Color in Ancient Egypt
by Graciela Gestoso Singer
means many different things to different people and cultures. We all have our own favorite colors. Color also represents feelings, people, countries, cultures, and color symbolism (Sahlins 1977: 165–180). Color symbolism can have a powerful effect on human emotion. We use color to describe emotions. In ancient Egypt, color (jwn) (Faulkner 1991: 13) was an integral part of the substance and being of everything in life. The Egyptian hieroglyph for color can also be translated as "being", "character", "disposition", "nature" or "external appearance". This clearly illustrates the significance of color as being an essential and integral part of the Egyptian worldview (Rankine 2006). In art, colors were clues to the nature of the beings depicted in the work. The Egyptian use of color in their art was largely symbolic. For example, when the god Amon was portrayed with blue skin, it alluded to his cosmic aspect (Dolińska 1990: 3-7). Osiris' green skin was a reference to his power over vegetation and to his own resurrection. The Egyptian artist had at his disposal six colors, including black and white. These colors were generated largely from mineral compounds and thus retain their vibrancy over the millennia (Warburton 2004: 126-130). For example, they used red ochre or hematite for red; yellow ochre for yellow; Egyptian blue was a synthetic pigment created mainly from copper silica and calcium; green from malachite (a natural copper ore) or, then, from a paste manufactured by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium; and black was made of carbon compounds (soot, ground charcoal, and animal bones). Each of these colors had their own symbolic meaning (Aufrère 1991). Egyptian color words are attested from the mid-third millennium BCE (Baines 2007: 241; Kay and Maffi 1999: 743–760). In Ancient Egypt, the Old Kingdom repertory of painted colors consists of black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, and grey. In the New Kingdom material (ca. 1530–1070 BCE), the use of color becomes richer and more diverse and develops within the period, especially from 1400 to 1250 BCE. The extended range is black, white, red, green, yellow, strong blue, light blue, grey, brown, and pink (Berlin and Kay 1991: 104; Baines 2007: 247-249).
This color commonly symbolizes the fertility of nature. In our dreams, therefore, it may indicate personal growth, some new development in our personality. In general, in antiquity, it is the color of life, the seasonal renewal, and since verdant spring triumphs over barren winter, green symbolizes hope and immortality. The Chinese associate green (and black) with the female Yin, the passive and receiving principle. Islam venerates the color green, expecting paradise to be full of flourishing vegetation. There are several reasons for this association with the nature. First, Muhammad is reliably quoted in a hadith as saying that "water, greenery, and a beautiful face" were three universally good things. Some say green was Muhammad’s favorite color and that he wore a green cloak and turban. In the Qur'an, believers in God in Paradise wear fine green silk: "the inhabitants of paradise will wear green garments of fine silk" (Surah Al-Insan, 76: 21). But, regardless of its origins, the color green has been considered especially Islamic for centuries. Crusaders avoided using any green in their coats of arms, so that they could not possibly be mistaken for their Muslim opponents in the heat of battle. Also, Al-Khidr (the "Green One"), is a Qur'anic figure who met and traveled with Moses. Roman Catholic and more traditional Protestant clergy wear green vestments at liturgical celebrations during Ordinary Time. In the Eastern Catholic Church, green is the color of Pentecost. Green is one of the Christmas colors as well, possibly dating back to pre-Christian times, when evergreens were worshipped for their ability to maintain their color through the winter season. Romans used green holly and evergreen as decorations for their winter solstice celebration called "Saturnalia", which eventually evolved into a Christmas celebration. Due to its connections with nature, green is also associated with regeneration, fertility, and rebirth. In some cultures, green symbolizes hope and growth, while in others it is associated with death, sickness, or the devil. It can also describe someone who is inexperienced, jealous, or sick. In ancient Egypt, the color green (wadj) (Faulkner 1991: 55) was produced from malachite, a natural copper ore, and then could be produced from a paste manufactured by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium. The green was the color of vegetation and new life, and represented protection. To do "green things" or to "do green" was slang for beneficial, life-producing