The use of color in art and its symbolic value depended on the range of pigments available; for example, a blue pigment was introduced in ancient Egypt about 2550 BCE. Much color use—whether in visual or written materials—was ultimately based on natural colors, but it was schematic, used to indicate the class of object depicted rather than its relationship to a specific object at a specific time. In addition to natural coloring, there were nonrealistic uses of color, as, for example, the skin color of some gods. Color choices were also, in many instances, governed by systems of patterning. Both the realistic and the nonrealistic uses of color carried symbolic meaning.
In Old Egyptian, basic color terminology was more restricted than the range of colors actually used in art: Old Egyptian had four basic color terms—km, ḥḏ, dšr, and wʒḏ. Other terms were secondary. Although color terms rarely translate exactly from one language to another, the general range of those terms is not in doubt. Km corresponds to “black” and had been used as a pigment from prehistoric times. In dynastic times, it was considered the color of the fertile soil of kmt (“the Black Land”), one of the names for Egypt; it therefore carried connotations of fertility and regeneration. It was also the color of the underworld, where the sun was regenerated each night. The deity Osiris, ruler of the underworld, was referred to in texts as kmjj (“the black one”), which not only alluded to his role in the underworld but also to his resurrection after he was murdered. Black stones were used in statuary to evoke the regenerative qualities of Osiris and the underworld. During some periods, coffins were given a black ground as a reference to the underworld, to Osiris, and to the renewal of the deceased.
The term for “white” was ḥḏ. Like black, it was also a pigment from prehistoric times. White was associated with purity, so it was the color of the clothes worn by ritual specialists. The notion of purity may have underlain the use of white calcite for temple floors. The word ḥḏ also meant the metal “silver,” and it could incorporate the notion of “light”; thus the sun was said to “whiten” the land at dawn.
The term wʒḏ seems to have had its focus in “green” (as the term for “malachite,” a green mineral), but it may also have included “blue.” Green had been used as a pigment from prehistoric times. The term wʒḏ was written with a hieroglyph that represented a green papyrus stem and umbel; it also carried connotations of fresh vegetation, vigor, and regeneration—giving it very positive and beneficial symbolism. For example, the deity Osiris was frequently shown with green skin, to signify his resurrection, and in the twenty-sixth dynasty, coffin faces were often painted green to identify the deceased with Osiris and to guarantee rebirth. In the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), chapters 159 and 160 are for making a wʒḏ-amulet of green feldspar, although the known amulets show that a variety of materials were used, ranging in color from green to light blue. Such amulets were included in funerary furnishings to ensure the regeneration of the deceased.
The most valued of the green stones was mfkʒt (“turquoise”), which was mined in the Sinai. This stone was connected to the deity Hathor, who was called “Lady of Turquoise,” as well as to the sun at dawn, whose disk or rays might be described as turquoise and whose rising was said “to flood the land with turquoise.” Because the color turquoise was associated with the rebirth of the sun, it promised rebirth in a funerary context, so turquoise-colored faience wares were often used as items of funerary equipment.
There was no basic color term in Old Egyptian for “blue,” and there was no blue pigment until about 2550 BCE, with the introduction of one, based on grinding lapis lazuli (Lat., “azure stone”), a deep blue stone flecked with golden impurities. Blue was therefore not part of the original system of color symbolism found in texts, although it became the most prestigious paint color, owing in part to its initial rarity. Because lapis lazuli had to be imported, it was a very prestigious material, which may provide one of the reasons for the high value placed on the color blue in art. In Old Egyptian, “lapis lazuli” was called ḫsbḏ, and the term was then extended to mean, secondarily, the color “blue.” The stone, and by extension its rich blue color, was associated with the night sky—often rendered in dark blue paint with yellow stars—and with the primordial waters, out of which the new sun was born each day; the rising sun was sometimes called the “child of lapis lazuli.” From the post-Amarna period, the deity Amun-Re was normally given blue skin, to symbolize both his role as the creator god who came out of the primordial waters and his nightly regeneration as he passed through the primordial waters in the underworld. Items of funerary equipment made of blue faience were to harness the regenerative properties of the color.
The last basic color term was dšr, written with a hieroglyph that represented a flamingo; it is a warm color, with its focus in red, but it also included yellow and orange, for which there were no basic terms. Red was a pigment used from the earliest prehistoric times. It was considered a very potent color, hot and dangerous, but also life-giving and protective. It is both the color of blood, a substance that relates to life and death, and of fire, which may be beneficial or destructive. It is also a color frequently given to the sun, which may be red at its rising or at its setting, and which can overwhelm with its heat or warm to bring life. In contrast to kmt (the fertile “Black Land”), the term dšrt (“the red land”) referred to the desert, which was inimical to human life and agriculture; it was the domain of the god Seth, who represented chaos, who both threatened the order of the world and helped maintain it by protecting the sun god in his nightly passage through the underworld. The dangerous, uncontrolled aspects of red connected the color to notions of anger, as in the expression dšr jb (“red of heart”), meaning “furious” or “raging.”
