Symbolic Colors

Artists paint with words;  writers paint with images.  The first images are based on color.

In spring, everything greened up to grow, so green came to represent life and growth.  They bled when they were cut while working or hunting;  red represents what we must sacrifice in order to achieve our goals.

No Limitations

Here’s an interesting side trip:  one primitive culture only had 3 color names.  Three!  

We have more synonyms than that for all our colors. (red, cardinal, persimmon, crimson, scarlet, ruby, garnet, cherry, carmine, wine, vermilion, florid, ruddy, maroon, brick, and more!)  

The Piraha of the Amazon have no words for numbers, and their colors are white (light-time), black (night-time), and red (blood).

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay named 11 basic color categories in their famous 1969 study:

white          black          red           green         yellow       blue

brown         purple        pink        orange       gray.

Symbolic Meanings

Back on the main road, we’re after the symbolic meanings associated with colors.  Like the numbers, some will have both positive and negative connotations.  Here’s what I’ve gathered:

The Dominant Colors
  • Red = blood, sacrifice, the wounds inflicted by trials.
  • Blue = the heavens, truth (true blue).  The sky where the gods oversaw man’s petty achievements was blue;  the heavens are the realm of the gods.  Since gods are a constant eternal form that never change (whereas Earth is all about change, as Heraclitus succinctly put it), truth is associated with a universal constant (whereas facts–the earth is flat–constantly change).  Thus, blue = eternity.
  • Yellow = warning, sometimes the radiance of the sun = warmth.  Contrarily, cowardice (a yellow streak).

    symbolic colors
    King Arthur retrieves Excalibur, by N. C. Wyeth
  • Green = life, growth, spring, morning, youth.  In a negative connotation, jealousy (green-eyed glare).
  • Purple = royalty.  Kings rule by the red Blood Right (either they inherited the crown or won it on the battlefield) + the blue Divine Right (the gods intervened to ensure their victory).
  • Black = death, winter, night, the dark of trouble and of ignorance, absence (with a negative connotation).  In modern times, artists create black by adding all the colors, so modern writers have begun to use black as a symbol for “all things added in”, a sort of chaotic plenty.
  • White = winter, light / knowledge, purity / unstained innocence, “pearl”, absence (with a positive connotation).  Again, modern artists leave out all color to have white on their palette, so modern writers have begun to alter the color to create an idea of the vacuum, a sucking hole that deprives of everything.
The Necessary Colors
  • Grey = sorrow, rain / mist
  • Silver = a “mirror” color (mirror backs are “silvered” to reflect).  Mirrors reveal truth;  silver withstands magic.  In the mythic trope, vampires cannot see themselves in mirrors because they are not “true-ly” alive.  Yes, I know modern writers decided not to work with the mythic trope because it didn’t “fit” their world.  Sigh.
  • Gold = “tested” purity.  However, all that glitters is not gold.  It is richness and wealth >> but pure gold is soft.  Strong hands can shape it.  Thus, in the King Arthur myths, Arthur and gold are closely associated, even from his birth, because he and his dream will be corrupted.
  • Orange = summer, noon, the ripening to harvest, adult.
  • Brown = autumn, afternoon, maturity, and the color of dried blood > old wounds, old scars, a veteran.

The Symbols at Work

Look at the Wyeth painting of King Arthur.  The fabled hero is receiving Excalibur and its miraculous sheath from the Lady in the Lake.

His blue cloak is lined with red and trimmed with gold.

Gold appoints his saintly-colored mail and the boat.

See the three white swans flying away?

The grey mist?

White-bearded Merlin in his dark cloak:  is that deep blue or black?

And the mirror-like quality of the lake itself as the arm of the Faery Queen from an eternal existence offers the magical sword?  Have you ever known lake water to be so mirror-still?  Small pools, yes.  Lakes?  No.

Wyeth has painted the symbols that reveal the deeper elements of the Arthurian legend.

As symbols enrich Wyeth’s painting, so will they enrich your writing.  Play with them as Wyeth has done.

More Examples

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a character enters a room with a blood-red floor and a ceiling that is a bridal-cake confection of white plasterwork.  From that early chapter, the reader should know that Daisy and her husband and their wider family have the appearance of beauty and innocence while they have walked on the blood of others to get where they are.  They corrupt and are corrupted.  All the remaining symbolic colors in the novel prove that over and over.