behavior, successfully, happiness, and fortune (Urk. IV, 132, 12; 260, 11; 974, 10; 2157, 15). Osiris as "Lord of the Underworld" was usually depicted with green skin, and Hathor was also associated with this color. The god Osiris was called "the Great Green" (the sea), and was often portrayed with green skin (Pyr. 628c, Utterance 366, in Sethe 1908: 339) (cf. Griffiths 1980: 154). Green malachite was a symbol of joy and "the land of the blessed dead" was described as the "field of malachite." (Pyr. 936c, Utterance 473, in Mercer 1952: 169). In the Book of the Dead, there are two "Chapters for a papyrus-column of green feldspar" (BD 159-160), dedicated to the "making of wadj-amulets of green feldspar", in order to ensure the regeneration of the deceased (Faulkner 1994: 125). In Chapter 105, it is mentioned a green papyrus-amulet: "A green amulet, belonging to the neck of Re and given to those who dwell in the horizon" (Faulkner 1994: 112). In Chapter 77, it is said that the deceased will become a falcon "whose wings are of fine green stone" (BM ESA 10477) (Lapp 1997: pl. 27-28). The god Horus was called the "Lord of the Green Stone" (Pyr. 457, Utterance 301, in Sethe 1908: 235) as well, because the Eye of Horus amulet was commonly made of green stone: "Osiris Unas, take the green Eye of Horus! Prevent him from tearing it out!" (Pyr. 96c, Utterance 162, in Sethe 1908: 58). The wdjat ("the uninjured Eye of Horus") is depicted as a human eye and eyebrow, as they would be seen looking at a person full-faced (Faulkner 1991: 75). Usually, it is the right eye shown as the wdjat, although the left is not uncommon. This is probably because of another myth that says that the sun and the moon were the right (sun) and left (moon) eyes of the sky god, and the sun is seen as more powerful. As an amulet, it was often fashioned out of blue or green faience or from semi-precious stones.
Osiris, "The Great Green"
The color red may symbolize passion, anger, sexuality, revolution, and danger. As the color of blood, red is the symbol of life (Hindu and Chinese brides wear red); but blood, of course, may also mean death. It is supposedly the first color perceived by man. Brain-injured persons suffering from temporary color-blindness start to perceive red before they are able to discern any other colors. Neolithic hunter peoples considered red to be the most important color endowed with life-giving powers and thus placed red ochre into graves of their deceased. This explains funds of skeletons embedded in up to 10 kg of red powdered ochre. Neolithic cave painters ascribed magic powers to the color red. It can be stipulated that they painted animals in red ochre or iron oxide to conjure their fertility. Protective powers of the color red against evil influence were common belief. Objects, animals and trees were covered in red paint, warriors painted their axes and spear-catapults red to endow the weapons with magic powers (as the Australian aborigines abide by this custom up to the present times). Neolithic hunters and Germanic warriors used to paint their weapons and even themselves in blood of slain animals. Roman gladiators drank blood of their dying adversaries to take over their strength. In other cultures, the newly born were bathed in blood of particularly strong and good looking animals. Red painted amulets or red gems, such as ruby or garnet, were used as charms against the "evil eye". Wearing a red ruby was supposed to bring about invincibility. However, in Prehistoric cultures, the red color was associated with the female principle as well. Mother Earth provided the Neolithic peoples with red ochre, which was credited with life-giving powers. The association of the red color with the female principle in Japan survives to the present day. Red rose is the symbol of love and fidelity. There are also negative connotations of this color. Red is the color of fire and blood. In biblical times, Israelites painted their doorframes in red blood to scare demons. Hebrew words for blood and red have the same origin: "adom" means "red" and "dam" means "blood". Blood and fire have both positive and negative connotations: bloodshed, aggression, war, and hate are on one side, and love, warmth and compassion on the other side. A biblical example of red as a symbol for guilt is found in Isaiah 1:18: "Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow." Also, the "Scarlet Letter", an 1850 American novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features a woman in a Puritan New England community, who is punished for adultery with ostracism, and her sin is represented by a red letter 'A' sewn into her clothes (Hawthorne 1994: 21; 41; 70; 124). This all comes from a general Hebrew view inherited by Christianity, which associates red with the blood of murder, as well as with guilt in general. According