Light, particularly sunlight, is a common symbol of consciousness. Moonlight, on the other hand, might represent the unconscious, the intuitive, the feminine.
Light at the end of a dark tunnel may symbolize hope, life after death, or the meaning of (your) life.
The complex symbolism of Light, may involve an intricate combination of illumination, warmth and hope. Examining the primary source of all light, the sun, we observe the full embodiment of representational images concerning light. For example, a shimmering and warm sunrise may refer to hope promise and furthermore, a fulfillment of personal aspirations. Conversely, a hot midday sun may refer to exposure, difficult labor and a relentless psychological or emotional struggle. Lastly, the brilliant and captivating western sunset may illustrate a feeling of deep reverence, personal enlightenment and the realization of a burning persistance of faith which will remain within us, long after the sun has set, leaving a dark and unknown future to enshroud us in her mysterious folds. Light can also be blinding. In the symbolic sense, this occurs when we stare directly into the source of a guiding light, rather than the path it is fully meant to illuminate. This occurs with religious fanatics, who avoid God’s moral laws in the name of God himself. Their quest to become God-like supercedes their basic humanity. ‘Inquisitions’, ‘religious wars’ and enacting the ‘wrath of God’ are all too familiar examples of this ‘blind’ behavior. Let the light act as a guide and you will find it burning and emanating from within yourself. According to several ancient (and globally crisscrossing) teachings, we can never be blinded by the truth.
In many instances the boundaries between light as a symbol and light as a metaphor remain ill-defined. For example, it might be a matter of dispute as to whether light, ‘the ultimate aspect of matter moving at a known speed, and the light of which the mystics speak, have anything in common apart from being ideal goals and boundaries’.
Light is paired with darkness to symbolize the complementary or sequential qualities of an evolution. This law is confirmed by images from Ancient China, among those of so many civilizations. Their meaning is that, just as at all levels of human life, at every cosmic level a ‘dark’ period is followed by a ‘light’, pure, regenerate period. The symbolism of emerging from the ‘darkness’ can be found in initiation rituals as well as in the mythology of death and the life of plants (buried seed, the ‘darkness’ from which the ‘new plant’ (neophyte) arises), and in the whole concept of ‘historical’ cycles. The ‘dark age’, Kall-yuga, is to be followed, after a complete break-up of the cosmos (mahapralaya), by a new, regenerate era.
Mircea Eliade wisely concludes:
It is in this sense that we can talk of the positive value of periods of shadow, times of large-scale decadence and disintegration; they gain suprahistorical significance, though in fact it is just at such times that ‘history’ is most fully accomplished, for then the balance of things is precarious, human conditions infinitely varied, new developments are encouraged by the disintegration of the laws and of all the old framework.
Phrases such as ‘Divine Light’ or ‘Spiritual Light’ reveal the content of a wealth of Far Eastern symbolism. ‘Light’ is knowledge and the two senses of the word are to be found in the Chinese ideogram ming as well. It synthesizes sunlight and moonlight and has the meaning of ‘Enlightenment’ for Chinese Buddhists. In Islam En-NUr, Light, is basically identical with Er-Ruh, Spirit.
According to the Kabbalah, the diffusion of light (Aor) from the primordial ‘dot’ created space. This is the symbolic meaning of the words ‘Let there be light’ in the Book of Genesis, light which is also enlightenment and order out of chaos, through vibration, according to Guenon, and in this respect the physical theory of light may itself even be regarded as symbolic. According to St John (1: 9), primeval light is identical with the Word. This expresses, in some sense, ‘diffusion of spiritual sunlight which is the true heart of the world’ (Guenon). St John explains that this diffusion is apprehended by ‘every man that cometh into the world’, linking with the symbolism of light as knowledge apprehended without ‘refraction’, that is to say, by direct intuition, without any intervening distortion. This is the essential nature of enlightenment by initiation. This direct knowledge, which is sunlight, stands in contrast with moonlight which, being reflected, stands for rational and discursory knowledge.
