In the northern hemisphere, as we step into winter, the north on the medicine wheel, we have stepped into the embrace of the Dark Feminine. What is this power, and how can we work with it? I hope this article helps you grasp what is happening in our world right now from a mythic angle, and I offer some practices that may help.
The Celtic tradition has many instances of a young man encountering a repulsive, hideously ugly old hag who offers him some kind of power – often, water from a well – if only he will kiss her. Most of the men who meet her refuse in disgust, but the one who will become king embraces her deeply. The Celtic hag is the archetypal Dark Feminine, the initiator of the masculine into its mature depths.
Many of the patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) meet their wives at a well as the woman draws water up. The motif signals that these are the men who will lead. While the women characters are not the “loathly hag” archetype, they carry the same initiating power.
It’s important to point out that, while these stories seem to focus on human men, we will get ourselves tied in patriarchal knots if we don’t remember that we all have masculine and feminine inside us – the stories are not always about gender.
The Dark Feminine comes to initiate the masculine into its own darkness – refining and fermenting the light, youthful masculine into its depths. In the Celtic world, the men who refuse to kiss the hag are either left behind never to be heard from, or they are sent on a journey to suffer in their arrogance until they have a breakthrough.
“Beauty and the Beast” is an example: The arrogant prince is offered initiation by the old hag at his door. She appears in a rainstorm, holding a rose, asking for his hospitality. He refuses, slams the door, and she changes him into a hideous beast. He ultimately receives the same initiation – expansion out of self-centeredness and into the power of love and compassion – he just must take the long road through suffering.
This is the world we are living in. The “shift in consciousness” that so many of us are talking about is an initiation of the light masculine being facilitated by the Dark Feminine. She’s at the door with the rose of expanded love, asking to be let in.
In a way, I’m describing here a reversal of our common ideas of light and dark, whose roots are in Plato (400 B.C.E.) and Neoplatonism (300 C.E.). In that philosophy, we transcend out of the dark (chaos) and into the salvation of the light (wisdom, unity with the divine.) Neoplatonism was a major influence on Christianity and on New Age thought, but not necessarily on shamanism.
In Neoplatonism there is a not-so-subtle valuing of the direction “up” and a distaste for the direction “down.” This is why statues of Plato nearly always have him pointing up with his index finger, echoed by later images of Jesus in the same pose. In that system, up is masculine, rational, holy, God and perfect. Down is feminine, dreamy, messy, corrupted by animal instincts.
The Dark and Light I’m talking about here are energies present in nature, and transcending or ascension don’t apply. The point is to work with all of the energies, banish none, integrate all.
The western mind is lodged in the light masculine – the energy of the teenage boy. There is exuberance and great energy there, but, as yet, little wisdom. In its simplest expression,” light” equals “youthful, naïve, joyfully self-centered” and dark equals “refined, fermented, nuanced, with a larger vision.” Light and dark energies are not better or worse than each other, and we need a balance of them in us.
Daily life for the light masculine is mostly a sustained competition for dominance. The goals are very short term. We’ve been in the grip of the light masculine for several thousand years. It’s difficult to not be angered at what the unrestrained light masculine has done to our world, and it’s tempting to hate men, hate the patriarchy and lay blame there.
But we can also try this to reframe that anger: Spirit is all about curiosity and exploration. It wondered what it would be like on this planet to let the light masculine have full reign, untethered, untempered by the feminine. It’s found out the results of this experiment and is now ready to initiate the masculine into its darkness, into its wisdom. This is where we are.
In the ideal, the path of human life is one of continued darkening – being refined by life, expanded in our vision, fermenting from simple, sweet juice into nuanced, full-bodied wine. The process of darkening is one of learning, through experience, to marry grief with praise, gratitude with fear, joy with sorrow.
In the Celtic tradition, this is all work with the cauldron in the heart center – the Coire Ernmae, the cauldron of “vocation.” It is our work in this world to cook joy and sorrow into one soup, rather than seeking to summon joy but banish sorrow, as we have so often been instructed to do in the light masculine word.
