The Meaning of Green - the Colour of Fate

Dec 17 2012

“So long as hope has anything of green.” - Dante

“Green, how I want you green. Green wind. Green branches.” - Frederico Garcia Lorca

Whether you live in the temperate climbs of the UK or nearer the equator in the tropics, one of the first associations with the colour green is with nature, trees and vegetation. For this reason, green is also associated with the fertility of life (and ideas). The Green Man was an ancient symbol of fertility (and still a common reference today). 

And it’s the key colour of Christmas along with red! The pine has been considered sacred by many cultures (the Oracle at Delphi advised the Corinthians to worship this ‘special tree’ in the same way as gods), and evergreen leaves are a potent symbol of the power of nature.

However, there is an ambivalence in many of these meanings as green is equally associated with death and evil in many cultures. Thus, while green youth, hope and gladness it can also mean change, transitoriness and jealousy. As a colour it sits between blue and yellow, combining the coldness of the intellect with the warmth of the sun (read more here).

Green is the colour of plant life (caused by chlorophyll), and therefore is the colour of the awakening of life. Vishnu, bearing the weight of the world, is depicted as a green faced tortoise, and in Greek and Roman tradition the sea gods were depicted as green (not blue). Green is the colour of water, balancing the red colour of fire. In Chinese tradition, green is also associated with wood. The green bough is a worldwide symbol of immortality.

Ancient Roman fresco of Flora (Spring)

In some languages the same word can mean green or blue (for example, old Chinese, old Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai), and some languages do not distinguish green but have separate words for blue/green and green/yellow. In many European languages the words for ‘green’, ‘grass’ and ‘grow’ have the same roots.

Green is also associated with Spring, reproduction, equality, hope, renewal, resurrection, confidence, nature, Paradise, abundance, prosperity and peace. Green is therefore the colour of fertility and regeneration.

As the colour of unripeness, green is associated with inexperience, folly, naivety and youthfulness (but youth brings vigour and strength too). Green brings death as well as life, and although green is the colour of fresh buds in Spring, it is also the colour of slime and putrefaction (death green instead of life green). The sick are said to have a green complexion (“green at the gills”, and green is the colour of toxicity and poison

In many pagan traditions, green is the colour of the Earth goddess and for ancient Egyptians, green was the colour of Osiris and of unripened corn (which later turned to gold). Osiris was the god of vegetation as well as being the god of the Underworld. For the Egyptians, green was the colour of good health, regeneration and rebirth. Green was also the colour of the Greek goddess Persephone for the same reasons (she was associated with Spring and at the same time Queen of the Underworld).

Osiris

The Green Knight has a major role in Arthurian literature, where is a judge and tester of knights, and as such the other characters see him as friendly but terrifying and somewhat mysterious. The green colour of his skin may be a reference to the devil or Green Man or another figure from Celtic mythology, but no one is sure.

For Alchemists, the Green Lion or Green Dragon is the colour of the young Corn God, growth and hope.

For Christians, vernal green symbolises immortality, life, hope and the triumph of Spring over the the barrenness of Winter (and a symbol of Easter and Christ’s resurrection). It also symbolises initiation and good works and was the colour of the Trinity from Medieval times. However, pale green is associated with the Satan, evil and death and Lucifer is still often portrayed in green (when not in red). A the same time, emeralds are the precious stones of Popes and green is the colour of Irish Catholics. Green is also commonly the colour of the Holy Grail.

As well as emerald stones, green is associated with the Emerald Isle of Ireland, and particularly with St Patrick’s Day (when the Chicago river turns green). In Ireland and elsewhere, green is the colour of leprechauns, four leaf clovers and good luck (but is associated with bad luck in other British influenced cultures).

Green is the sacred colour of Islam, being associated with Mohammed’s cloak (Mohamed’s family are referred to as ‘the four under a cloak’ and associated with the four pillars of Islam). Green is the emblem of salvation and the colopur of the most highly prized riches (spiritual as well as material) including the family. It is the colour of Paradise (which consists of lush green gardens in contrast to the dry brown lands of the Middle East). After the last evening prayer, it used to be common to recount stories of the ‘green man’ (Al Khidr) who is the patron of travellers and a symbol of luck around the Middle East.

For Buddhists, vernal green is life while pale green connotes the kingdom of death. Green Tara (Mahayana tradition) represents youth and vigour.

Green is the colour of the creative spark and is the most restful colour (allegedly you will sleep better in a green painted room). Sleep is always a good to crack a problem or find fertile territory for new ideas. It is also the colour of bile and envy. Green eyes are often associated with mystical powers, as well as jealousy as in Othello’s “green eyed monster“.

In fairy tales and mythology, green is often the colour of fairies, monsters and dragons (as well as the devil). Modern Chinese dragons are also green (but a little more benevolent than those of Western mythology).

Green has often been associated with the occult and also with Martians and aliens, as well as the Incredible Hulk (maybe a link back to the Green Man). In modern times, green is also the colour of traffic lights designating “go”, and a popular colour for country flags. Green is associated with money, and the “greenback” is a popular term for the American dollar (therefore often associated with wealth and prosperity).

Green is the colour chosen by environmentalists (all of which are called ‘Green’ parties). Companies with less than authentic environmental credentials are said to be ‘greenwashing’.

The colour of grass is also the colour of indoor as well as outdoor sports pitches, including billiards and gambling tables.

Those with a ‘green thumb’ have a talent for gardening, ‘greenhorns’ are inexperienced and the ‘green room’ is a waiting room at a theatre before going onstage (a reference which goes back to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the late 17th century which had a room coloured green).

In China, green stands for exuberance, birth, and youth and along with red is the most popular colour (except for men’s hats - read more here). It is the common colour of jade, highly treasured in China. However, dark green is not a popular colour for packaging in China and some negative reactions come from associations with vegetable sellers in Chinese markets.

In India green is a popular colour, symbolising peace and hope and is used on faces in traditional music and dance to represent good people.

For the Japanese, green can represent youth, vigour and nature, as well as the environment and there are few if any negative associations with the colour. Evergreens are seen to symbolise eternal life, never changing colour from season to season, and each season is symbolised by a different green plant. The art of the Japanese garden (even miniature ones) is a popular way of keeping nature close to hand. Green is also associated with young rice paddies (another source of ‘life’).

Green is a strange and complex colour, balancing the bud of life and the decay of death, the cool of the intellect and the warmth of the sun.  Green is fate.

Dedham Vale by John Constable

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean by James Whistler

One response so far

  1. Green … my favorite color … and I don’t even know why …

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