Light follows darkness in the order of cosmic manifestation as in that of inward enlightenment. Their succession is as clearly observed by St Paul as it is by the Koran, the Rig-Veda, or by Taoist writers, or again by the Buddhist Anguttara-nikaya. It is another instance of Amaterasu coming out of the cavern. In more general terms, light and darkness constitute a universal duality expressed most clearly in that of yin and yang. It is in any case a matter of indivisible correlatives, depicted by yin-yang, in which yin contains traces of yang and vice versa. In Zoroastrianism the opposition of light to darkness is that of Ormazd to Ahriman; in the West that of angels and devils; in India that of deva and asura\ in China that of celestial and terrestrial influences. ‘The Earth appoints the darkness, and the Heavens the light’, Master Eckhart wrote. Once again in China, the conflict of chin-mi ng is to be found in the motto of secret societies. Chin (to destroy) and ming (to re-create) do not carry the sole meaning of conflict between two dynastic principles, but re-creation of enlightenment through initiation. In Ismaili esotericism, the duality is also that of body and soul, symbols of the principles of light and darkness coexisting in the same individual.
This is a symbolism which belongs to certain mystical experiences, since the beyond of light and darkness, the essence of the godhead, cannot be apprehended by human reason. This notion is as clearly expressd by some Muslim mystics as it is by St Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa - on Mount Sinai Moses entered the darkness of the godhead - or by the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
To increase the intensity of inward light, Taoists employed such different methods as the absorption of sunlight and ingestion of the light of dawn. It is a point of some interest that ultimately they conceived of the immortal body as a body composed of light.
In Celtic tradition light in its various forms is the end or the source of comparisons and flattering metaphors, with which the dictionary is especially well-supplied. Light clearly symbolizes the intermediacy of the sky-gods and Lug is called grianainech, ‘Sun-Face’. In process of time, in the Christian era, Nuada’s sword became the claidheamh soillse, ‘the Sword of Light’ of the Christian faith. All evil influences or ill omens were blamed upon darkness and night. Additionally there was a symbolic equivalence between light and the eye. Welsh poets called the sun Ilygad у dydd, ‘the eye of the day’, while the Irish phrase li sula, ‘light of the eye’, is a well-chosen metaphor drawn from the flash of sunlight. In Gaul there was a god called Mars Loucetius, a later form of Leucetius, ‘the shining one’, reminiscent of the epithet ‘Sun-Face’ applied to Lug and occasionally to Ogma. God is light.
Light manifests the forces of fertility released by the sky, just as water is often a manifestation of those same powers released by Earth. In countless central Asian myths, light ‘is conjured up either as life-giving heat or as the force which penetrates a woman’s womb’. It is a commonplace, Roux adds, that ‘throughout the world the most efficacious revelation of the godhead takes the form of light’. Both in Christian and Islamic iconography all revelations of the godhead and all appearances of sacred shapes or emblems are surrounded by haloes of pure, astral light, in which the other-world presence may be recognized.
Roux quotes in support the testimony of a Tibetan monk that ‘at the beginning of time, the ancient peoples multiplied by light emanating from the man and entering the woman’s womb to make her pregnant.’ Similarly, the symbol may be transposed to the spiritual plane, the light of grace making fruitful the heart of the individual whom God summons.
In China, a number of heroes or founders of dynasties were born after ‘their mother’s bed-chamber had been flooded with miraculous light’. Furthermore, the blue wolves, lions or horses, which figure so largely in the zoos of wonder-animals in Mongolo-Turkic legend, are no more than revelations of celestial light. The same might be said of the spiral of red copper which is twined round the Dogon solar matrix and which cuts the clouds to make the Earth bear fruit. Whether it be water or light, it is celestial semen in the sacred marriage of the elements.