Most spiritual paths have Dark Feminine deities and characters that are there to help us in our darkening. A few examples are Lilith and Mary Magdalene in the west, Kali and Durga in India, the Aztec goddesses Coatlicue (“Serpent Skirt”) and Coyoxauhqui (Golden Bells). In the Celtic world, the Irish Cailleach, the Welsh Cerridwen, the “Loathly Hag,” and the Russian Baba Yaga are a few Dark Feminine presences.
How do we welcome the Hag in to work with us? Something to remember: we work with her consciously through spiritual practice, inner work, and wisdom work, or we work with her unconsciously through disaster and suffering.
One practice is from the Buddhist world: the practice of Tonglen. Let’s say you feel resentful of the nincompoops, naysayers and prevaricators in power. Breathe in that resentment, and let it fill you, let yourself feel it. Then on the out-breath, send compassionate prayers to the people you resent, wishing that they be relieved of their suffering, that they become wise. It’s important to avoid arrogance here, assuming that I am the wise one and they are the lesser ones. A more shamanic approach might be to use the out breath to invite the Dark Feminine into the world, asking her to expand wisdom in all of us.
Another good idea comes, perhaps strangely, from Jesus. Not the Jesus in the official scriptures, but the one from the gnostic “Gospel of Thomas.” His disciples ask him what they need to do to be in alignment with the divine. Fast? Give alms? Make the correct prayers? Jesus answers, “Do not tell lies and do not do what you hate.”
That is the amazing, radical Jesus that people originally fell in love with. If we lived those two practices, our lives would transform.
The Dark Feminine facilitates our initiation with two main powers. One is dismemberment. This is the power of deconstruction, of “releasing what no longer serves.” The second is digestion. This is running energy through a system, separating the nutrients from the waste. I look around the world now and see the Hag fully at work.
A side note that I can’t resist. The digestion element is why I see my backyard compost bin as a shrine to the Dark Feminine. Whenever I toss the kitchen scraps in, I make it an offering to the Hag of transformation and ask her to continue to work on me.
A great story to help you in all of this is Snow White. Forget about the Disney version. Read the original Grimms version because it’s more visceral and disturbing. In the original, Snow White keeps refusing the advice of the dwarves not to let anyone into the house. (The dwarves are dark masculine powers – working inside the earth, mining minerals, a form of digestion.) She keeps letting the evil queen into the house because the queen offers her beautiful (but poisoned) objects. The dwarves return and move the energies through her. Finally, the queen gives her the poisoned apple. Snow White chokes on it and falls into an initiatory coma. She wakes up not because the prince kisses her, (that is the light masculine’s version of the story) but because his men carrying her coffin stumble on a root poking up and drop the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple she has been digesting in her fifth chakra, and she wakes up a queen. Here is a link to the story: https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html
And here is a great podcast I recommend after reading the original Snow White story: “This Jungian Life Podcast”: A podcast from three Jungian therapists, this episode unravels the story of Snow White and female initiation. https://thisjungianlife.com/episode-144-fierce-female…/
One of my teachers says that our world will be totally different by 2050. That sounds very hopeful. But it took 1,000 years after Padmasambhava “tamed the spirits and demons of Tibet” for the warlords of the time to incrementally surrender their grip on dominance, open their vision, and allow Tibet to become a peaceful culture.
Whether we are in the final 30 years of this initiation, or we have centuries to go still, all each of us can do is work to be darkened, bit by bit, lifetime by lifetime, through the grace and fierceness of the Dark Feminine.
Many blessings on you, and many blessings on all of us, wherever we are on the path of darkening.
A personal addendum: This piece has taken me several days to write. I’ve spent time by my compost bin asking for guidance, and it has given me plenty. Late last night I went out to it with a bowl full of icky stuff from the refrigerator. It was dark out, and I was in a little bit of a hurry. I poured the stuff in, and suddenly a racoon leapt up from the inside of the bin. She raised up on her back legs and hissed at me, terrifying the living bejabbers out of me – I yelped and stumbled backward. I’ve lived in this house for 15 years and have never seen a raccoon at the compost, although it makes perfect sense. I took it all as the Dark Feminine making a dramatic appearance.