By John J. Coughlin
I am often asked what I mean by “Dark Paganism” and usually have a different answer depending on the context of the question. In my book, Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick, instead of defining it directly, I explore the various aspects of darkness and how it applies to Paganism and even spirituality in general. I did this intentionally, but the average visitor to darkpagan.com would probably appreciate a more direct and formal elaboration.
In contemplating the many forms of Dark Paganism, I can safely say that it is one (or more likely a combination) of the following definitions depending on the individual. The idea of Dark Paganism having personal meaning is very important and will make more sense at the end of this essay.
1) Dark Paganism is a movement within modern Paganism to reclaim the dark portion of the light-dark polarity that has been denied or ignored by those who have confused this polarity with the ethical dualism of the Judeo-Christian culture. Darkness is not the same as evil. This confusion has been caused by the increase in popularity of Pagan religions, particularly Wicca, and a lack of formal training and proper initiation. (By initiation I refer to the internal process that both a solitary or member of a group experiences and not the initiatory rite itself which merely acknowledges the event.) Without such an initiation the practitioner remains trapped in the dualistic mindset of his or her religion of birth and misinterprets the concepts of polarity found in Paganism. Such reclaiming of darkness includes the acceptance of our shadow – the (usually) negative aspects of ourselves we refuse (often unconsciously) to accept as being an aspect of us. Such Dark Pagans challenge contemporary thought to ensure that one’s beliefs hold true to themselves and are not simply the result of repression or conditioning. It is important to be challenged since it allows us to think and reflect on what we believe and helps strengthen our true beliefs in the process.
2) Dark Paganism is the incorporation of dark imagery, such as gothic imagery, that tends to have a death-related theme. Such Dark Pagans are not obsessed with death but rather fascinated by, and drawn to, its archetypal symbolism. Through dark imagery the individual is made more aware of themselves and of the sacredness of life, as well as the importance to live life to the fullest while always remaining true to who we are. Focus is on self exploration, empowerment, and expression.
3) Dark Paganism is a form of Paganism which honors or identifies with deities of a darker nature. Such deities are often associated with death, war, magic, or other raw and untamable forces which many modern Pagans fear or even consider taboo. Dark deities would include Kali, Hades, Set, Loki, and Hekate (particularly in her Crone aspect).
4) Dark Paganism is a form of Paganism that is attuned with the internal or “dark” school or approach to spirituality often considered a Left Hand Path. As explained in Out of the Shadows: An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick, spirituality can be approached in one of two ways: internally or externally. The internal approach has an emphasis on the Self. Concepts of deity and ethics are less of a focus or are based on personal perception and experience. This is the general approach of a Left Hand Path. The external approach works within a set framework. Deity is defined, religious practices are more structured, and ethics are decreed by an external authority figure and usually very specific in detailing appropriate behavior. This is the general approach of a Right Hand Path. Both approaches have their place; some work better in a rigid and structured approach while others work better in a highly personal experience. Dark Paganism in this respect merely delineates those Pagans who operate within an internal approach from those of an external approach since there are some inherent differences in how they operate. A spiritual path following an internal approach encourages one to explore those aspects society or culture may label as taboo so that we can come to our own conclusion. By doing this, Dark Pagans free themselves of the social conditioning that often suffocates self expression and individuation as they strive to become more whole. Thus Dark Paganism may be defined as any form of Paganism which is practiced from within the perspective of a Left Hand Path.
All of the above definitions help explain what Dark Paganism is by touching upon the nature of how it is approached. These definitions tend to merge into each other and while some Dark Pagans may operate under all of these definitions, others may just fall under one. As with darkness itself, Dark Paganism cannot easily be defined. This is because darkness is by nature linked to our unconscious and thus is very personal. It is the nature of darkness to always remain elusive to strict delineation. The more one attempts to define it, the further one gets from it. Like the Tao of Taoist thought, darkness must be experienced to be understood. It must be embraced and incorporated into one’s being to be appreciated. Attempting to “shine the light of reason” onto it only removes us from it.