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” occurs in a yellow wood:  Caution!  he says.  Don’t lie to yourself, as many teachers have deceived their students into reading this poem and thinking the road they take matters.  Frost says it doesn’t and that we lie when we tell ourselves the road we take is different:  he tells us three times that the “just as fair” roads are “worn . . . about the same” as they “equally lay”.  It’s what we do on those roads that matter, not the choice of the road.

Unless you’re Stephen Crane’s “Wayfarer” who discovers the thick weeds on the roads are actually knife-blades.

Paint with Colors.

Your readers will thank you.

~~ M A Lee

Symbolic Numbers

In the last blog, “Let’s Play”, I mentioned that working in threes is the preferred number for repetition.

3’s are significant to any audience, spoken or written or visual.

Mythology uses Symbolic Number
the Three Norns by HLM: the Crone, the Matron, the Maiden or Past / Present / Future

Most people will “hear” the first mention but think nothing of it.  A second mention sounds like coincidence.  The third mention is magic for the readers and audience.

A good comic will set up a joke with an unusual phrase, cycle back to that phrase in a later joke–just in passing, then hit that unusual phrase for the clincher of a closing joke.  Expectation has been created with the second mention and fulfilled with the third.  The humor then has a greater effect on the audience.

So, that’s the effect of the 3 in repetition.  What about the other numbers?

Well, numbers are important in the world of literature (and religion, both so closely tied together in their origins that their devices [tropes] take on mythic gravitas.  Wow, that was a side excursion and a half).

The symbolic meaning of numbers (and colors–coming in the next blog) solidified in primitive cultures.  We can see the influence of the natural world and our own bodies in their development into virtually universal meanings.  Many numbers have both positive and negative connotations.

So, here are the meanings I have gleaned:

  • 1 = the Self, of course.  Solitary / lonely  (positive / negative).  Independence, self-reliance.  Rank, descending or ascending (I’m number 1!  or the starting [lowest] point).
  • 2 = companionship, love.  Deception > two-faced
  • 3 = mystery > e.g., the Moirae, the three Fates of ancient Greece; the three Erinyes ( the Furies who are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone); the three Norns; the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; past / present / future;  Plato’s tripartite being: mind / body / soul.
  • 4 = the number representing Earth > e.g., north / south / east / west; the basic elements of earth / air / water / fire; and proteins / carbs / lipids / acids; the luck of a four-leaf clover; the four gospels; four mathematical operations; the Beatles.
  • 5 = 1/2 of 10 and thus halfway to completion; the limits of aspiration.  The musical staff is on five lines;  it takes both treble and bass staffs to create full harmony.  The five Sikh symbols.  The pentagram.
  • 6 = doubled mystery > secrecy, magic
  • 7 = perfection, absolute.
  • 8 = rebirth (one more than perfection > starting over), renewal OR as 8 is between 5 and 10, on the road to completion.
  • 9 = 3 + 3 + 3 = intensified mystery.
  • 10 = completion, fulfillment.
  • 11 = transition, thresholds, the liminal space. Over time, 11 became associated with death, which is the greatest of thresholds to cross.  BTW, literature pre-supposes that man has an existence after death, whatever form that existence might take; so it’s this existence, crossing the threshold, and the after-existence.  In literature, death is not a stoppage–unless it’s modern literature.  Oh, well.
  • 12 = man’s relationship to the Divine, in whatever form the Divine takes > 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Christ, 12 Signs of the Greek Zodiac, 12 cycles of the Chinese Years, 12 chief gods of Olympus, and more.
  • 13 = considered unlucky because man steps beyond his relationship with the Divine to pursue his own path, and challenging the gods [as Tantalus discovered] is never wise.  Gradually, it became associated with the occult.

How do you work with symbolic numbers in writing?

Using symbols can add surprise and wealth to any communication:

  • Instead of a Council of 5 have a Council of 4, representing the four pillars of earth.
  • Instead of four traps, have 6.
  • For a protagonist who never achieves his goal (how sad), have the number 5 constantly pop up:  a meeting at 5 o’clock, 5 friends who give him advice he never takes, the missed train on Platform 5, the fifth missed message from his boss, the 5th time he forgot his anniversary on May 5.
  • Bloggers constantly write “Here’s 5” or “the Necessary 7” or “Top 10”.  Change it up with other numbers that match to your point.

When it’s time to flesh out the details of your outline, think through the numbers and see if they can magically assist you.

Happy writing!

~~M A Lee