to the Greek legend, red roses arise from blood of Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar on a hunt. In Greek mythology, red rose was a symbol for the cycle of growth and decay, but also for love and affinity. Red rose is dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and daughter of Zeus, and also to Roman goddess Venus. Ancient Greeks associated the bright, luminous red with the male principle. Red was also the color of the Greek gods of war, Phoebus and Ares. In Christianity, the red rose is associated with the Cross and the bloodshed. In Catholic churches, altars are decorated in red for the Feast of Pentecost to symbolize the Holy Ghost. In Roman Catholicism, red represents wrath, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In Christianity, Satan is usually depicted as colored red and/or wearing a red costume in both iconography and popular culture. Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages as protection against the "red illnesses" (such as fever, rashes or miscarriages) (as in the famous painting Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck, dated 1434, National Gallery, London). Red scarves and garlands were part of wedding customs in many cultures. Red wedding gown was en vogue in Nurnberg of the 18th century, but this tradition goes back to roman times: Roman brides were wrapped in a fiery red veil, the flammeum, which should warrant love and fertility. Greek, Albanian and Armenian brides wear red veils even today. Chinese brides are wearing red wedding gowns and are carried to the ceremony in a red litter. The bride walks on a red carpet and is greeted by the groom who lifts her red veil. Neighbors bring red eggs to the couple after a child is born. In China, red was associated with cleansing and revival, and its name was the "Vermilion Bird" or the "Substance of Fire" and promised luck and longevity. In general, red is the symbol of fire and the south. It carries a largely positive connotation, being associated with courage, loyalty, honor, success, fortune, fertility, happiness, passion, and summer. In Chinese cultural traditions, red is associated with weddings, and red paper is also frequently used to wrap gifts of money or other things. Special red packets -called hong bao, in Mandarin, or lai see, in Cantonese- are specifically used during the Chinese New Year to give monetary gifts. On the more negative end, obituaries are traditionally written in red ink, and to write someone's name in red signals either cutting them out of your life, or that they have died. Red is also associated with both the feminine yin and the masculine yang, depending on the source. When someone commits suicide, especially a female, and wants to haunt their loved one, they will dress in red from top to bottom before carrying out the act. In Japan, red is a traditional color for a heroic figure. In India, red is the conventional color of bridal dresses, and is frequently represented in the media as a symbolic color for married women. The color is associated with sexuality in marriage relationships through its connection to heat and fertility. It is also the color of wealth, beauty, and the goddess Lakshmi. In Islam, red is the color for sacrifice and courage. Many Islamic states have it as a sign of the courage of Muslims and the sacrifice of their lives for what is good. In Central Africa, Ndembu warriors rub themselves with red during celebrations. Since their culture sees the color as a symbol of life and health, sick people are also painted with it. Like in most of the Central African cultures, the Ndembu see red as ambivalent, better than black, but not as good as white. However, in other parts of Africa, red is a color of mourning, representing death. Because of the connection red bears with death in many parts of Africa, the Red Cross has changed its colors to green and white in several parts of the continent. In Ancient Egypt, red (dshr) was created by Egyptian artisans by using naturally oxidized iron and red ochre. It was the color of the desert and of the destructive god Seth, who impersonated the Evil. "Making red" was synonymous with killing someone. Salvation from the evil is the subject of an ancient Egyptian charm: "Oh, Isis, deliver me from the hands of all bad, evil, red things!" Red was a powerful color, symbolizing two extremes: life and victory, as well as anger and fire. Red also represented blood, and in the Chapter 156 from the Book of the Dead, protection is sought through the blood power of Isis: "You have your blood, O Isis; you have your power, O Isis; you have your magic, O Isis." (Chapter for "A knot-amulet of red jasper", in Faulkner 1994: plate 32). The knot-amulet of red jasper, associated with Isis, is a protection for the "Great One", which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.
