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penumbra

paene (almost) + umbra (shadow)

The penumbra is the liminal space in between light and darkness: a ground for creation,
intimacy, reflection. This is an ongoing project exploring the origin of all things numinous.

— Last updated: February 2022

Genesis

The spark of the light of consciousness is what turned us human — it is what made our perception of the world become what it is. This first spark in the midst of darkness was the first step in the creation of material reality according to many tales of cosmogony, and it can even be translated into the theory of the Big Bang. In many traditions, it is brought up how a liquid and chaotic darkness precedes the appearance of life (light) and order [Figs. 1-4]. For instance, this motif appears in the Egyptian creation myth and the Winnebago and Maidu origin myths. It also reminds us of the hypothesis of the primordial soup for the origin of life.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. / And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.
Genesis 1:2-3

In Spanish, giving birth is said ”dar a luz” (“give to light”), an expression that connects that instance where a spark of light appears in the darkness with the act of the beginning of life, especially as we previously were in the liminal watery place of the amniotic sac [Fig. 5].

Despite the simplistic allusion of light as good and darkness as bad that these symbolic tales might convey, the penumbra holds the power of being a latent state, with the power of potentially becoming either opposite. And that is where the numinous lies, as it is both and neither. In Patagonian Tehuelche culture, twilight was already in existence before creation took place, rather than total darkness.

Intimacy

Dimly lit places, especially with warm light, give an aura of intimacy and privacy to any situation (see: holding up lighters at concerts, intimate time with a lover in a softly lit room, cozying up to a fireplace). For a long period of history, bonfires and hearths were the centre of gatherings, the flames giving a sense of safety and warmth. Vulnerability flourishes in the penumbra — maybe because we are not lost in the chaos of darkness, but the present light is not as harsh. The penumbra’s light has a quasi human character in its imperfection.

The warm and safe feelings the penumbra gives are reminiscent of our time in the maternal womb, which is also a liminal place in between creation and life, as mentioned before [Fig. 5]. The maternal womb is commonly symbolised with caves [Fig. 6], and the femenine is often associated with the unconscious (in contraposition of the masculine / the rational and conscious / bright sunlight). If we expand on this idea, the thread that ties together the maternal womb, caves and the unconscious —all of them liminal places with a sense of privacy— seem to be the penumbra.

Caves are often the stage for the penumbra, acting as a threshold between what is real and what is numinous, as seen in Plato’s Allegory of the cave, or in the way temples are created as “caves” that play with lightness and darkness.

Upcoming sections: Liminality, The sacred, and more artwork!

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✽ Genesis 1:2-3
In Praise Of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
✽ 天地開闢 (Tenchi kaibyaku), the Japanese creation myth
La creación del mundo según los indios americanos, from Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas, vol. IV
Darkness, A Cultural History by Nina Edwards
Applause Encouraged by Scott Polach
The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
✽ “In a work of art, chaos must shimmer through the veil of order.” ― Novalis
✽ Thin places — in Irish Celtic lore, where the veil between this world and the otherworld is thin
✽ Final scene from Nostalghia (1983) by Andrei Tarkovsky
Entering the Bardo by Joanna Macy
Non-places: an introduction to super modernity by Marc Augé
✽ “The owl of Minerva only begins its flight on the onset of dusk" ― G. W. F. Hegel
✽ The megalithic monuments in Brittany and the British isles
✽ “At midnight truly it is most bright, by daylight it cannot still be seen.” ― from Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi by Tozan Ryukai
The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep
✽ Additional visual material can be found here