“Darkness Leaping Out of Light”: The Summer Solstice from a different angle

“Darkness Leaping Out of Light”: The Summer Solstice from a different angle June 17, 2014

“Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!”

— Moby Dick, Herman Melville

The Summer Solstice occurs on June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere this year.  It is the longest day of the year and the shortest night.  Summer finally begins here in the Midwest, both meteorologically — with the warming of the air and the increasing occurrence of sunny days —  and socially — with the end of the school year.  (Which is why I don’t call the day “Midsummer” — “Midsummer”, for me, falls after Lughnasadh in early August.)  The summer solstice is the twin to the winter solstice which falls around December 21.  The day is called “Litha” by many Pagans.  “Litha” is the name given to the summer inter-calendary period by the Anglo-Saxons, just as “Yule” is the name they gave to the winter inter-calendary period — which is where we get the name Yule for the Christmas-tide.

I’ve got a somewhat different take on the Summer Solstice than many other Pagans.  Many Pagans celebrate the summer solstice by honoring the light.  That’s natural enough.  It’s summer after all.  What’s more natural than to celebrate the light in the summer?  Often summer solstice rituals are performed at high noon (much to the chagrin of those standing under the sweltering sun in ceremonial robes) — just as some winter solstice rituals are performed at midnight.  But for me, the summer solstice is as much, if not more, about the darkness than the light.  The summer solstice is the longest day, but it is also the day when the days begin to grow shorter again and we anticipate the decline of the year.  It has always seemed odd to me that we Pagans should celebrate the light at the winter solstice and again at the summer solstice.

"Virgin and Child", William Bouguereau (inverted)
“Virgin and Child” by William Adolphe Bouguereau (inverted)

Neo-Paganism, as I understand it, is all about balance.  It is about bringing opposites together into harmony.  At the winter solstice, we celebrated the birth of the Sun Child from his mother, the Goddess, Mother Night.  (This Neo-Pagan myth is mirrored somewhat in the Christian Nativity.)  And if we celebrated the birth of the Sun Child on the longest night, what else would be celebrate on the longest day but the birth of the Dark Child from his mother, the Goddess of the Sun?

The myth of the birth of the Dark Child is a wholly new myth, invented for Neo-Pagans.  In some ancient pagan traditions, the Sun is a male God, but in others she is a Goddess.  For example, the ancient Japanese worshiped a goddess of the Sun called Amaterasu.  And the Egyptians worshipped a sun goddess, Sekhmet, who had the head of a lion.  But in neither of these cases did the Goddess have a son — at least not that I am aware of.   In spite of its absence of (paleo)-pagan antecedents, I think the myth of the Dark Child fits perfectly with the Neo-Pagan mythos and the Wheel of the Year.

The Dark Child is born at Litha and will eventually grow up to be what Neo-Pagans call the Holly King, the King of Winter.  He will battle the Oak King, the King of Summer, who was born on the opposite point on the Wheel of the Year, at Yule.  In the Neo-Pagan myth the Sun Child and the Dark Child are twin brothers — not identical twins, but mirror twins.  The story I tell my children is that the Dark Child was born out of the shadows that are cast by the summer solstice fires (“darkness leaping out of light”) — fires which both represent the consummation of the love of the Goddess and her Consort and presage the impending immolation of the Consort in August.

This Neo-Pagan myth is reflected in the Celtic myth of two kings, Gwyn and Gwythr, the white son of the night and the dark son of the day who  battle for the love of a maiden, representing the Neo-Pagan Goddess.  The myth of the Dark Child is also reflected in the Egyptian myths about Set, who burst from his mother’s side prematurely, grew to be his brother’s slayer, and is ultimately slain in turn by his brother’s son.  It is reflected in the Norse myths about Loki, who orchestrates the death of the Norse sun god, Balder, and sets into motion Ragnarok, the doom of the gods.  And it is reflected in the Arthurian legends about Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son who takes his fathers throne (and his wife) while Arthur is away, after which the two slay each other.

The Dark Child represents, for me, the seed of destruction at the heart of all endeavor — in Hegelian terms, the antithesis to every thesis, which leads eventually to a new synthesis.  He is present in all our deeds, all our thoughts, all our desires, all our dreams.  But the Dark Child is not evil or bad.  Just as the light half is not good, per se.  They are both part of a whole, and it is the the whole that is good.

