Colors are instilled with great symbolic power. Even though superstitious beliefs have largely faded in the light of scientific knowledge, many colors have retained their ancient associations. For instance, till today, brides wear white. But why? Knowing why these connotations exist requires a look back to the beliefs and practices of the ancients.
Blue -Truth & Sadness
The main association of the color blue for most of recorded history was with truth a meaning that leaves a remnant in our language in the phrase “true blue.” This was because blue is the color of a calm and clear sky, and it is calm reflection that leads to truth. Today, though, blue mainly conveys sadness and despair. When you’ve “got the blues,” you’re down in the dumps. The connotation may relate to tears and rain (with its depressive effects), as water was typically represented in people’s minds as blue. In Greek mythology, Zeus made it rain when he was sad.
White – Purity
In a wide range of cultures, the color white symbolizes purity and innocence, and white robes and garments are worn to convey spiritual and/or sexual purity. It isn’t surprising that white became associated with purity, as even the smallest drop of dye, or a smudge of dirt, destroys the color.
Black – Mystery & Death
Many ancient cultures believed that black was the color of mystery and of the mysterious ways and wisdom of God. This was because night, as well as darkness the absence of light transcended human perception in the same way that the wisdom of God was thought to be beyond comprehension. Of all mysteries, death may have been the biggest. Ancient people were completely “in the dark” about what would happen to them after death, and so the color black in many cultures represented it. There was the added coincidence of death sharing similarities with sleep, which happens in the darkness of night and when closed eyelids block out all light.
Red – Passion
Red has a range of symbolic meanings, including life, health, vigor, war, courage, anger, love and religious fervor. The common thread is that all these require passion, and the “life force” that drives passion blood is red. When people become angry their faces become flushed with color. When they’re happy and healthy, they have rosy cheeks (whereas when they’re sick or dying, they have a deathly pallor, lacking in red). When men fight, blood is spilled. In all cases, red blood manifests itself in connection to passion.
Purple – Royalty
Purple symbolizes royalty, nobility and imperialism. In many European societies, the symbolism was even established by law: From ancient Rome to Elizabethan England, “sumptuary laws” forbade anyone except close members of the royal family to wear the color. Purple’s elite status stems from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. Fabric traders obtained “Tyrian purple,” as the dye was called, from a small mollusk that was found only in a region of the Mediterranean Sea near Tyre, a Phoenician trading city located in modern-day Lebanon. More than 9,000 molluscs were needed to create just one gram of Tyrian purple, and because only wealthy rulers could afford to buy and wear fabrics dyed with the color, it became associated with the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt and Persia. Another consequence of this is that purple also came to represent spirituality and holiness, because the ancient emperors, kings and queens that wore the color were often considered to be gods or descendants of the gods.
Green – Nature, Wisdom & Envy
For obvious reasons, the color green represents nature and the environment; more abstractly, it symbolizes wisdom. The second association stems from ancient roots. Ancient Egyptians believed that a god named Thoth led the souls of the dead to a green hill of everlasting life and eternal wisdom. Later, the Romans based their god Mercury on Thoth, and the planet Mercury was in turn based on the god. For this reason, in astrology, green is sometimes said to be the color of the planet Mercury, which is the planet governing the mind and conferring knowledge not only of the kind essential to material success, but also inspirational knowledge and celestial wisdom.
There’s also a flipside to green—the green-eyed monster jealousy. ‘Green’ and ‘pale’ were alternate meanings of the same Greek word. In the seventh century B.C., the poetess Sappho, used the word ‘green’ to describe the complexion of a stricken lover. The Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a pallid green cast to the victim.
Yellow – Happiness & Cowardliness
It isn’t surprising that yellow symbolizes happiness, warmth and sunshine in most cultures; these are characteristics of the yellow sun and its effects. Along with warmth and happiness, yellow also represents cowardliness and deceit. The deceitful Judas was very often portrayed in ancient pictures with a yellow robe.
Orange – Warning
Orange has come to denote a warning, and is used for high visibility clothing and safety equipment, like traffic cones. This association is a practical one: Orange contrasts most strongly with the color blue and therefore is highly visible against a clear sky. Though this symbol does not originate form ancient beliefs or mythology, it stems from practical use, and was accordingly transformed into a symbol.