The knot-amulet of Isis
Writers of Egyptian papyri used a special red ink for nasty words. Red was also a symbol of anger and fire. A person who acted "with a red heart" was filled with anger. "To redden" meant "to die". Seth is the god of victory over Apep, and also the evil murderer of his brother Osiris. His red coloration could take on the meaning of evil or victory depending on the context in which he is portrayed. Red was commonly used to symbolize the fiery nature of the radiant sun. Serpent amulets representing the "Eye of Re" (the fiery, protective, and possibly malevolent aspect of the sun) were made of red stones. Nevertheless, red was the color of life and of victory. During celebrations, Egyptians would paint their bodies with red ochre and would wear amulets made of cornelian, a deep red stone. Seth, the god who stood at the prow of the sun's barque and slew the serpent Apep daily, had red eyes and hair. The normal skin tone of Egyptian men was depicted as red, without any negative connotation. Generally speaking, in ancient Egypt, red was an ambivalent color. It was associated with health and vitality, but also anger and violence.
The Book of the Dead
The color white is associated with pureness, innocence, peace, happiness, joy, death, and mourning. Wearing white clothes linked to the goddess in many civilizations. Druid priests often wore white. In Christian beliefs white is the highest color representing the purified soul, joy, virginity, integrity, light, and holy life. White is always worn in Christian religions at the sacraments of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage. In Catholicism, it is symbolic of the saints not suffering martyrdom and virgin saints. For the Buddhist tradition, white is self-mastery and redemption. It is representative of being lead from bondage, the highest spiritual transformation. In Hinduism, white is symbolic of pure consciousness, upward movement, light, and manifestation. Maori tradition holds white as meaning truce or surrendering. In Mayan tradition it represented peace and health. In short, in many cultures, white represents freedom, purity, and innocence (for example, white is worn by brides in Western countries). But, in China, it represents death and illness. The high contrast between white and black is often used to represent opposite concepts, such as day and night, and good and evil. In Taoism, which has great influence in Eastern culture, yin and yang are usually depicted in black and white. Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter and art theorist, describes his perception of the color white: " (...) white, although often considered as no color (a theory largely due to the Impressionists, who saw no white in nature), is a symbol of a world from which all color as a definite attribute has disappeared. This world is too far above us for its harmony to touch our souls. A great silence, like an impenetrable wall, shrouds its life from our understanding. White, therefore, has its harmony of silence, which works upon us negatively, like many pauses in music that break temporarily the melody. It is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities. White has the appeal of the nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age" (Kandinsky 1977). In ancient Egypt, the color white (hdj and shsp) suggested omnipotence and purity. The name of the city of Memphis meant "White Walls" (inbw-hdj). During religious ceremonies, were worn white sandals, and white bowls were used for libations. In the "Instructions of Merikare", the expression "wearing white sandals" is used to describe "being a priest" (Lichtheim 1973: 102). In Memphis, even the embalming table for the Apis Bulls was made of white alabaster. The god Nefertem, whose symbol was the white lotus flower, often had his statues made of silver, to illustrate his link with the color white. Many of the sacred objects were made from white alabaster, and many of the sacred animals (such as oxen, cows and hippopotami) were also white (Rankine 2006). White was also the heraldic color of Upper Egypt. The crown of Upper Egypt was white (nfr hdjt), even though originally it was probably made of green reeds (Urk. IV, 296, 3). In Egyptian art the pure white color was created from chalk and gypsum. White, as opposed to the natural off-white, and freshly laundered clothes were the attire anybody wore who could afford it, which even fewer could in times of chaos, as Ipuwer lamented: "There's dirt everywhere. None have white garments in this time" (The "Admonitions of Ipuwer", in Lichtheim 1973: 151).
