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The Essence of Color

Color-based magic is quite popular amongst witches, and is one of the first set of correspondences many of us study.  In a spellworking the colors may be coordinated from the candles, to the altar cloth, to any stones/crystals, etc., with all of the elements combining to symbolize the intent of the worker.  Green items may be gathered for a money-drawing charm, or perhaps red for a spell to give courage and strength.  Witches also typically use the primary colors of vision and pigment to represent the balance of the elements: red for fire, blue for water, yellow for air, and green for earth.

While there are many books available on the market that offer pre-made lists of the associations for various colors, it also tends to be true that no two are the same!  Most agree on the colors of the elements (though even in that there is variation between traditions).  Beyond this you tend to find very long lists that are difficult to memorize let alone comprehend the reasoning behind them.  One of the most meaningful exercises I ever did as part of a class on correspondences was to come up with my own associations.  For that reason I will not supply yet another list of colors and their meanings here.  Instead I would like to delve into the nature of color itself, and perhaps uncover a new layer of meaning for use in magical work.

What is color?  As humans the hues we perceive and acknowledge are based on our visual system.  The standard eye has both rod cells, which perceive only shades of black and white, and cone cells, which differentiate colors.  Color vision was a crucial adaptation for our ancestors, allowing humans to tell ripe red fruit from green for one thing.  Other animals also possess color vision, but the colors we as humans perceive are determined by the ranges of wavelengths of light our cone cells respond to.  The longest we are capable of seeing is about 700nm (red) and the shortest is about 400nm (violet).  There are three types of cone cells in the eye, nicknamed “red” “green” and “blue” cone cells for the primary wavelength of light they react to.  When a ray of light hits the retina the wavelengths present stimulate the appropriate cone cells and the brain interprets this as color.

As an example, suppose you are looking at a computer screen which emits only yellow light.  The wavelength of this light (~590-560nm) hits your eye and stimulates your cone cells to tell your brain what you see is “yellow.”  Here is where it gets interesting.  That wavelength of light is actually stimulating both the red cone cells and the green cone cells, whose ranges overlap.  However it does not stimulate any blue cone cells.  So what happens if you were to shine both a red light and a green light into the eye instead?  You’d see yellow!  This is exactly what happens if you cross a red and green beam of light and shine it on a surface: the overlapping area appears yellow.  What does this mean?  It simply means that the human eye is limited in the colors it can perceive based on its anatomy, and that some colors are not only analogous to wavelengths of light, but also to combinations of cone cell stimulation.

Think of it this way: light as we know it is a continuous band of electromagnetic energy all the way from 400-700nm.  If our eyes were capable we could tell the difference between a wave at 560nm and one at 570nm, or all of the bands in between.  What we detect as the ROYGBIV colors in a rainbow is unique to us as human beings, and evolved as a consequence of what helped us to survive.  Many insects could be said to see “colors” we cannot because they can see into the ultraviolet range.  Some use ultraviolet vision to see patterns on flowers invisible to our eyes, but which aid them in finding food.  The colors we distinguish exist because there are only so many combinations of cone cell stimulation possible with a red/green/blue system.  Just like on/off switches: red plus green equals yellow, red plus blue equals purple, etc.  All cone cells “on” equals anywhere from gray to white, and all “off” equals black.

This gets us to an interesting consequence of the whole system that I’d like to bring back to the idea of using colors in magic.  Yellow is both a specific range of wavelengths and a perception created when red and green are seen in the absence of blue.  In this sense yellow is another way of your brain saying “no blue.”  Visually we perceive yellow and blue to be exact opposites!  Red’s opposite is a combination of green and blue light that we call cyan.  Likewise the absence of green is seen as purple.  Conceiving of color choices in this way can bring a whole new dimension to a working by considering not only what energies are present, but also what energies are specifically not present.  Direct light and pigments work slightly differently in this regard, but the basic principle is the same.  An unlit, dyed candle would appear purple not because it is emitting light itself, but rather because it absorbs the green portion of the spectrum from the light sources around it, while reflecting back primarily red and blue.  It would not be a stretch then to consider the candle as being “green” under its surface rather than purple!  This is not in a literal sense (after all, anything not exposed to light is black), but it has energetic implications that could be harnessed.  A spell calling for a cyan/light blue candle for healing could work in both those energies and the strength and vigor of the red absorbed within.  I’ve seen one of the magical associations of purple listed as a way of ending bad luck.  Is it any wonder then that green is usually associated with being lucky?  There is a great deal of room here for exploration and investigation of the underlying relationships between these color-pairings, and I hope that this contributes to others experimenting on their own to see what can be found.  Using the knowledge of how colors work in this way can bring an added dimension to any witch’s workings, and make any spell that much more effective as a result.

Journal for the Month of August:

More on colors: last year I read an amazing article online, “Violet is not Purple: Is digital imaging broken?”, that got me started on this whole line of thinking about what color really is.  I’m still trying to find a way to see an exhibit of Yves Klein’s artwork so that I can experience some real violet!  Color is such a visceral and emotional part of being human, and contributes to a great deal of the beauty we find in the world.  I felt driven to explore its true nature, not to break it down into cold, scientific terms, but rather to understand how I am blessed to experience something as amazing as a rainbow or a spectacular sunset.  To know that color as we know it really is unique to our human experience makes me feel even that much luckier to have the ability to perceive it.

Harvest season is upon us!  I’m definitely looking forward to the equinox and the fall.  Many of us continue to experience tough times, and I believe it’s especially important now to give thanks for what we have, even when our needs are greater.  For those that are able it is more vital than ever to lend a helping hand to your neighbors and friends.  If nothing else we can all offer our prayers or good wishes to those we love, while knowing that we also receive their love in return!

Until next month, blessed be! )O(