If sunlight is an emanation of celestial power, human hopes and fears do not regard it as an unchanging factor. It may quite easily vanish and with it life might disappear as well. Throughout human history there are records of a host of rituals inspired by solar eclipse and of daily human sacrifices to the Sun, their blood feeding its light. Among some pre-Columbian races, such as the Aztecs or the Chibcha in Colombia, these were on a massive scale. Here Sun-worship led to the growth of what were civilizations of fear, linked to the recurrent phases of the agricultural cycle.
Although the Sun may die each night it is reborn each morning, and humanity links its fate with that of the Sun’s light and derives from it hope in the continuity and power of life, for ‘there is an essential kinship between mankind and the upper world’. Sunlight is human salvation and that is why the Ancient Egyptians sewed an amulet symbolizing the Sun to the wrappings of their mummies.
The dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, which in Christian tradition came down to Our Lady, may be regarded as a revelation of the power of light. However, light may also be revealed as the ancestress whom the male impregnates rather than as the revelation of male powers of fertilization. Thus, in a fragment of the Oghuz-name:
One day while Oghuz was offering his prayers to Tangri [the sky-god] a blue light descended from heaven. This light was brighter than that of Sun or Moon. Oghuz drew near and perceived that in the midst of this light there was a maiden ... of extraordinary beauty.... He loved her and took her.... And she bore three sons. To the first they gave the name of Sun, to the second, Moon, and to the third. Star.
The famous Emerald Table, of which the authorship is attributed either to Apollonius of Tyana or to Hermes Trismegistus and which was revered like the Tables of the Law by alchemists and esoterics for hundreds of years, conjures up the creation of the world in these words: ‘The first thing to appear was the light of the Word of God. Light bore action, action bore movement and movement bore heat.’ Jacob Boehme believed that light derived from fire, but fire ‘brings pain, while light is kindly, gentle and fruitful’ (Mysterium Magnum 5: 1).
This Divine Light, which Jacob Boehme associated with Venus, is the awakening of desire, or love fulfilled after purification by fire. The light contains the Revelation, since ‘in the light there is a good and merciful God, and in the power of the Light he calls himself over and above all else God. And moreover, this is none other than God revealed’ (ibid. 2: 10). Thus, in the mystical sense, the glorification of Light is absolute, since it becomes in itself the first revelation of the godhead, in which the perceptible quality is so strong that God reveals himself without needing to take any shape, light providing a manifestation in conflict with darkness. Light is love, since light derives from fire, just as the desire of love derives from the will of God (ibid. 2: 18). It should be remembered that in the primitive Church, baptism was called ‘Enlightenment’, as the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite bear especial witness.
The Old Testament marked itself sharply off from the religions which surrounded it by declining all theorizing on a Sun-, Moon- or star-God, the adversary of the powers of darkness. This is why Genesis 2: 3 speaks of day and light as God’s creations and very little of the celestial body which is their patent cause.
Darkness is correspondingly a symbol of evil, misfortune, punishment, damnation and death (Job 18: 6, 18; Amos 5: 18). These realities, however, do not derive from a power alien to God; since he himself created darkness, he, too, inflicts punishment. Furthermore, God’s light pierces and scatters the darkness (Isaiah 60: 1-2) and he himself calls mankind to the light (Isaiah 42: 7).
Christian symbolism merely continues along the same lines. Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8: 12; 9: 5), and those who believe in him should be so, too, (Matthew 5: 14) by becoming reflections of the light of Christ (2 Corinthians 4: 6) and conducting their lives in accordance with it (Matthew 5: 16). A way of life inspired by love is the sign that the person walks in the light (1 John 2: 8-11). Nevertheless, in some passages in the New Testament the conflict between light and darkness partakes of a more fundamental nature; it seems to have been influenced by the dualist ideas current in some late Jewish circles into which Zoroastrian ideas had been introduced.
In Ancient Egypt the god Set symbolized the terrifying and evil light from dark places, while the god Anubis symbolized the life-giving, favourable and uplifting light from which the universe arose and which conveys the soul to the Otherworld. Light symbolized the power of giving and of taking away life. Life was dependent upon light, which it received and which determined both its level and its nature.