The Christian myth contains these anti-theses in form of Christ and Satan (or the Anti-Christ).  Carl Jung theorized that the Christ figure represents the self, while the Satan or the Anti-Christ represents the Shadow — that part of ourselves that we repress and refuse to recognize:

“If we see the traditional figure of Christ as a parallel to the psychic manifestation of the self, then the Antichrist would correspond to the shadow of the self, namely the dark half of the human totality, which ought not to be judged too optimistically. So far as we can judge from experience, light and shadow are so evenly distributed in man’s nature that his psychic totality appears, to say the least of it, in a somewhat murky light. … In the empirical self, light and shadow form a paradoxical unity. In the Christian concept, on the other hand, the archetype is hopelessly split into two irreconcilable halves, leading ultimately to a metaphysical dualism—the final separation of the kingdom of heaven from the fiery world of the damned.”

Jung explains that, prior to the Manichaean influence upon Christianity, Clement taught that God ruled the world with his right and his left hand, the right being his son Christ and the left being his other son Satan — the two providing a kind of balance in the “paradoxical unity” that is God.  Later, however, Christianity became dualistic, splitting off one half of these complementary opposites, personified in the irreconcilable figure of Satan (and thereby creating the “awkward” problem of theodicy).  According to Jung, Satan is a necessary psychological response to the pathologically one-sided nature of Christ:

“Psychologically the case is clear, since the dogmatic figure of Christ is so sublime and spotless that everything else turns dark beside it. It is, in fact, so one-sidedly perfect that it demands a psychic complement to restore the balance. This inevitable opposition led very early to the doctrine of the two sons of God, of whom the elder was called Satanael.  The coming of the Antichrist is not just a prophetic prediction— it is an inexorable psychological law … every intensified differentiation of the Christ-image brings about a corresponding accentuation of its unconscious complement, thereby increasing the tension between above and below.”

The Wheel of the Year and Yin-Yang

In Neo-Paganism, these previously irreconcilable images are brought together again and reconciled in the gestalt of the Wheel of the Year, in which these two archetypes are held in a dynamic and creative tension.  We might visualize the relationship of the Sun Child and the Dark Child as the Chinese symbol of the yin-yang.  To a Neo-Pagan, the light spot on the dark field may represent the Sun Child born from the womb of the Goddess of Night at the winter solstice.  And the dark spot in the light field may represent the Child of Darkness born from the Goddess of Day at the summer solstice.  The two are balance and unified in the movement of the Wheel.

For me, then, the summer solstice is not about the light, but reclaiming the dark.  In the words of Starhawk:

“… we begin by making new metaphors.  Without negating the lght, we reclaim the dark: the fertile earth where the hidden seed lies unfolding, the unseen power that rises within us, the dark of sacred human flesh, the depths of the ocean, the night — when our senses quicken; we reclaim all the lost parts of ourselves we have shoved down into the dark.  Instead of enlightenment, we begin to speak of deepening …”

— Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark


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  • yewtree

    Hi John – great concept. It reminds me of Fierifiz in alchemical legends (but sadly, I can’t find a reference online for this).

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      If I remember correctly, Feirfeiz was the bi-colored brother of Parzival in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version of the grail story…

      • That one’s new to me. I’ve read about sir Balin and sir Balan, brothers who slay each other …

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          In Wolfram’s story, they do fight, but then they realize they’re related, and make up, and then go on to find the grail. (Though Feirfeiz, who is a Muslim, must first convert.) Incidentally, Wolfram’s Parzival was Joseph Campbell’s favorite medieval tale, and he has a whole lecture/chapter on it in Transformations of Myth Through Time, if you’re interested.

          • yewtree

            that’s the one – perhaps the fact that I was spelling it wrong was why I couldn’t find anything online. Thanks 🙂

  • Well articulated as always. Although I don’t subscribe to a Neo-Pagan-type mythology of the Holly and Oak King variety, I definitely acknowledge the dark at the Summer Solstice. The image of the Dark Child is wonderful, but probably not very relevant to me as I don’t really celebrate the birth of a Sun Child either! But reclaiming the dark – absolutely. It is my most potent time of year and a highly potent spiritual concept for me.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    A couple of things, John:

