Ascribing meaning to previously meaningless things is a beautifully human practice.
Call it superstition, spirituality, or intuition, but we have declared certain arbitrary things to represent “good” in the world and certain other things to represent “bad.” We do the same with color. This is an emotional practice that’s gone on for centuries, undergoing multiple transformations and permutations along the way. Even in our own lives, color has had meaning since before we can remember.
We usually determine our favorite colors by the time we take our first steps. We’re led to understand color symbolism through literature (green light at the end of the dock, anyone?) in high school, and we continue to discover its meaning as we realize that different spiritual practices embody certain colors. Why do the monks attending the temple around the corner always wear orange? Why is blue the color of Hanukkah, when Christians consider that to be the least celebratory color of all?
I have been obsessed with symbolism ever since I figured out what the term meant. Delving deeper into the historical meaning of colors brought a lot of confusion and a little bit of insight into how we all live our lives.
Color Meanings Throughout History
Due to different dyes available and the cost of certain artistic materials, cultures have evolved different meanings associated with color. The most ancient practice, perhaps, comes to us from masters in India who studied the chakras.
The experts paired colors with the seven major chakras. The root chakra was originally associated with red and passion, the sacral chakra was associated with orange and desire, all the way up to the crown chakra which is represented by violet and divine knowledge. The characteristics of the chakras (and their color partners) have stood the test of time and feature prominently in color theory to this day.
Much later in history, when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the visible spectrum, he identified the seven major hues as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Perhaps because he was channeling ancient Indian wisdom, he chose to label only these seven colors. In yet another layer, his color wheel corresponds with the seven tones of the western musical scale.
It’s artistic inception and I’m not sure that I can even keep up!
From Native Americans to the ancient Chinese and the desert fathers of the Middle East and Africa, color has been integral to every known culture deep into antiquity.
Conflicting Color Meanings = Differences in Interpretation
If color is a language, however, that means it’s open to interpretation… and change.
Different dialects are used around the world, and the very same terms can mean completely different things to different people. A yellow rose in Texas refers to independence, freedom, and strength– whereas in India the very same flower stood for infidelity and in Victorian England yellow roses symbolized death.
The color indigo, as another example, was considered to be the Middle Eastern color of royalty due to its costly production involving layer upon layer of indigo dye. These garments were precious as a result and only afforded by the most elite members of society.
In the United States today, some of us associate variants of purple as the color of royalty. However, some in Polynesia give that particular honor to the color yellow instead.
We associate good Jedi with the color blue, and the Sith with its opposite, orange. (haha. Just kidding. But really, check the color wheel, guys.) If you also assume green lightsabers are good (Yoda, hello…), then why was the Death Star’s ray also green? Why did the ships of our favorite good guys shoot red lasers? They’re certainly not manipulating any Kyber crystals to the dark side. What is going on in this galaxy??
I was actually inspired to start researching this topic from one of my favorite artist YouTubers, Molly Roberts (who happens to practice Wicca). She mentioned color language in a video on making sacred art. I thought, “color correspondences must be all alike… right?”
Wrong. Each blog features a long list of meanings for every color of candle imaginable– and they differ from author to author. Some use the typical color associations of the United States (green for money, for example) which are completely not applicable elsewhere.
And if you do a quick Google search, you’ll learn that pretty much any of the colors can be associated with healing. I’ve found articles attributing yellow, green, blue, purple, and orange to this elusive concept.
At this point, through a mix of globalization, artistic interpretation, and sheer marketing, our color language has deteriorated into gibberish.
Create Your Own Color Language
So we come to the choose-your-own-adventure part of this post.
If color language isn’t stable in meaning even within the same cultures, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely meaningless. I choose to interpret this by determining which meanings resonate with me personally.
Color therapy is used frequently in holistic treatment of cancer. However, forgive me for saying this, but I don’t think it really matters which color specifically is said to heal your particular bodily tumor. What matters is that you believe in its healing property.
Art therapists use color to help clients identify with certain emotions, but rarely do they tell them what the color swatch is supposed to represent. Rather, they stand back and allow their clients to come up with their own associations. Whether the meanings they create correspond to any historical basis or not is irrelevant to the healing power of the color when used with purpose.
Thinking this way led me to consider some of my own color associations. In a way, I’m discovering how to speak my own language.
I associate the color purple with my Grandma Sadler– and with belonging, happiness, and creativity. I associate the color red with my dear friend Bethany and her fiery childhood personality. When I think of royal blue, I think of Ravenclaw wisdom (which is most certainly not a historical finding).
The truth is, my color associations have changed even over the course of my own lifetime. I believe they will continue to change as my life takes on more layers of meaning.
I’m willing to let my colors change. I’m willing to explore new meanings.
Moving Forward With Color
Although I was a bit disappointed in discovering there wasn’t one single color language, I can’t really complain. Because there are so many different interpretations of each color, I am free to create my own understanding.
I’m free to make my own meaning. Which, in truth, is what humans have been doing since the beginning of time.
Learning the physical process of color takes my breath away. My canvas only appears white because it reflects all of the colors, without holding back anything for itself. As yogi mystic Sadhguru describes:
Color is not what it is. Color is what it gives away. This is the nature of life.
A question I have not yet begun to explore, but enjoy pondering anyway: How would this discussion relate to someone who is born blind? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.