In texts, rubrics (Lat., “red pigments”) were often used to emphasize headings, but red ink was also sometimes used to write the names of dangerous entities. For example, in calendars of lucky and unlucky days, the lucky days were written in black and the unlucky ones in red. In execration rituals, red ink was used for the names and figures of enemies, and in many religious and magical texts, the names of dangerous beings, such as Seth and Apophis, were written in red. By contrast, the name of Re is written in black, even in rubrics.
Stones such as rosey or golden quartzite and red granite had solar significance, because of their colors, and they could be used to invoke the regenerative properties of the solar cycle. Royal statuary made of such stones stressed the solar aspect of the kingship. In jewelry, the most frequently occurring red stones were ḫnmt (“red jasper”), mostly used for beads and amulets, and ḥrst (“carnelian”), mostly used for inlay. Chapter 156 of the Book of Going Forth by Day contains the recitation and instructions for activating an Isis-knot amulet of red jasper. The recitation begins: “You have your blood, O Isis. You have your power,” showing the connection between blood, power, and the color red. In Greco-Roman times, ḥrst acquired the meaning of “sadness” or “sorrow,” perhaps because of an increasing emphasis on the negative aspects of red. The stone was unlikely to have carried such negative connotations earlier, because of its popularity as a jewelry component. In the Middle and New Kingdoms, the most frequent combination of stones in inlaid jewelry consisted of lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian. By analogy with the positive symbolism attached to the first two, it seems reasonable to assume that the red carnelian was then valued for its life-giving potential and for its apotropaic (safeguarding) properties. Wearers thereby might harness the potentially dangerous powers of red for their own protection and benefit.
Although yellow occurred as a pigment from prehistoric times, there was no basic color term for it in Old Egyptian, unless it was included in dšr. Like red, it was used as a color for the sun disk and so carries solar significance. In art, yellow pigment was often used to represent the metal “gold” (nbw), and gold, too, was closely associated with the sun god, who was said “to be made of gold” and “to flood the Two Lands with gold.” In the eighteenth dynasty, black-ground coffins were decorated in yellow or gold, symbolizing the nightly renewal of the sun in the underworld, from which it rose each morning.
According to texts, gold was not only associated with the sun but also was the flesh of the gods. Re's bones were said to be of silver, his flesh of gold, and his hair of true lapis lazuli. The divine snake (in the Story of the Ship-wrecked Sailor) had a body covered with gold and eyebrows of true lapis lazuli. Descriptions of divine cult statues indicate that they were fashioned from precious metals and stones. One of the very few surviving cult statues is made of solid silver, originally overlaid with gold; the hair is inlaid with lapis lazuli. Those three minerals were considered to be solidified celestial light, and they were fitted to form the bodies of deities.
Although the painted images of deities in temple reliefs and elsewhere were often shown with blue hair, their skin color seldom indicated gold flesh. Most male deities were represented with reddish-brown skin; most female deities with yellow skin, similar to the colors used to differentiate human figures. Nevertheless, other colors, such as the green skin of Osiris, also occurred. Osiris was occasionally shown with black skin, to refer to the renewing properties of Egypt's black soil and the underworld. The jackal that represented the deities Wepwawet and Anubis was also shown in black (although the majority of jackals are sandy-colored), to signify the funerary role of those gods and their connection with the underworld. The reference of black to fertility also makes it a suitable color for the ithyphallic figures of Min and Amun-Re(-Kamutef).
Black skin was given to some royal images, to signify the king's renewal and transformation. Although throughout his funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, the eleventh dynasty king Nebhepetre Montuhotep I was regularly shown in relief and in statuary with reddish-brown skin, one statue found ritually buried shows the king with black skin, to symbolize his renewal in the afterlife and possibly his identification with Osiris. A fragment of relief, on which the king is suckled by the Hathor cow, shows him with black skin, to portray the transformation caused by the divine milk. The eighteenth dynasty king, Amenhotpe II, erected a statue group at Deir el-Bahri to illustrate the same theme. There, however, the image of the king being suckled had the normal reddish-brown skin—but in a second royal image, the transformation of the king was symbolized by his black skin, as he stood beneath the head of the Hathor cow.
The association of black with the underworld and its transformatory powers explains the black statues of the king that were buried in the royal tomb of Tutankhamun and in other New Kingdom royal tombs. For similar reasons, the faces on nonroyal coffins were, during some periods, also painted black. The most common color for coffin faces, however, apart from “natural” red (male) and yellow (female) was gold, which both showed the owner of the coffin as successfully transformed into a divine being and also linked the deceased with the sun god, whose endless cycle he or she hoped to join.
From the eighteenth dynasty onward, figures of Amun-Re were depicted as blue. The color referred both to the primordial waters of lapis lazuli and to the blue of the sky across which the sun travels. The lapis lazuli blue skin set the god apart from the other deities, emphasizing his status as “king of the gods”: the most important god was given a body of the most precious stone. Perhaps a lapis lazuli cult statue of the god once existed.