    1) Amaterasu-Omikami is still worshipped by all Shinto practitioners, and her shrine at Ise was just recently re-made (it is completely rebuilt every 20 years). She did have a son, Ame-no-Oshihomimi-no-Mikoto, whose eventual descendants were all of the Emperors of Japan.
    2) Sekhmet had at least one child, the main one usually attested being Nefertem (who is associated with the blue lotus flower), who together with her husband Ptah formed the Memphite Triad. Sometimes, her son is said to be Maahes, who was lion-headed, and may or may not have been another form of Nefertem.
    3) And just as a clarification, Gwyn and Gwythr are not “Celtic,” they’re very specifically Welsh (not everything that is Welsh is automatically Celtic, and the same goes for Irish, etc.). Interestingly, Welsh has another seasonal battle story, in a very short account of Tristan’s struggle with his uncle Mark over Isolde.
    Apart from that, it’s an interesting set of reflections, and a really important thing to think about–there is a bit too much emphasis on “the light” in a great deal of neopaganism, and this situation and the general lack of attention to it highlights that.

    • Thanks! I should have remembered about the Japanese emperors, but the son of Sekhmet is a new one to me.

      Re Celtic, can you elaborate a bit on the distinction?

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Sure: so, just like Romance languages, Celtic is a term for a cultural-linguistic grouping. Sure, France and Spain and Italy and Romania all have roots in and connections to the Latin language and Roman culture, but each is distinct as well (e.g. Romanian is pretty much Latin + Slavic; French is Latin + Gaulish + Germanic; etc.), so that if one was talking about, say, St. Denis in medieval French culture, one wouldn’t ever say “the Latin tradition of St. Denis,” and certainly not “the Romance tradition of St. Denis.” It’s the same with Celtic cultures: each one is distinct, and what is found in Irish, for example, may not be found in any or all of the other Celtic cultures, thus speaking about something that is Irish or Welsh or Breton or Gaulish or Galatian, etc., which doesn’t have pan-Celtic, or even simply multi-Celtic, cognates is pretty inaccurate. I know this is a larger issue than just one particular to your post here, and it’s especially pervasive amongst modern Pagans, but it’s something to be aware of in the future.

        Just to give you an idea about one word between Irish and Welsh, which is an exact linguistic cognate, but which has very different and separate contextual meanings. In Irish, one of the (many!) words for “wolf” is fáelchú, which is literally “wolf-dog/howling-dog.” There is an exact cognate for this in Welsh, with the laws of sound change perfectly illustrated between them. That word is gweilgi, and it doesn’t mean “wolf” at all, it’s actually the most common medieval Welsh term for “sea.” While there is a distant way in which wolves and the sea are connected in the likely pro to-culture of Insular Celtic, nonetheless these developments are quite specific within each culture.

        The same is true of the Irish holy days that give four of the eight names for the Wheel of the Year: outside of Irish, they’re not definitely attested, nor celebrated similarly (except for Scottish Gaelic, and even there, not all of them are quite the same–e.g. it’s not usually called Lugnasad there, but instead Iuchar, etc.).

        And, on Nefertem, I can recommend no source better than this, for starters:


  • Kenneth Apple

    We did the story of the Binding of the Fenris Wolf for our celebration Wednesday, for though the winter is bound, it is inevitable that it will escape it’s bonds, and the summer is bought at the cost of Tyr’s good right arm. The kids all stood to stand in for Tyr when I called, in the wolf’s voice, for any who would put their hand in the wolf’s mouth. The Norse are great for finding the darkness within the light and vice versa.

  • Melissa Harrington

    This is brilliant. putting all Pagan theology aside I have just lost my father, born 29th June, who my sagittarian brother and I (me 18th December) sometimes joked was the Dark Lord incarnate, my world renowned enochian/Wiccan husband is but an Andrex puppy in comparison, though my dad had no time for esoterica at all ( apart from putting a farmers coat on over his morning suit at our wedding and getting a crook out to “herd the nudes” to the buses he had organised to Castlerigg stone circle for our handfasting). Our worlds were so far apart we found it difficult to see through each others eyes but at the centre there as love. We loved but fought. Its a mythos of complexity and completion that has popped up from nowhere just as I organise his funeral for the day after his birthday, and gives me some hope and healing at this time. Thank you.This is what such a child can be and do http://www.nwemail.co.uk/sport/cartmel-s-guinness-drinking-grand-national-horse-1.825138