The Hidden Meaning of Color

A series on Ancient Egyptian Religion (Part 5)

So – after a few weeks away from Ancient Egyptian religion and beliefs, we’re back!

To set this up, I want you to imagine you’re writing a story, and right now, you want to describe a scene. Maybe you mention the weather, or the sunlight. The people standing around, and what they’re doing. Maybe it’s a street scene, so you describe the buildings – how tall they are, how they’re painted.

In my case, the story I was telling was set, of course, in Ancient Egypt. So the buildings are white stone, with painted patterns and murals for decoration. The colors? Oh, green, blue, gold, red – the works. We’ve all seen the movies.

Great, we’ve finished describing the scene – on to the next one!

Except – it turns out we’ve done it all wrong.

In Ancient Egypt, you can’t just haphazardly use blue paint. Or black. Or green. And you better not use red unless you know what you’re doing.

Why? Because, like most things in Ancient Egypt, the color of paint was not just for show. Each color meant and symbolized a spiritual concept – in fact, multiple concepts.

Osiris, depicted here with green skin.

Let’s take a look at what some of the colors meant.

Green: This one you can probably guess – green symbolized life! But, it also symbolized many other concepts in connection with “life”, such as growth, the afterlife, resurrection, and even goodness. This is why images of the “only mostly dead” god of the afterlife, Osiris, often depict him with green skin. There was even a turn of phrase: “do green things”. It meant to act well and positively.

Red: Red was a tricky color. It was commonly used to portray the color of men’s skin and used on amulets, but the god of chaos, Set, who killed Osiris, was associated with red as well. As such, red had connotations completely dependent on the situation. It could signify life and higher power and energy, but was also associated with destruction, danger, evil, and fire. Ancient artifacts and images need to be studied thoroughly for context to understand the meaning of the red used to paint them.

Blue: Blue was highly regarded by Ancient Egyptians. Like green, blue was associated with life. In particular, the Nile River. As such, its connotations included crops, birth, rebirth, offerings, and protection. Since it was the color of the sky, it was also associated with the divine heavens. Thoth, the god of wisdom, was often painted blue to connect the idea of divine wisdom to the idea of life.

The Ibis-headed god of wisdom, Thoth.

Yellow: Yellow and gold were often used in association with the gods. It symbolized the sun, perfection, and eternity. In paintings, women were painted with more yellowish skin, in contrast to the reddish skin of men, to acknowledge their more indoor-based lives.

Black: Like red, the color black had a strong duality. It was associated with the fertile Nile soil which was deposited when the river flooded each year – in fact, the ancient Egyptian name for their country, Kemet, comes from their word for black, kem. However, it was also the color associated with the underworld and a a color, like green, that was associated the Orisis, the god of the afterlife.

White: White was associated with cleanliness, purity, and the sacred. Ritual items tended to be white (alabaster was a favored material) as well as daily clothing, made of undyed linen. Priests often wore only white – even their sandals were white!

I’m sure you can see now what a minefield it can be to “color” Ancient Egypt appropriately! I am constantly amazed at how often the seemingly mundane in Ancient Egypt connects to the sacred or spiritual.

Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of Ancient Egyptian Religion with undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol of Ancient Egypt – the pyramid!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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