Light and Myth

Light as a symbol of mythic power

Hammurabi receives the Code of Laws from the Sun God

Light is perfect as a symbol of both worldly and transcendent power because of its nature as a force that is manifest in earthly life every day, which emanates as if by magic from the cosmos above; inspires growth and heat in its solar aspect; creates cycles according to the lunar calendar; and inspires philosophical, religious and poetic speculation in its stellar guise at night.

In physical terms it is not completely definable, leaving a mystical association open beyond scientific knowledge. Does light consist of a stream of particles or a wave of electromagnetic radiation? We are not entirely sure; the best answer would seem to be both, or either, depending on what we are looking for.

What we do know is that light is nearly always equated with something positive, whether it signifies life, goodness or consciousness, justice or truth or order, abundance or moral or aesthetic beauty. And we also know that where there is a positive, there is often a negative against which it is defined. The darkness that takes up this pole in the classic dualism is easily defined for its equal and opposite qualities to light: it represents death, ignorance, falsehood, chaos, confusion, evil and the unknown. A quick summary of the ancient and enduring duality is: the masculine action of order/light/mind/heaven over the feminine passivity of chaos/darkness/body/earth.

This duality is not a necessary part of the way we imagine light and darkness to operate. When we hold ideas about the home of light at a distance from the lived realities of the earth, we help perpetuate an ecologically damaging dualism. In order for humanity to treat its planet with the respect it deserves, we need to feel fully at home here, not as if we exist somehow in a safe bubble above it or as if we are really supposed to be somewhere else and are merely here because we are in exile from our true home in some abstract heaven elsewhere.

While i am always keen to uncover more ways in which this relationship has been imagined in the west as complementary, it also useful to consider a tradition with a radically different cultural and technological history to that of the west. By way of comparison, i introduce here a cosmology from Aboriginal Australia. For the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, light is not divorced from earthly concerns and identification; it emerges with life here and sings reality into being. A recent animation of one of the Yanyuwa kujika, or ‘songlines,’ shows mystical lights leading the song of the land along the important parts of its story. This song is followed and sung by the people, who thereby magnify the vitality already present in the land (or country) into a kind of culturally appreciable ‘supervitality.’ The anthropologist whose work i have used in this respect is a colleague at Monash University by the name of John Bradley and i will hopefully be able to publish hyperlinks to some of his work in the near future. Meanwhile i have provided a precis of the ideas of his and the Yanyuwa’s that are especially pertinent to this study, on my page on Australian Aboriginal light.

Some of my other pages and posts will outline the basic threads i have discovered in the story of the way the figure f light has been and still is mythologised in the west and in other cultures. Enjoy the ride and let me know what you think. Constructive criticisms and suggestions are always welcome, and you can subscribe to my occasional blog, which is designed to update information according to analysis of case studies such as can be found in current literary publications, films, advertising, the profligate burning up of fuel in our cities of light in the night and whatever else turns up that speaks of this tale and its ongoing fascination for the human animal on earth.


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