental light is reproduced in miniature within sapient beings. In his commentary on Plato’s Timeaus[8], Proclus frames the search for the demiurge–the Creator of the universe of forms-in-substance–in terms of light:

the light of science, intellectual energy and the intellect which is in us shine forth, placing the soul in the father as in a port, purely establishing her in demiurgic intellections, and conjoining light with light, not such as that of science, but more beautiful, more intellectual, and partaking more of the nature of The One than this. For this is the paternal port, and the discovery of the father, viz. an undefiled union with him.[9]

He also links light in its intellectual aspect in Plato to Athena as an intellectual, wisdom goddess, pointing to the “Minerval[10] fabrication in the universe,” relating to the “intellectual light of Minerva.” She represents “intellectual perception” as a divine reflection of human aspirants. Proclus observes Minerva’s weaving skill (cf. Athena and Arachne) but also associates this skill with weaving as intellectual process producing (or penetrating, as necessary) “veils,” the images over things. In this sense, Athena weaves texts, in the sense that texts reflect textus—weavings of words and ideas. She “rules over all contrariety,” resolving contradictions and ambiguities with her “intellectual and demiurgic light” and “extending intellectual light” into the world.[11] Athena is in these senses a divine analogue to the human intellectual capacity, and that Proclus, like other writers, represents that capacity in terms of light.

Next time: I continue looking into the light.

Image: One lightning bolt and one 65-foot sycamore tree by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[1] I have drawn on the OED’s entry for light here, including the 1656 reference to G. Fox’s journal (regarding Quakers). See “light, n.1,” OED Online, March 2016, Oxford University Press; and “new light, n. and adj.,” OED Online, March 2016, Oxford University Press.

[2] Cris Monnastre, introduction to the fifth edition of The Golden Dawn, 6th edition (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1989), ix.

[3] Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism: An Introduction to Kabbalistic Concepts and Doctrines (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1988), 41-3, 51.

[4] Matthew 17:2, via the New International Version.

[5]The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix,” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

[6] Parmenides, “Poem of Parmenides: On Nature,” translated by John Burnet, in Philoctetes, fragments I, IX, XII-XIII.

[7] Ibrahim Kalin, editor, “Prime Matter in Science and Philosophy,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014), 141. See also Thomas Ainsworth, “Form vs. Matter“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[8] Of course, Plato has a particular spectrum (pun intended in part) of associations for light given his famous allegory of the cave. The typical reading is that light refers to reason and knowledge for Plato.

[9] Proclus, The Commentaries of Proclus on the Timaeus of Plato, in Five Books; Containing a Treasury of Pythagoric and Platonic Physiology, translated by Thomas Taylor, vol. 1, (London, 1820), 254.

[10] Taylor’s translation opts for Minerva rather than Athena, and while the Roman cult of Minerva has its distinctions from earlier cults of Athena, I treat them equivalently here, preferring Athena myself.

[11] Proclus, 113, 140-4.

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