Across cultures, human beings have far more in common than we have differences. While it is true that some of us live in first world nations and have modern conveniences, and some of us adhere to stone age rules and societies, the basic ideas of family, motherhood, death, belief, all exist and all are similar. So it is not surprising that, when left to our own devices, humans generally attribute similar meanings to the same colors.
While color is an apparently natural event that surrounds us at all times, it is in fact more of a way our brains process our surroundings and less of an objective state of being. Color is the way our brains interpret the shimmering of the molecules around us as they reflect the wave of light they don’t absorb. The reason the tomato signals that it is ripe and sweet to us this week, as opposed to being hard and sour last week, is because the molecules on its surface are ‘dancing’ the slightly different dance for red this week.(1)
Recent psychological research has shown, indeed, that when presented with a yellowish carrot, most Westerners will recognize the color as ‘orange’, because we are trained from childhood to know ‘carrots’ are ‘orange’. The same color presented as the color of a car, however, will elicit the responses that it is yellow or yellow orange, because we are not programmed to think of a car as any one color. However, if we actually saw the carrot as orange when it wasn’t, merely because of our programming, we would (according to the research) hallucinate and not be able to function in the world on a daily basis.(2)
Our daily exposure to colors also affects the details of what we see. The Maori in New Zealand’s deserts have hundreds of shades of red, the Inuit in the arctic, have seven separate shades of white, and modern Europeans, living in cities, have at least a hundred shades of gray.(3) On the other hand, the ancient Greeks apparently ignored both blue and green, using the same words to describe dark hair and wood as they did the sky and they used the same color names for plants and grass as for honey and human skin.(4)
Color symbolism has become a hot topic in the recent quest for universals.(5)
Anthropologists and art historians (those who have chosen to trace the materials used in art more than they have the artists themselves), have discovered that culturally, the human perception of color begins with three primary colors: black, white and red. These colors are the most basic to humans of all the colors, and all societies seem to recognize them and their symbolism, even if no other colors are recognized as important. These three colors are so basic and primal, even the words for them are similar across language families.(6)
Why black, white and red are such vital colors has been debated. Arguments are as varied as the theory that they are the colors of shadow, light and life (blood)(7) to they are the color of bodily fluids (which would also include blood for red)(8). What is known is that these three colors are universal in being both the first colors humans see as important and in having similar meanings.
Black (and to a lesser extent, the deep blues and purples that are similar to black) is universally a symbol of death, separation, and slavery or submission.(9) For the Hausa culture of Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivorie and Chad, black denotes negative and socially undesirable qualities and things that harm.(10)
White is the symbol for purity and ‘all that is good’, and has the power to exorcise or forbid unacceptable things.(11) Priests were dressed in white(12), and the dead are buried in white robes(13). The Hausa believe that white is a symbol of positive and desirable things, and the word white in their language (fari) is used as a word for good things: to have a white heart is to be equable, happy, and rejoicing; to have white blood is to be popular; to have a white stomach is to be happy.(14)
Red is an ‘ambiguous’ color(15) being somewhere in between black and white. It universally is seen as a sign of both life and aggression. This makes sense, as red is seen in nature as a both a warning sign and a welcoming signal in poisonous berries, cocks combs, tongues, lips(16), as well as simply as blood: menstruation, parturition, or blood from wounds. For men, red is generally held to be the symbol of hunting, and for women, of fertility.
Jewish tradition holds that the name Adam means red and living, and Slavic languages use the term red for describing things as living or beautiful. It was to banish death and to honor the memory of the departed in China, and it decorated vases used in sacrifices. It was used to symbolize those who had died in China(17) and was symbolic of ghosts in Navajo traditions(18).
Red was also the color of soldiers (probably stemming from blood being both a symbol of aggression and of hunting), from the Spartans to the redcoats and Garibaldi’s men, until camouflage came about in the late 1800’s(19).
This ranking is seen clearly in the decorations of the Swazi (of South Africa) Ncwala costumes. The Ncwala is a ceremony of kingship rejuvenation designed to put the Swazi back into connection with kingship. After it, the king is no longer mere human but is greater than human.(20) Warriors, the bottom rung of those involved in the ceremony, wear black feathers to distinguish themselves, also showing the submission to the princes and king. The princes wear red feathers, representing their prowess and rank. The king, who embodies the greatest good while also holding the potential for the greatest evil of all, wears both white and black feathers, streaking his goodness (the white) with the fear of evil (the black).(21) For the women, unmarried princesses wear red (symbolizing their availability and fertility), while the king’s wives wear black, showing their removal from the group of available potential mates.(22)
Potentially, one reason that all groups agree on what the symbols of certain colors are is because they are not actually using the colors as symbols, but rather using the color as a representation for the real symbols. Most clearly would be red as a stand in for, not actually a symbol of, blood. Blood is a universal item that is tied closely with human emotion. It is both life giving (parturition blood during childbirth) and deathly (blood spilled in hunting or war), and is in and of itself a symbol for aggression and life. Blood is the universal symbol then, not red. White, representing semen and breast milk and light would also be a representation of a symbol, but not a symbol in and of itself. Black, with it’s connotations of night and the grave and feces, again is not the symbol in itself, but a placeholder, a short hand we can all understand because of the universality of what it represents. The emotions tied into what the colors represent are what give the colors their power and meaning, not an artificial cultural attachment.