The color black represents opposing ideas: authority and humility, rebellion and conformity, and wealth and poverty. Black also signifies absence, modernity, power, elegance, professionalism, mystery, evil, traditionalism, and sorrow. Black also implies submission. Priests wear black to signify submission to God. In Western countries, black is the color of mourning, while in many African countries white is the color worn during funerals. In Japanese culture, black means experience, as opposed to white, which symbolizes naiveté. Thus the black belt is a mark of achievement and seniority in many martial arts, whereas a white belt is worn by beginners. The Russian painter Kandinsky interprets the color black as: "a totally dead silence... A silence with no possibilities has the inner harmony of black. In music it is represented by one of those profound and final pauses, after which any continuation of the melody seems the dawn of another world. Black is something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse. The silence of black is the silence of death. Outwardly black is the color with least harmony of all, a kind of neutral background against which the minute shades of other colors stand clearly forward. It differs from white in this also, for with white nearly every color is in discord or even mute altogether" (Kandinsky 1977). In ancient Egypt, black (km) was created from carbon compounds such as soot, ground charcoal or burnt animal bones. Black was a symbol of death and of the night. Osiris, the sovereign of the afterlife, was called "the black one", alluding not only to his role in the underworld, but also to his resurrection after he was murdered (Robins 2008). One of the few real-life people to be deified, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was the patroness of the necropolis, and she was usually portrayed with black skin. The black images of the queen embody the concept of regeneration, as the fertile ancestress of the royal line of the eighteenth dynasty (Manniche 1970: 11–19; Robins 2008). Anubis, the god of embalming, was shown as a black jackal or dog, even though real jackals and dogs are typically brown.
As black symbolized death it was also a natural symbol of the underworld and resurrection. Unexpectedly perhaps, it could also be symbolic of fertility and even life. The association with life and fertility is likely due to the abundance provided by the dark, black silt of the annually flooding Nile. The color of the silt became emblematic of Egypt itself and the country was called the "Black Land" (Kmt) from early antiquity (Mathieu 2009: 26-27). On the other hand, black is associated with chaos and enemies, so the men to the south of Egypt (Nubians) were depicted by black skin. Nevertheless, the rest of the foreigners, as the people to the north and west of Egypt, were depicted by yellow skin, symbol of caution and danger. In the later Macedonian and Ptolemaic periods black stones were used almost exclusively for magical healing statues.
Queen Ahmose Nefertari
It is the color of intellect and it is used for mental clarity. Linked to the sun and the lion, it is connected to source of creation. Also, it symbolizes cowardice, consciousness, awareness, and intelligence. Particularly, if it is golden yellow can represent a promise of something good and life-enhancing, or an intimation of your true self. In general, the color yellow is associated with sunshine and knowledge, but also with autumn and maturity. In the English language, yellow has traditionally been associated with jaundice and cowardice. Yellow is also the color of caution, and thus yellow lights signal drivers to slow down in anticipation of stopping. Construction scenes and other dangerous areas are often enclosed by a bright yellow barricade tape repeating the word "caution." According to Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore a yellow robe and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses across the heavenly firmament. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified divine wisdom. In China, it is assigned to the active and creative male Yang principle, while ancient Egyptians ascribed yellow to the female principle. Ancient Egyptian women were usually depicted with yellow skin. The color yellow (qnt; qnjt) was created by the Egyptian artisans using natural ochre or oxides. At the end of the New Kingdom, a new method was developed which derived the color using orpiment (arsenic trisulphide). Both the sun and gold were yellow and shared the qualities of being imperishable, eternal and indestructible. The skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold. Thus statues of gods were often made of, or plated with gold. Also, mummy masks and cases of the pharaohs were often made of gold. When the pharaoh died he became the new Osiris and a god himself. In the scenes of the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony, the mummy and Anubis have golden skin tones of divine beings. Nevertheless, the priest and the mourning women have the classic reddish-brown and pale pink skin tones of humans (Budge 2000: 264-265; Plate VI). During the Old Kingdom, we can find representations of male officials with yellow skin, which symbolize the successful bureaucrats, who sit in their offices all day out of the sun; and also statues of youthful figures, both dark- and light-skinned, alternate as part of a patterning system (Fischer 1963: 17-22; Robins 2008). The foreign men to the north and west of Egypt were depicted by yellow skin, similar to that of traditional Egyptian women.
