Colour Symbolism

An exploration of ancient and traditional views and uses of Colour in the context of Frederic de Portal's book Symbolic Colours.

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Although the world today recognises that the spectrum of light available to the human eye provides us with a vast range of colours, it hasn’t always been so. In the ancient world, indeed even up until recent times, it was generally accepted that the spectrum consisted of seven colours only, and although artists and other specialists knew of a wider range, convention still maintained the tradition of seven basic colours from which all other colours and colour symbolism derive.

In the ancient world this spectrum did not stand alone in splendid isolation. Colour was then, as it is now, not only a fundamental part of everyday existence, but was also fully integrated into the various cosmologies of the many significant religions and cults of the ancient world (see Astrological Colour Wheel above). As diverse as the many belief systems of the ancient world undoubtedly were, they generally thought of the structure of the cosmos as consisting of a spiritual heaven and a material earth, between which lay a succession of worlds, each represented by one of the seven planets and ruled by a deity and/or a hierarchy of ‘spiritual’ beings. Each planet was also thought to correspond, among other things, to a colour; with the primary sounds we call vowels, and with the seven notes of the musical scale – a veritable compendium of correspondences, many of which as relevant in esoteric circles today as they were then.

Of particular significance in this context were the teachings of Pythagoras, who flourished in the sixth century BC. He sought to establish human society upon the principles of harmony that he perceived underlying the structure of the cosmos. To him sound, colour and form were all expressions of one divine essence recognisable in number, in geometry, in the division of the octave and in the spectrum of colour: analogues of the one all-embracing harmony that is divine providence. Pythagoras’ efforts, although perhaps too idealistic for his time, were not in vain as his teachings were very influential in many of the philosophic and esoteric circles that succeeded him, most notably in the Athenian Academy established by Plato at the beginning of the fourth century BC, with the study of Philosophy as its primary purpose. Plato’s teachings were heavily influenced by Pythagoras, as, inevitably, were those of his student, Aristotle, who built on the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato and gave to the world a clear conception of an integrated world when he introduced his model of a geocentric cosmos.

The geocentric model was further utilized by the Neo-Platonists in the third century AD and beyond. This school of thought quickly became the philosophical foundation for numerous mystical and spiritually orientated associations, many of which preferred to meet and practice secretly. Consequently, as time passed what initially may have started as an area of specialised knowledge became ever more esoteric, often requiring knowledge of sophisticated codes and keys to engage with and understand it. Thus, Pythagorean ideas have continued to be propagated in the world through the efforts of such bodies ever since, albeit in very specialised ways.

In the world of healing, Celsus, a celebrated Roman physician of the first century AD, discussed colour and its therapeutic application in his works on medicine, as did his contemporary, Pliny the Elder, in his book Natural History. And there have been many others. It goes without saying that it is intrinsic to our lives, but it is in the area of religion and spirituality that colour plays a particularly interesting role, and it is this role that Portal, in his book Symbolic Colours addresses so adeptly, for he stood between two worlds: an ancient world full of mysteries and imagination and a modern world, promising those who dare, the prize of the knowledge of the gods and material wealth beyond dreams.

However, the modern world is the child of the Enlightenment, the philosophical and social movement that emerged in eighteenth century Europe and still dominates so much of world thinking today. Enlightenment thought stressed that experience is the foundation of our understanding of truth, and that religious doctrine has no place in the understanding of the physical world. Furthermore, the universe can only be understood through the use of reason; truth being arrived at only through empirical observation, the use of reason, and systematic doubt.

The Enlightenment gave rise to two significant developments in thought: Empiricism and Mechanism. Empiricism maintains that human observation is a reliable indicator of the nature of phenomena, and that repeated observation can produce reasonable expectations about future events. Mechanism regards the universe as a machine that functions according to natural and predictable rules. Once the world is understood as a machine, then it may be manipulated for the benefit of humanity.

Most of what we now know about colour is couched in Newtonian terms. Newton, who was one of the greatest scientific influences at the dawn of the Enlightenment, demonstrated that the spectrum of colour we commonly associate with the rainbow was derived from bending light through a prism – that light and colour were synonymous, thereby overturning the long held Aristotelian view that colour was a property of objects. As children of the Enlightenment, Newton and his successors continued their rational speculations and experiments, not least with light and colour.

Consequently, since the late seventeenth century the study of light and its properties has become central to the domain of science in general and the field of Physics in particular. Scientific research in this field is constantly producing new information and the language to describe it is necessarily evolving and changing. Today light is thought of as electro-magnetic radiation visible to the human eye, and that which is visible to the eye is merely a tiny fraction of the known spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation. The part of the spectrum visible to the human eye is perceived as a variety of colours, but they are in fact specific wavelengths of light ranging between 400 – 800nm.

