Black as a colour is gaining popularity in modern life, as all things pagan and occult are becoming increasingly trendy. More than just a passing fad however, black has a revealing deeper symbolism that reaches far back before Christian times, and this symbolism carries with it many profound lessons on life and numerous insights into the mysterious subterranean nature of the human psyche.
With the average Western psyche falling under the structural influence of over two thousand years of Christian symbolism, an over-emphasis on the masculine, solar principle of logic and rationality is now being countered with a growing penchant for the more feminine and earthy principle of the chthonic dark. This sudden bubbling up of black from the deeper layers of the psyche brings a necessary counterbalance to the one-sided “lightness” that has dominated Western consciousness for far too long.
In the predominant Christian masculine archetypes, the symbolic light principle of consciousness (God), is split-off from the symbolic chthonic/dark principle of the unconscious (The Devil). This split is further intensified in the sole Christian feminine archetype of the Virgin Mary, who possesses no dark side or chthonic counterpart whatsoever.
This split forms the basis of the average Western psychological situation, in which consciousness is split-off from the deeper unconscious, and individuals are therefore split-off from their own deep-seated instinctive life, the earthier side of human nature. Fast forward two thousand years, and this split has resulted in psyches that feel disconnected, fragmented, drained of energy, listless, lost, anxious, and depressed, to name just a few.
Hole in the Staircase Syndrome
The late Jungian analyst Marie Louise von Franz termed this psychological situation “Hole in the Staircase” syndrome — describing a staircase above-ground representing consciousness, a staircase below-ground representing the unconscious, and a giant gaping hole in between the two so they do not connect up with one another.
This hole in the staircase leads to the prevalent repression and denial of one’s inherent dark side, or worse leads to only seeing one’s rejected darkness as existing in projected form in others. One then believes to possess no darkness of one’s own, while promptly discarding all evidence in external reality that fails to match up with that temporarily comforting but ultimately restrictive delusion.
If we look at how light and dark are represented in the Taoist symbolism of Yin Yang, we see an entirely different approach, one in which these polar opposites are not split apart, but instead exist together and interpenetrate one another in a harmonious state of interdependent unity.
The Yin Yang symbol shows the importance of bringing the opposites of dark and light together within one organism, and it depicts how this integration of opposites is necessary in order to obtain psychic wholeness.
Black is associated with the yin principle in Taoism, and this black half of the Taoist symbol offers important guidance on how to achieve balance in one’s life. Some other properties of yin energy are:
Downward moving energy towards the earth
The blackness of yin illustrates the importance of incorporating times of stillness and quietude into the highly active and distraction filled environments we currently inhabit. Regular periods of introspection allow us to tune into the instinctive nature and to hear the whispering of one’s deeper intuition.
These moments of inactivity help to ground us. They also help to balance out the over dominance of the conscious mind, whose incessant chatter can drown out the quieter, guiding voice from within.
Black is also associated with the water element in Traditional Chinese Medicine. If you observe the nature of water, it simply flows around obstacles and naturally seeks the path of least resistance. Water in its essence is constantly moving, fluid, creative, and adaptable. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fear is said to be the emotion that blocks the flow of energy along the meridian pathways of the water element.
Fear to expose one’s full self can be a major block to the ability to flow creatively or to feel whole. A cultural shaming of the deeper, unconditioned aspects of the human psyche has been handed down as a psychological “hot potato” for thousands of years, freezing many individuals out from their own innate capacity for creative self-expression.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her illuminating book “Women Who Run With The Wolves,” likens a flowing river to the outpouring of one’s creative energies from the unconscious. A culture that pours psychic pollutants into the river in the form of shame or toxic judgements, just simply inhibits the natural flow of creative energy and results in a psyche that feels devoid of life and poisoned of soul.
Alchemy and The Unconscious
In alchemical symbolism, black is representative of the first stage of individual development — the blackening stage or nigredo in Latin— in which one travels into the unconscious to discover one’s psychological shadow.
The shadow is made up of all of those traits within oneself that were rejected or shamed in childhood. However the shadow also contains all of those untapped potentials within oneself, that over time and through over-adaptation, were swallowed down into the unconscious and repressed.
In this blackening stage of development, one journeys deep down into the unconscious to discover one’s shadow and to reclaim all of those rejected parts of oneself that were relegated to the dark. It is a heroic journey, often symbolised in myths by epic descents into the underworld, or in fairytales by frightening journeys into dark forests or over opaque night seas. However this expedition into the dark to recover one’s severed parts is a necessary step towards psychic wholeness.
After the heroic descent into the unconscious and the necessary search through the dark comes the triumphant ascent back up to the light, where one returns above ground with a newfound self-awareness and with the previously lost parts of oneself now intact.
Like all good deep digs into the unknown, this blackening stage can also turn up countless buried treasures and psychological gold. Paradoxically, the shadow is also the most creative part of the psyche, and creativity is what gives one life.
The Dark Feminine
Shrouded in black and tucked away in the forest, the wicked witches of fairytales are excellent examples of the dark feminine, as they embody the more earthy, chthonic qualities that are absent from the Virgin Mary.
Storybook witches exhibit behaviours that range from devouring and destructive, all the way to helpful and transformative. These feminine characters personify both terrible mother and good mother aspects, and through this merging of opposites they symbolise what is known as The Great Mother archetype.
Ancient mythological goddesses also possessed terrible and good qualities all wrapped-up into one. As Erich Neumann showed in his analysis of the myth Amor and Psyche, even Venus the goddess of love possessed a dark side. She turned into a vengeful, punishing witch when her son-lover Amor dared to fall in love with the beautiful human Psyche.
In Russian fairytales, a wise interaction with the witch — called the Baba Yaga — results in her turning helpful towards the hero or heroine. An unwise interaction with Baba Yaga results in her cursing the hero or heroine, or killing them and eating them up.
This fairytale motif provides an important clue on how to approach one’s own dark side within. Darkness that is consciously acknowledged and met shrewdly head-on can be transformed into a helpful force on the path of development. Darkness that is not known or is short-sightedly rejected can act autonomously upon one like a curse or seize one in its grasp.
Black is most obviously associated with the Grim Reaper and death. Death however is symbolically — and inextricably — linked to transformation, rebirth, and renewal of life.
Psychologically, we experience many deaths along our pathway through life. Each misfortune, disappointment, or loss we encounter can plunge us deep down into the abyss below. Intrinsic in all of these periods of pain and suffering however is the opportunity to emerge from the inferno imbued with new life.
Each symbolic death forms the basis of what is called a psychological initiation, during which the unfit ruler of the psyche — the ego — is painfully deposed. Through these brutal trials of initiation that sideline the ego, the more egalitarian higher Self can attain its rightful control.
The ancient Chinese divinatory text called the I Ching says, “one is enriched through unfortunate events.” It is paradoxically the suffering of death that tunnels us into new life. Just as a Phoenix rises from the ashes, through each death on our path we can soar up to new heights.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~Carl Jung
As our symbolic journey has revealed, wholeness requires both dark and light, and balance desires both black and white. Do not be afraid of a little blackness here and there, and do not be afraid to peer into the dark. Live a little and embrace the dark. And take the voyage down deep, you may find yourself down there.
-The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, by Marie Louise von Franz
-Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
-Amor and Psyche, by Erich Neumann
-The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, by Erich Neumann
-The Feminine in Fairytales, by Marie Louise von Franz
-I Ching or Book of Changes, The Richard Wilhelm translation