Exploring the darkness as healthy animism

In pagan circles

we talk a lot about how contemporary Northern culture doesn’t hibernate for winter. The lack of restorative rest contributes to our already stressed lives, leaving us spent from the holidays, and most definitely not replenished for spring. 

In the latest cast for The Weekly Rune I discuss how that state is merely a contemporary manifestation of seasonal stress.

That winter is stressful is an old truth. Indeed many of us don’t have to fend off harsh severe winter with threat of limited resources or quality shelter in the way that our ancestors did. It’s also likely that we still carry coded vestiges of that distress as compact intergenerational trauma, which might show up in our unconscious periphery. However another aspect of ancient stress that we actively experience, feel, and unconsciously act out is lack of skills for coping with darkness — emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. For over 70,000 years humans thrived as animists, which means not only were we soulfully in sync with the world around us, but we were seasonally astute to how to take care of ourselves in the flow of Nature because of it.[1] We would have known that the activity of the growing season would eventually give way to passive pursuits that kept us more indoors, secluded, and most likely contemplative. Were we happy about that fact? Probably not, but we had the skills to handle it.

The onslaught of colonization and usurping of rites by the church, along with forced removal from ancestral lands led to the disruption of our rituals — thus boundaries and skills — that kept us in season with the elements, and with our internal processes.

A significant behavioural result of colonization was the inability to cope with what darkness brings up in our lives, a skill set we lack even today, and perhaps most pointedly as we enter winter.

We have internalized that loss of coping skills across religions. The bulk of our modern religious rituals for this season revolve around light returning. That emphasis instills hope and gives us confidence through Winter Solstice that light is coming. However, we’ve rested in that hopefulness as an elected way to bypass developing skills to cope with darkness. Through its own messianic symbolism, even pagan culture emphasizes returning sunlight rather than sitting with darkness. We defer to forthcoming light to do our emotional and psychological heavy lifting for us. Such bypassing affirms the psychological imperative to always look ahead. Humans are very unskilled at sitting with now and processing what’s in the present. That lack of mindfulness, of internal animism, is the heart of ancient seasonal distress.We can’t know for certain how our ancestors would have made use of The Dark Time. Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to imagine that they knew The Dark Time is Nature’s way of having us be still and deal with our shit. In the Northern Tradition, we have Jera as the rune of Winter Solstice, the rune of inventory, of tending hearth and harvest. Applying that mindset to this being a time of year to tend our internal affairs, our internal harvest of how we’ve grown in this solar return, is a rational leap.

Shadow and Darkness

In the modern era, we’ve turned that seasonal rejection of darkness inward. We’ve internalized that ancient state of constant light chasing as the endless quest to become better souls. We’ve created a culture based in constant pushing to expand, enlighten, and grow.  These are all “light” qualities that have been touted by the New Age as hallmarks of an evolved being. Through that state we’ve learned to demonize anything that isn’t love and light, including aspects of ourselves. When we eschew internal Shadow and darkness, we further deny the skills to reconcile them. We don’t gain these aspects as allies, thus we don’t learn to hold the full seasons of ourselves. Internal mirrors external.

Yet sooner or later, we must do that work. In order to elder well, die well, and ancestor well, it is required. When we don’t take the time we need at a psychological, emotional, physical level to process our soul work, we’re avoiding Shadow. As a result, we end up in what’s known as spiritual emergency. We arrive in a place where our emotional skill set can’t keep up with our spiritual shifts. The result of that imbalance is acute crisis, and quite often inability to sustain the soul growth. Without that skill set, we slide back into our former state of distress convinced the work didn’t… work, ignorant that emotional literacy is missing.

I contend that this season of darkness is the natural time to process events of the year, especially our soul growth. It’s why we need to revive and maintain a tradition of hibernating and reclaiming our animistic legacy of connection to season. Taking the winter season to reconcile our soul work of the year is living the metaphor of finding the light within.

It is the time of sustaining ourselves and applying skills we’ve learned through spiritual work the rest of the year, so that we can process it into internalized, full, embodied being. This process is what replenishes us and readies us for spring, as well as ensures we have a foundation for coping with what the year brings. It also increases the chances that we will instill rituals for our descendants to manage darkness better.

Engaging the Soul of Darkness

Most of us don’t do well with beginning new rituals under duress. Meaning, when in the dark isn’t the best time to begin learning how to cope with it. Ideally we cultivate coping skills continually, so that when in darkness we already have a baseline of grounding to stand on.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do to improve our skills while under duress. No matter when we begin, I always tell my students and mentees to start small. Making broad sweeping change or several changes- especially when stressed — is more likely to fail. Make one small change, and in the context of processing the dark and animism, I urge that change to be finding the personal, direct relationship in mundane things.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘chop wood, carry water,’ when it comes to differentiating spiritual passion from the mundane. I teach that we don’t need to differentiate the two. In fact, differentiating them is why we’re not an animistic culture, and why our coping skills need buffing up for The Dark Time.

We can be mindful animists in the dark. We can cultivate healthy boundaries in awareness of direct relationship to the spirit networks around us and still be proficient, productive humans, who tend their darkness well. One of the best ways to do that is to find the sacred in rituals we do every day. Start with what we know, to minimize stress and maximize the likelihood of actually doing sacred rituals. Suggestions I give students are:

  • Make meals sacred. Many of us think we do this already by expressing gratitude. However, when we intentionally connect with the awareness that the food is still alive, as are the plates, the table, aspects of ourselves who may have different relationships to each of those things than our conscious awareness… Bringing our full awareness to our meal is an easy daily animistic ritual. When we do, how does relationship to nourishment change?
  • Make brushing our teeth sacred. This one always gets laughter. Similar to meals, engage the life force of toothpaste, of the sink. How many elements are involved in the ritual of brushing teeth? How does the experience of those elements change when engaged with them?
  • Make sacred any task within daily ability. Whether it’s walking to the mailbox, bringing in the groceries, or brushing hair, realize that every mundane task has the capacity to be a sacred, thus, animistic act. In this way, we’re not only reclaiming awareness of the sacred within and among all the time, you are healing generations of ancestors who were not permitted that freedom.

Sacred Darkness

What does brushing teeth with awareness have to do with processing our shit in The Dark Time? It makes us ready. It gives us a basis to engage bigger, deeper ritual to reconcile and maintain health at all levels, and reignites the passion and conviction to make and hold space for winter hibernation.

Small gestures snowball into big ones that evoke change and sustain direct relationship, I promise. And every small thing we do heals entire lines, leaving our descendants free to focus on the needs of their time, and with skills in The Dark Time to do so.

Small animism is big activism.


[1] Hughes, Bettany, “How Christians Destroyed the Ancient World,” The New York Times. 2019.


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S. Kelley Harrell, M. Div.

I’m an animist, author, deathwalker and death doula. For the last 25+ years, through Soul Intent Arts I’ve helped others to ethically build thriving spiritual paths as fit, embodied elders, who upon death become wise, capable Ancestors. My work is Nature-based, and focuses soul tending through the Elder Futhark runes, animism, ancestral healing, and deathwork. I’m author of Runic Book of Days, and I host the podcast, What in the Wyrd. I also write The Weekly Rune as a celebration of the Elder Futhark in season. Full bio.

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