It is generally accepted in scientific circles that the experience of colour is a biochemical experience taking place in the brain through the agency of specialised retinal cells known as rods and cones. These cells chemically respond to certain wavelengths of light, particularly the complementary pairs of red/green and yellow/blue. Through them we experience, recognise, and come to know colour, and there have been many attempts to formulate structures and systems that connect human biology and psychology to the mechanisms of colour vision. Doubtless this will continue, because the belief that physical exposure to different colours has a direct and measurable effect on human biology has been an important driving force behind scientific research into colour and colour theory over the last two centuries and shows little sign of falling out of favour today. Yet, one can’t help observing that as new and different branches of scientific endeavour emerge, the possibility of a simple contextual understanding of colour seems increasingly unlikely.

On the other hand, when we step out of the ring-fenced domain of the material sciences we enter another realm altogether. It is a realm with which Portal is patently familiar and in which he is very comfortable, and it constitutes the main theatre of his work. To understand it, and him, we must accept, as he undoubtedly did, that we humans are more than physical creatures of earth limited to logic and sensory perception alone, no matter how significant they may seem to be. Indeed, we are creatures of light born of a light that emanates from a spiritual sun where colour is not simply a bye-product of chemistry but is the very soul of light, and as such is an analogue of the spiritual Adam that rests at the heart of the mystery of human existence.

We should also note that in ancient times it was taught in the precincts of the sanctuary that we, as souls, descended to earth from the heights of heaven, and that during our descent we were clothed in a series of garments: first in an ethereal garment of non-material purity, then, successively, as we progressed through the planetary spheres, acquiring a solar garment, a lunar garment and finally a physical body. This is, of course, more properly the domain of theology wherein light is understood to be not simply the source, substance and nature of colour as perceived by the senses, but the divine Light of God, a light that sustains all things yet is truly unknowable.

This light has long been the subject of speculation among students of spiritual mysteries. Indeed, within the deeper teachings of the world’s religions it has generally been accepted that the infinite and ‘uncreated light’ of God cannot be known directly, but only by analogy, through the veils of archetypes and thought-forms that fill our world. For although we may be creatures of light our realm of experience is still, for the moment, the realm of created forms and not of the undivided essence. Thus what we perceive through the filters of the mind and the senses is only an analogue of the energies or activities of that ‘uncreated light’, because our means of perception are designed for a world of duality not a world of Unity. Consequently, for those who seek knowledge of the spiritual dimension of creation the language of symbolism is a necessary tool for an evolving understanding. It is a tool that opens the doors to the inner realm of the soul wherein metaphor and allegory play such important roles.

It is, perhaps, in the recognition of the divine nature of light, of its closeness with our perceptions of the true nature of consciousness that we as creatures have from the most ancient times sought to harness the virtues, powers, and qualities of colour within our lives, particularly in maintaining or restoring health. Indeed, according to the mythology of Ancient Egypt, the art of healing with colour was established by the god Thoth. Teachings attributed to him, which include the use of colour in healing, passed via the Hermetic tradition into the Greco-Roman world. Thus, both Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used coloured minerals, stones, crystals, salves, and dyes as remedies, and painted treatment sanctuaries in various shades of colour to enhance the healing process.

In Ancient Greece the understanding of the significance of colour grew, so it would seem, in tandem with the developing interest in the nature and function of the elements — fire, air, water and earth, particularly after Aristotle, the student of Plato, revealed to the world an interpretation of the nature of the cosmos that had been, until that time, an ancient teaching given only to initiates of the Mystery Schools. What he revealed was an understanding of the cosmos consisting of Heaven and Earth, and of the elements that formed them. The centre of the cosmos, he declared, was immovable and fixed and occupied by the life-bearing earth, the home of all mortal creatures. Whereas the highest part was called Heaven, the abode of the gods, which he described as being occupied by the divine bodies we call stars. The whole cosmos was understood to be spherical and continually turned upon a central axis at the extremes of which were to be found the Arctic and Antarctic poles, and at the centre the Earth.

The substance of the heavens he called Ether, a pure element that was divine, indestructible and unchanging. He described it as being in continual motion, forever revolving in a circle, moved by the power of God, which he called the ‘Prime Mover’. Of the stars contained within the heavens some moved only with the turning of the heavens themselves, forever occupying the same positions in the firmament. These he called the fixed stars. A pathway or road was formed in their midst by the Circle of the Zodiac. It was divided into twelve stations or regions known as the Signs of the Zodiac. This road was followed daily by the Sun and his attendant planets. They were not restricted in the same way as the fixed stars and were often referred to as the “Lords that wander”; nevertheless, they still had their allotted places, which Aristotle described as being seven concentric spheres, each successively encompassed by the next from the innermost to the outermost, which was in turn encompassed by the sphere containing the fixed stars. The sphere of Ether was understood to be governed by fixed laws that were free from disturbance, change, and external influence. 

