The Meaning of Black - the Underworld of Colour

Oct 09 2012

“[Black] is a nothing without possibilities … a dead nothing after the death of the sun, an eternal silence, without even the hope of a future.”  - Wassily Kandinsky

Genesis tells us that before light existed, “the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Black has the power to swallow other colours up, and some have described black as ‘death with no appeal’ as opposed to white which is ‘death with the hope of rebirth’. So it seems that Asia has a much more positive view of death than the West, and although Europeans and Americans (and some Asians now) think of black as the colour of funerals, this really only dates back to the start of the 13th century, when Pope Innocent III made black the official colour of this rite of passage (reflecting a Greek tradition of dressing dead bodies in black).

Black is the antithesis of white, and its equal as an absolute colour, and depending on its tone can be the absence or the addition of other colours. Symbolically black is most often seen in its negative aspects including primeval darkness, formless matter and the underworld. Black sucks in colour, from which there is no escape and suggests chaos, nothingness, night sky, shadows on the ground, evil, anguish, sorrow, the unconscious and death.

Alechemical work began with black, death and the return to formless chaos, moving to white and finally to red which represents spiritual freedom. Black has long been the colour of melancholy, pessimism, sorrow and misfortune, as in the everyday phrases, black magic, black books, blackmail, black market, and black mass. Black has long been associated with the Satanic rituals, black magic and superstition. The Romans distinguished unlucky days with a black stone and various disasters have stigmatised Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as ‘black’.

Black is also the devils colour, and in combination with red suggests smoke and flames, with Satan called the Prince of Darkness. In the doctrine of the eternal soul, black stands for opacity, density and weight (a load coloured black is perceived as heavier than the same load coloured white).

Black ravens have been symbols of ill future, disease and death, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous narrative poem, and the ‘black widow‘ is likewise a symbol of death (widows in ancient Egypt were symbolised by black doves).

Although black cats are bringers of bad luck in some cultures, in others they bring good luck (including Britain and Ireland). In Celtic mythology, a fairy called the Cat Sith is in the form of a black cat, and the Scottish believe that a strange black cat’s arrival to their home signifies prosperity. Similarly in Japan black cats are considered good luck. Sailors often want a ship’s cat to be black for better luck.

In other Western countries black cats have often been an evil omen, suspected of being in league with witches. In Western and Southern Europe it can be bad luck for a cat when it crosses your path (in Germany, it is bad luck if they cross from right to left and good luck if they cross in the other direction). Gamblers consider black cats unlucky, and in mythology, black cats are often shapeshifters with the ability to change into human shape.

Any ship with black sails is on dangerous waters, and the black sheep of the family is destined to go bad.

Black also symbolises fascism (as in black shirts) and anarchism (the black flag), as well as sadomasochism and bloody dictatorship.

Black is the colour of the god Cronos (Saturn) associated with age, death, melancholy, black bile, time and secrecy.

In the west black was originally the colour of fertility, and in Africa and ancient Egypt the colour of the rich earth and rain clouds (Homer describes the sea as wine-dark). The great fertility goddesses in mythology are all typically black (black Madonnas therefore look back to black Isis, Demeter, Cybele, Kali, Dian of Ephesus and Aphrodite). Black is the equivalent of the Chinese yin symbolising the feminine, intuitive, earthy and maternal.

A black stone (the lapis niger) symbolised the magna mater on the Palentine Hill in Rome, and the Ka’ba, emblem of the Anima Mundi in Mecca, is a cube of black stone. In the old French language of heraldry, black was sable which now means sand reflecting its connection to barren earth.

One modern association with black is film noir, which had its heyday in the late 50s but more recently was the style of my favourite film.

In fashion, black is associated with formality, sophistication, elegance and class (black ties), and famously with la petite robe noire of Coco Chanel. In modern times it is associated with goth subculture.

There are many specific meanings in Eastern culture. In Tibet, black is the colour of evil.

In Chinese, the word hei symbolises the colour and also perversion, sin and repentance. It’s the colour of water, North, winter and yin (hence the associations with mother goddesses and all they stand for). Black is also associated with young boys, trust, high quality, life, stability, the unknown, salty taste, pigs, darkness, death and honour.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (the immortal) is dark, while Arjuna (the mortal) is white, and Hindus also associate black with the Tamas, sensual and downward movement, time, Sudra (untouchable class) and the darker aspects of gods like Kali and Durga. In modern India, black is also associated with laziness, anger, intolerance and alcohol.

In Buddhism, black is the darkness of bondage, while for Christians and Muslims, a black cloak is a symbol of their faith. Christians also associate black with  hell, death, sorrow, mourning, humiliation, spiritual despair, corruption and the evil arts (see above).

In Japan, black is the colour of non-being, night, mystery, anger, wealth, electronics and clothing, even sometimes power and sexuality. The Japanese word sumi is associated with mystery, solemnity, imagination of a different world (the unknown) and misfortune.

Although black is seen as dark and the absence of colour, lets not forget that Matisse called black, “the colour of light and not darkness”, and Auguste Renoir remarked that, “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours was black.”

Gourds by Matisse

“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town, I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”-Johnny Cash

2 responses so far

  1. hi
    just a little note.
    you’re right when you say that the black color is the color of the fascim but you can’t show the Italian monarchy’s flag because the italian flag is always was green-white-red striped, and due to the high contrast of the film used for taking the the picture the red strip is represented as black, but it was red.

    at this link
    http://lh3.ggpht.com/qC5rRBxU5XHw4RQuVZ4klhjHBMkTakRVFeqdsOq3yZ0n0Ka_3sR8LKTsWtI=s526
    you can see one of the flags that d’Annunzio used in Fiume, stored in his home-museum called the ‘Vittoriale degli Italiani’.

    To show black as the color of the fascism you can show the ‘camicie nere’ uniform. The ‘camicie nere’ was the police corps of the fascist govern.

    Regards,

    Giovanni

  2. Giovanni

    Thanks for the correction and the additional information for everyone to access.

    Kind regards,

    Neil

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