Practical Color Theory, Part 1
Red, a King Dethroned
The Whimsical work of Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939
Dawn of a New Year
Tackling New Media
Red, a King DethronedMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
It should come as no surprise that red, the color of human blood, has rich and stratified symbolic associations, but it can be surprising indeed when we come to realize how old those associations really are.
As we saw last month, red ochre (the pigment produced from pulverized hematite, the blood-stone) (1) is often found in prehistoric burial sites, but not only there. Eight thousand pieces of red ochre, some of which bear carved symbols, have been found in a South African site, Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Cape Town, associated with finely worked arrowheads and animal bones used in the making of utensils. The finds have been dated to about 70 000 years ago.
Qafzeh Cave, in Israel, has yielded ochre-painted Homo Sapiens remains as old as 90 000 years ago, associated with 71 pieces of ochre. In Khavcekh Cave (again an Israeli site) were found ochre-painted human bones as old as 100 000 years ago, a discovery that, at the moment, is the oldest evidence of symbolic thinking in humans.
In one specific site, in the region of Krems-Wachtberg in Southern Austria (a site inhabited since 40 000 years ago) very interesting discoveries have been made: the bodies of the three so called red ochre babies. The bodies of the children ( buried about 27000 years ago, two of them, possibly twins, age 9-10 months, together the other one, 3 months old, buried alone) where completely immersed in red ochre and had ornaments in ivory. (3) These findings are regarded as of the highest import, as they are evidence of ritualistic ceremonial burial given to the youngest and most helpless members of the community, a sign of respect and honour to those that from a purely ‘economic’ point of view would have been for quite a few years just users of the group’s resources.
In far more recent times we find a similar sign of respect given to children by mean of the color red. In ancient Rome, only senators (a name that, interestingly enough comes from senex, meaning “old man”), magistrates, members of the priesthood and male children were allowed to wear the red-bordered toga praetexta, the red hem functioning (according to some modern scholars) both as a sign of dignity and a sort of ‘circle of protection’ to ward off evil with the protective force of the color of life.
From ancient Rome, to the Middle Ages, to 18th-Century Rhineland, to China and Japan, red has been the color associated with marriage and fertility. Brides dressed in red on their wedding day or at the very least wore a red veil (the flammeum of ancient Roman brides). At the same time red has also been linked to the shedding of blood, so executioners and ‘shock troops’ of any ages (from the soldiers of ancient Sparta to the Byzantine Immortals) wore red.
The red of fire, passion and military ardour could, if not tempered, fall into the excess of empty sensuality and senseless violence, so we have the red dragon of the Revelation and, in the European Middle Ages, we see the personification of lust dressed in red.
An interesting question is the perceived malignity of red-haired people. From the northern Italian: il migliore dei rossi ha buttato suo padre nel pozzo (the best of the reds threw his father into the well), to the Florentine rossi non son buoni neppure I maiali (not even pigs are good, if they are red) to “red hair, evil hair” and “red beard - devil's way,” to the folk belief that a red-haired girl should not churn butter (or in other instances milk the cow) because she would make the milk turn bad (curiously enough present even in Ireland), the belief is both old and widespread.
The bad connotation is present in the Bible (Esau, for instance, even though king David was said to have red hair as well) and in Roman poetry. One could argue for the relative rarity of red hair in the Mediterranean region and their perceived extraneity/strangeness, but the same isn’t true for central and northern Europe or for the British Isles. There we find, both in the Arthurian cycle and in the epic of Roland, red hair attributed only to traitors or felons (like Meleagrant, the knight who kidnaps queen Guinevere, or Ganelon, Roland’s betrayer). To compound the evidence of the red-heads as ‘outside the boundaries,’ often in iconography red hair and left-handedness are associated: in illuminated manuscripts, though not all red-haired characters are left-handed, nevertheless all the left-handed ones are red-haired, up to the beginning of the 15th Century (4).
It is interesting to notice the turning of this literary and iconographic topos on its head in modern speculative literature. In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, red hair is a sign of laran (PSI powers) and the members of the ruling PSI-endowed aristocracy are often both red-haired and left-handed. Legions of red-haired heroines populate both fantasy and science fiction literature and illustration. (There are way more heroines than heroes... is this owed to the supposed high sensuality of red-haired women mentioned in another series of folk sayings?)
As mentioned, the old opinion of the red-heads as ‘other’ is ancient and widespread. A very recent discovery, though, can suggest a fascinating, if extremely speculative hypotheses.
A few weeks ago the results of DNA analyses on Neanderthal organic samples were published and announced: the people those samples belonged to were fair skinned and red-haired.(5) Palaeontologist are considering a strong possibility (to be confirmed by analyses of findings like the red ochre babies ) that Neanderthal and Sapiens groups, both present in Europe, cross-bred in different times originating a mixed population. What if the red-hair character entered the Homo Sapiens genetic pool through the Neanderthal, so that at the dawn of human time red hair meant literally a different heritage?
A whole book would probably not be enough to expose an in-depth history of red. I hope the taste I could give you in the limited space of this column has at least piqued your curiosity. Next month, in celebration of the Chinese New Year our theme will be rats.
(1) From the Greek haimatītēs, blood-like
(2) data from http://www.paleolithicartmagazine.org/pagina110.html by L. Filingeri
(3) from http://www.margheritacampaniolo.it/archeo/infanti.htm by M. Campaniolo.
(4) From M. Pastoreau, L’Uomo e il Colore Giunti 1987
(5) See for instance http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003975496_neanderthal26.html
Red ochre sticks, sanguigna, the oldest pigment known to man is still used in modern art.
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