In the centre of the cosmos lay the sublunary world consisting of four elements that are continually subject to change, external influence and disturbance, and consequently corruptible and perishable. Aristotle describes the outer ring of the sublunary world, as consisting of a fiery substance kindled by the Ether above it. Below this fiery element is the element of air, a substance that is naturally murky and cold as ice, but when illuminated and set on fire by motion it grows bright and warm. This element undergoes every kind of change imaginable, interacting with the fiery element above and the watery element below, for beneath the element of Air is the element of Water. Finally, located beneath the element of Water is the element of the Earth, firmly fixed at the centre of the Universe.

The five elements are thus arranged in concentric spheres forming five regions, the less being in each case surrounded by the greater – namely, earth, surrounded by water; water by air; air by fire; and fire by Ether, the total constituting the entire Cosmos. The outer portion is that of Ether and represents the heavens, the dwelling of the immortal gods, whilst the lower is the elemental realm, the abode of mortal creatures. The four sublunary elements were thought to differ from each other only in their qualities. Thus, fire was understood to be hot and dry, air hot and moist, water cold and wet and earth cold and dry. It was believed that by changing one or both of their qualities it was possible to transmute one element into another. Such transmutations were thought to take place constantly, adding to the unpredictable nature of sublunary realm. (As a point of interest the mechanisms of this process have been central to Alchemy and the work of alchemists ever since).

These fundamental constituents of the world also corresponded with the four humours of human biology, as did colours: to Fire was attributed Choler and ‘yellow’ bile; to Air Sanguine and ‘red’ blood; to Water Phlegm and the colour ‘white’, and to Earth Melancholy and ‘black’ bile. These humours were thought to reside in four organs in particular — the spleen, heart, liver, and brain — and to determine emotional and physical disposition. Good health involved the proper balance of these humours, and disease would result if their mixture was in an unbalanced state. Colour was then considered intrinsic to restoring the balance. Coloured garments, oils, plasters, ointments, and salves were often used to treat disease. For example, in the first century AD, Celsus followed the doctrines established by Pythagoras and Hippocrates, and included the use of coloured ointments, plasters, and flowers in several treatises on medicine. Avicenna, the great Persian physician, who lived at the turn of the second millennium, and whose books were a great influence upon European thought until the beginning of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, considered colour to be of vital importance in both diagnosis and treatment. He used colour in the treatment of sickness, insisting that red moved the blood, while blue or white cooled it, and yellow reduced pain and inflammation. He prescribed potions of red flowers to cure blood disorders, and yellow flowers or sunlight to cure other disorders. His methods were followed by many physicians; thus, in the sixteenth century Paracelsus regarded light and colour as essential for good health and used them extensively in treatment, together with elixirs, charms and talismans, herbs and minerals.

The use of colour in healing is not uncommon today; indeed there are many examples of modern experimentation and exploration in the therapeutic use of colour. Modern technology allows us to look at the influence of light and colour on the biochemistry of the body in ways that would have been impossible a century ago. In recent times it has been discovered that in most if not all mammals there is a nerve pathway, unconnected with vision that links the eye directly to the Hypothalamus – the control gland of the Endocrinal Glandular System. Its role is not yet fully understood. A similar nerve pathway links the eye with the Pineal gland, a neuro-endocrine transducer (i.e. it translates nerve signals into hormonal messages). It is thought to influence the way a variety of chemicals, including melatonin, are released. Colour and light have also been applied in the field of Psychology. For example, in 1947, Dr. Max Luscher, Professor of Psychology at Basle University, developed a colour-based personality test that is widely used today. According to Luscher’s theory the colours red, green, blue and yellow represent the four pillars of human psychology. Blue corresponds with relationships with other people; Green corresponds with self-image; Red corresponds with the sense of exhilaration and passion and Yellow corresponds with the ability to adapt. Luscher’s diagnostic tests are commonly employed in psychoanalysis and in candidate selection programmes by employers and universities, as well as in marketing and advertising programmes.

Science may explain the mechanics of colour and to some extent, perhaps, its functional role in our lives, which is no bad thing, but there are dimensions science cannot enter, dimensions in which our relationship with light and colour transcends the rational processes of the mundane world. It is to this area that Baron Portal draws our attention. He introduces us to a world of symbols and symbolism wherein colour is a fundamental part of its language. He reminds us that it is an ancient language, as old as civilisation itself, in which colour is neither a biochemical reaction to radiation nor a feature of a given figure, but a manifestation of the energies of the essential qualities of a person, place or object, and as such adds another dimension of understanding to what is conveyed by their form. In simple terms colour leads us beyond the obvious significations of form into a world of varied and subtle meanings and Baron Portal’s extraordinary book sets a context whereby we may begin to explore that world.

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