But if color symbolism has been proven to be universal on such a basic human level, why do Westerners appear to have a separate set of symbols for colors than the rest of the world? The answer is surprisingly quite simple. The Church.
To distance itself from its pagan and Jewish roots, the early Church fathers deliberately changed the meaning of certain colors. Black went from the traditional signs of separation and death to a sign of respect in priestly clothes, to the extent that black became the most common color for clothes, so that everyone would benefit(23), and reds were replaced by purples and violets(24), to the extent that red was later considered a pagan color. Red was adopted as a color of sin(25), although maintained in some ceremonial robes.
The Church adopted green as symbolic of new life, again replacing red, and white gained new meaning as robes for neophytes and in communion, suddenly gaining a more innocent symbolism. Sky blue was adopted in place of the pagan meanings of white, the goodness and health and holy color of Heaven.(26) The colors of blue and green are now recognized as monotheistic colors.
Islam followed the Christian Church’s, adopting the same colors, only using green as a symbol of religion and the prophet, the color of holiness, and blue as the color of the new community. Islam later added turquoise(27). The Crusades also led to a mixing up of colors and meanings. Secular people adopted blue and gold as signs of sovereignty, partially because of the expense of acquiring the paints and dyes(28).
During medieval times, the Church followed its early lead and colors were given artificial meanings and rankings(29). Certain colors were regulated to particular saints, and a strident code formed. Pope Pius V finalized the choices in religious colors int he 1500’s(30). This code and symbols remained in place until Wolfgang Goethe attempted to redefine color a century after Isaac Newton’s famous double prism experiment showed that colors were more light than perception(31). Goethe studied colors and made the re-connection between emotion and color. His studies found that yellow was generally accepted as a representation of lucid or rational thought, red was vitality and aggression, and blue brought to mind melancholy, sadness and sentiment(32).
Modern research has been showing that the language used by students in art classes to discuss color, and by the teachers of art classes implies that associations between the emotional response people have to color and the colors themselves are not conventions but are rather universal, unmediated human responses(33).
So, much the way we are trained to see a carrot as orange regardless of what shade it really is, our culture was deliberately trained to see the ‘meanings’ of color as different than the emotions they actually invoke. Letting go of the artificial meanings and using our in born human senses to observe color, we discover color symbolism cross culturally is actually very similar.
1 Victoria Finlay, Color A Natural History of the Palette p 6
2 Association for Psychological Science, How Carrots Help Us See The Color Orange
3 Manlio Brusatin, A History of Color p12
4 Brusatin, op. cit. p 26
5 Sam D. Gill, The Color of Navajo Ritual Symbolism: An Evaluation of Methods p 351
6 John Baines, Color Terminology and Color Classification: Ancient Egyptian Color Terminology and Polychromy, p 284
7 Brusatin, op. cit. p 27
8 Gill, op. cit. p 354
9 Brusatin, op. cit. p 24
10 Pauline M. Ryan, Color Symbolism in Hausa Literature p. 144
11 Brusatin, op. cit. p 23
12 Brusatin, op. cit. p 21
13 Brusatin, op. cit. p 41
14 Ryan, op. cit. p 144
15 Ryan, op. cit. p 145
16 Brusatin, op. cit. p 22
17 Brusatin, op. cit. p 23
18 Gill, op. cit. p 360
19 Brusatin, op. cit. p 128
20 Hilda Kuper, Costume and Cosmology: The Animal Symbolism of the Ncwala p 627
21 Kuper, op. cit. p 615
22 Kuper, op. cit. p 627
23 Brusatin, op. cit. p 60
24 Brusatin, op. cit. p 42
25 ibid. p 42
26 Brusatin, op. cit. p 43
27 Brusatin, op. cit. p 46-7
28 Brusatin, op. cit. p 48-9
29 Brusatin, op. cit. p 65
30 Finlay, op. cit. p 293
31 David Burton, Red, Yellow and Blue: The Historical Origin of Color Systems p 39
32 Burton, op. cit. p 44
33 Olivia Gude, Color Coding p 23
Association for Psychological Science (2008 July 23). How Carrots Help Us See The Color Orange. ScienceDaily
Baines, John Color Terminology and Color Classification: Ancient Egyptian Color Terminology and Polychromy American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 2, Jun., 1985
Brusatin, Manlio A History of Color. Translated by Robert H. Hopke and Paul Schwartz. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1991
Burton, David. Red, Yellow and Blue: The Historical Origin of Color Systems. Art Education, Vol. 45, No. 6, Nov., 1992
Finlay, Victoria. Color A Natural History of the Palette. Ballantine NY, 2002
Gill, Sam D. The Color of Navajo Ritual Symbolism: An Evaluation of Methods Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1975
Gude, Olivia. Color Coding Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring, 1999
Kuper, Hilda. Costume and Cosmology: The Animal Symbolism of the Ncwala. Man, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 4, Dec., 1973
Ryan, Pauline M. Color Symbolism in Hausa Literature Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1976