The Colour Red And Its Role In Ancient Literature/Cultures – Its Spiritual Roots

In the rapidly evolving sphere of design, colours carry with them more than just aesthetic appeal; they imbue creations with depth, emotion, and historical significance. In our latest exploration for TDKS Design Magazine, I invite you on a fascinating journey through the colour red—a hue that has shaped societies, cultures, and traditions across the epochs. From the bloody fields of ancient battles to the serene brushstrokes in religious texts, red has always been more than a colour. It’s a storyteller, a harbinger of emotions, and a symbol deeply rooted in the human psyche. Join us as we unwrap the rich tapestry of red’s legacy, tracing its influence from antiquity to contemporary design, and discover how this vibrant colour continues to inspire and provoke.

The King Of History – The Bible

Adam’s Name

The name Adam can be related to the Hebrew word for “red” (אדם, ‘adom), suggesting a connection to the red earth or clay from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7).

Esau’s Appearance and Soup

Esau is described as being red all over when he was born (Genesis 25:25). Later, he sells his birthright for red stew, emphasising his impulsive nature (Genesis 25:30-34).

The Red Heifer

In Numbers 19, the ashes of a red heifer are used for the purification of sin, symbolising cleansing and sanctification.

The Scarlet Cord

Rahab uses a scarlet cord as a sign for Joshua’s spies to spare her house during the fall of Jericho, signifying protection and salvation (Joshua 2:18-21).

The Scapegoat Ritual

On the Day of Atonement, a scarlet thread is tied to the scapegoat that carries away the sins of the people, representing sin and its removal (Leviticus 16).

Bloodshed and War

Red is frequently associated with blood and violence in prophetic visions and narratives. For example, Isaiah 63:1-6 depicts a figure with garments stained red from treading the winepress of wrath, symbolising judgement and warfare

The Red Dragon

In the Book of Revelation, a great red dragon represents Satan, embodying deception, evil, and opposition to God (Revelation 12:3).

The Scarlet Beast

Also in Revelation, a scarlet beast symbolises the power and kingdoms opposed to God, carrying the harlot Babylon (Revelation 17:3-4).

Scarlet Garments

In various passages, scarlet or red garments are mentioned, symbolising wealth, luxury, or sin. For example, the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 is clothed in scarlet, and the harlot Babylon in Revelation 17 is adorned with scarlet, each bearing different symbolic meanings.

Redemption through Blood

The shedding of animal blood in sacrifices (e.g., Exodus 12 with the Passover lamb) and ultimately the blood of Jesus Christ symbolise atonement and redemption (New Testament references to Christ’s blood, such as in Hebrews 9:12-14).

The Bhagavad Gita 

Duty and Righteous Action (Karma Yoga)

Red, symbolising action, passion, and energy, can be indirectly related to the teachings of Krishna about performing one’s duty without attachment to outcomes. This concept encourages action that is pure and devoted, much like the vigorous and passionate energy red represents.

Devotion (Bhakti Yoga)

Red is often associated with love and devotion in Hindu culture, which can be connected to the Bhakti Yoga path described in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna emphasises the importance of loving devotion towards God as a means to achieve ultimate liberation.

Spiritual Energy

In Hindu tradition, red is also associated with the root chakra, which is considered the foundation of physical and spiritual energy. While not directly mentioned, the Bhagavad Gita’s discussions around spiritual practices and energy can be symbolically linked to the vitality and life force that red represents.

Warrior Spirit

The context of the Bhagavad Gita is a conversation on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Arjuna is conflicted about going to war against his own kin. Red, symbolising courage and bravery, indirectly reflects the warrior spirit that Arjuna must embody to fulfil his duty as a Kshatriya (warrior class).

Greek Philosophy

Empedocles

One of the earliest philosophers to theorise about colour was Empedocles, who posited that everything in the universe was composed of four roots (earth, air, fire, and water) and two forces (love and strife). While his work does not detail colours specifically, the association of fire with red could be seen as relevant to the understanding of red’s significance in terms of warmth, energy, and life.

Plato

In Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his work “Timaeus”, he describes the visual process and discusses the interaction between internal and external fire (light) to explain vision. Although not explicitly focusing on red, this interaction could be considered when thinking about the perception of vibrant colours like red and their strong presence in the visible spectrum.

Aristotle

Aristotle offered a more detailed theory of colours in his work “De Coloribus” (attributed to him, but its authorship is disputed). He suggested that colours arise from the interaction of black and white, with other colours being mixtures of these two. Red, in this framework, could be understood as a primary colour resulting from light’s dominance over darkness. He saw colours as directly related to the elements, with red possibly connected to fire, denoting warmth and activity.

Symbolic and Cultural Significance

Beyond the philosophical theories of colour, red held significant symbolic and cultural meanings in ancient Greece. It was associated with the god of war, Ares, and thus came to symbolise war, bravery, and strength. Red was also connected to love and beauty, embodied by figures such as Aphrodite and Eros, symbolising passion and desire.

Art and Mythology

The use of red in Greek art and pottery is notable, with red-figure pottery being a key example where red clay was used to create figures against a black background. This artistic choice reflects the appreciation and significance of the colour in Greek culture. Additionally, myths and legends often feature red, from the golden apple of Eris to the wine-dark sea described by Homer, indicating its importance in storytelling and imagery.

Sumerian Mythology

Religious and Mythological Symbolism

In Sumerian mythology, colours often had symbolic meanings attached to gods and goddesses or were used in rituals. Red, for example, could be associated with life, creation, fertility, and also destruction or war. Given the duality found in many Sumerian deities, red’s associations would likely reflect both protective aspects and the potential for chaos or violence.

Royal and Divine Statues

Many statues of gods, goddesses, and important figures from the Sumerian civilization were painted with red ochre, among other colours. This use of red could signify the vitality and divine essence of the figure represented, marking them as beings of significant power and importance.

Cuneiform Tablets

While the clay tablets themselves are not red, the use of cuneiform script to record hymns, prayers, and incantations sometimes references offerings and rituals involving red-coloured items. These could be grains, fabrics, or other materials dyed red, used in ceremonies to invoke or appease particular deities.

Ceramics and Pottery

Sumerian ceramics sometimes utilised red pigments, which could indicate various symbolic or practical purposes. The presence of red in pottery, whether for everyday use or ceremonial objects, underscores the importance of colour in conveying meaning or status.

Cosmetics and Clothing

Evidence suggests that Sumerians used natural pigments for cosmetics and dyes, including red tones derived from minerals and plants. These red dyes for clothing or makeup could have signified social status or roles within religious contexts, similarly to how other ancient cultures used colour to denote hierarchy or vocation.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is more Akkadian than Sumerian in its later forms, it has roots in Sumerian stories. References to colours in the epic, including red, are often used descriptively but can carry symbolic weight, reflecting themes of life, death, heroism, and the divine.

The Legacy Of Red

Our exploration across the annals of history reveals the profound impact and nuanced interpretations of the colour red, firmly establishing its significance beyond mere visual stimulation.

As we in the design community harness the power of red in our projects, it’s crucial to internalise these historical contexts and psychological associations. Whether we’re choosing the perfect shade for a branding project, adjusting saturation levels in photography, or employing filters in video editing, the legacy of red offers invaluable insights.

By being mindful of red’s deep ties to the human psyche—its ability to evoke passion, danger, or sanctity—we enrich our work with layers of meaning and emotion. As we at, Tokyo Design Studio, continue to push the boundaries of creativity, let the historical tapestry of red inspire us to imbue our designs with soul-stirring depths, making each choice of hue, tone, and effect not just an artistic decision, but a homage to the vivid mosaic of human experience.

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