Opening of the mouth ceremony
The blue depths of water personified the female principle, while sky blue was associated with the male principle. The color blue is associated with water, sky, all heavenly gods, fidelity, and faithfulness. For example, blue flowers, such as forget-me-nots and violets, symbolize faithfulness. According to an old English custom, a bride wears blue ribbons on her wedding gown, a blue sapphire in her ring, and tiny flowers of blue speedwell are part of the bouquet. But, in the English language, blue sometimes refers to sadness. The phrase "feeling blue" is linked to a custom amongst old sailing ships. If a ship loses her captain, she would fly blue flags, when returning to home port. In German, to be "blue" (blau sein) is to be drunk. Blue is the color of truth, serenity and harmony, and it is good for cooling, calming, reconstructing and protecting. Also, it is the color of electricity and spiritual energy. In ancient Egypt, there was no basic color term for "blue". Lapis lazuli was called hsbdj, and then the term was extended to mean, secondarily, the color "blue" (Robins 2008).The so-called "Egyptian blue" (jrtjw, hsbdj) (Wb. I, 116, 10-11) was made combining iron and copper oxides with silica and calcium. This produced a rich color, however it was unstable and sometimes darkened or changed color over the years. The gods were said to have hair made of lapis lazuli, a blue stone. Blue was associated with Amun-Ra, and sometimes with Osiris. The skin of the Egyptian god Amon was rendered blue. Originally, Amon was the deification of the concept of air, one of the four fundamental concepts of the primordial universe. Amon means "the Hidden One," as the air and the wind cannot see by the eyes. He was originally depicted as a frog-headed god and his invisibility was represented by the color blue, the color of the sky. Also, Ptah, Horus, Khnum, Re-Horakhty and Nuit were all often depicted with blue bodies. In the scenes of the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony, the mummy and Anubis both have blue hair. In general, gods too liked showing themselves in beautiful attire. One divine epithet was "He, who is clothed in blue linen" (Hornung 1994: 659). Blue was symbolic of the sky and of water. In a cosmic sense, this extended its symbolism to the heavens and of the primeval floods. In both of these cases, blue took on a meaning of life and rebirth. It was naturally also a symbol of the Nile, fertile fields, crops, offerings and fertility in general. The phoenix, which was a symbol of the primeval flood, was patterned on the heron. Herons naturally have a gray-blue plumage. However, they were usually portrayed with bright blue feathers to emphasize their association with the waters of the creation. Amon was often shown with a blue face to symbolize his role in the creation of the world. By extension, the pharaohs were sometimes shown with blue faces as well when they became identified with Amon. Baboons, which are not naturally blue, were portrayed as blue, only to emphasize their connection to Thoth, which symbol was an ibis, represented as a blue bird.
In short, the world we see is filled with color. Color is important in art and in various cultures around the world. People of the world see color differently. This is because tradition, religion, and symbolism affects how people feel about color. People age also has an effect on how colors are perceived. Color symbolism can vary dramatically between cultures. Research has also shown that most colors have more positive associations with them than negative. So, although some colors do have negative connotations (such as black for a funeral or for evil), these negative elements are usually triggered by specific circumstances. In Ancient Egypt, color was considerate an essential part of the "Egyptian worldview."
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Dr. Graciela Gestoso Singer
Forum Unesco - University and Heritage
Unesco World Heritage Centre