Goddesses show far less variation in skin color than gods, usually being depicted with the yellow skin also given to human women. When male deities are shown with a reddish-brown skin, they have the color normally given to human men. Thus, the gender distinction encoded for human figures was transferred at times to the divine world. The symbolism inherent in the skin colors used for some deities and royal figures suggest that the colors given to human skin—although initially seeming to be naturalistic—might also be symbolic. Male and female skin colors were most probably not uniform among the entire population of Egypt, with pigmentation being darker in the South (closer to sub-Saharan Africans) and lighter in the North (closer to Mediterranean Near Easterners). A woman from the South would probably have had darker skin than a man from the North. Thus, the colorations used for skin tones in the art must have been schematic (or symbolic) rather than realistic; the clear gender distinction encoded in that scheme may have been based on elite ideals relating to male and female roles, in which women's responsibilities kept them indoors, so that they spent less time in the sun than men. Nevertheless, the significance of the two colors may be even deeper, marking some as yet unknown but fundamental difference between men and women in the Egyptian worldview.
The choice of the single red-brown color to represent the Egyptian man, rather than a more realistic range of shades, should also be considered within a wider symbolic scheme that included the representation of foreigners. The foreign men to the north and west of Egypt were depicted by yellow skin (similar to that of traditional Egyptian women); men to the south of Egypt were given black skin. Although undoubtedly some Egyptians' skin pigmentation differed little from that of Egypt's neighbors, in the Egyptian worldview foreigners had to be plainly distinguished. Thus Egyptian men had to be marked by a common skin color that contrasted with images of non-Egyptian men. That Egyptian women shared their skin color with some foreign men scarcely mattered, since the Egyptian male is primary and formed the reference point in these two color schemes—contrasting in one with non-Egyptian males and in the other with Egyptian females. Within the scheme of Egyptian/non-Egyptian skin color, black was not desirable for ordinary humans, because it marked out figures as foreign, as enemies of Egypt, and ultimately as representatives of chaos; black thereby contrasted with its positive meaning elsewhere. This example helps demonstrate the importance of context for reading color symbolism.
The color that regularly embodied both positive and negative meanings was red. While the potency of red undoubtedly derived from the power inherent in its dangerous aspects, again it was the context that determined, in any given case, whether the color had a positive or a negative significance.
- Aufrère, Sydney. L'univers minéral dans la pensée égyptienne. Cairo, 1991. Mainly devoted to exploring the symbolism of metals, stones, and their colors.
- Baines, John. “Color Terminology and Color Classification: Ancient Egyptian Color Terminology and Polychromy.” American Anthropologist 87 (1985), 282–297. Fundamental article on ancient Egyptian color terminology and color usage in Egyptian art.
- Baines, John. “Colour Use and the Distribution of Relief and Painting in the Temple of Sety I at Abydos.” In Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt, edited by W. V. Davies. London, forthcoming. Explores color use and meaning in the temple of Sety I at Abydos, with comments on color symbolism in temples in general.
- Dolińska, Monika. “Red and Blue Figures of Amun.” Varia Aegyptiaca 6 (1990), 3–7. Discusses the significance of Amun figures having blue skin.
- Fischer, H. G. “Varia Aegyptiaca. 1. Yellow-skinned Representations of Men in the Old Kingdom.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963), 17–22. Studies Old Kingdom representations of male officials with yellow skin and suggests that in mature figures it symbolizes the successful bureaucrat who sits in his office all day out of the sun; in youthful figures that represent statues, both dark- and light-skinned figures alternate as part of a patterning system.
- Griffiths, J. G. “The Symbolism of Red in Egyptian Religion.” In Ex Orbe Religionum. Studia Geo Widengren, XXIV Mense Apr. MCMLXXII quo die lustra tredecim feliciter explevit oblata ab collegis, discipulis, amicis, collegae magistro amico congratulantibus. Studies in the History of Religions, 21–22. Leiden, 1972. Considers positive as well as negative examples of the use of the color red.
- Kees, Hermann. “Farbensymbolik in ägyptischen religiösen Texten.” Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, phil.-hist. Klasse 11 (1943), 413–479. Fundamental text on color symbolism in Egyptian religious texts.
- Kozloff, Arielle, and Betsy M. Bryan, et al. Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and His World. Cleveland, 1992. Reference is made to the symbolic meanings of both the colored stones and the glazes used in statuary.
- Manniche, Lise. “The Complexion of Queen Ahmosi Nefertere.” Acta Orientalia 40 (1970), 11–19. Suggests that the black images of the queen embody the concept of regeneration, as the fertile ancestress of the royal line of the eighteenth dynasty.
- Pinch, Geraldine. “Red Things: The Symbolism of Colour in Magic.” In Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt, edited by W. V. Davies. London, forthcoming.
- Wilkinson, Richard. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. London, 1994. Chapter 6 is devoted to a discussion of color symbolism.