Brenton Dickinson has an interesting post up about his upcoming critique of Michael Ward’s theory that the Narnia books were written to illustrate the ideas of medieval planetary astrology (one book per planet). I read a bit about Planet Narnia when it came out, but have never got around to reading it, partly because I can see that the books have planetary symbolism now that it’s been pointed out, but it is not the main point of the books.
Paganism is an umbrella term for a group of religions that venerate the Earth and Nature, and the ancient Pagan deities. These religions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Animism, Shamanism, Eclectic Pagans and various other traditions. All of these traditions share an urge to celebrate life and to honour our connection with all other beings on the planet. Pagans often emphasise the cyclical nature of reality, and so enjoy the cycle of the seasons and the dance of Sun and Moon.
Green is the colour everyone immediately associates with Paganism. It is the colour of nature, of trees, and all growing things. It is associated with the Green Man, a symbol of our connection to Nature, and a manifestation of the life-force. Many Pagans also like the colour purple for its spiritual connotations (it is associated with the crown chakra). Interestingly, purple and green were also the colours of the suffragette movement.
Photo by OceanBlue-AU [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The metals are traditionally associated with the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon and the stars, mercury for Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter and lead for Saturn.
The white, red and and black colours of the Triple Goddess owe a lot to Robert Graves’ seminal work The White Goddess. He derived it from the tendency of the Irish myths to declare those “otherworldly” colours in combination, such as the red-eared white cow that was Brigid’s only food as an infant, the red, white and black oystercatcher that is called “Brigid’s bird” or the red-eared white dogs that occur in so many stories as Otherworld animals.
The four elements are very important in Paganism, and different mythological systems associate them with different colours. Earth is associated with stability, fertility, strength and nurturing, and can be represented by green, brown, or white. Air symbolises intellect, the breath of life, and the spirit, and can be depicted as yellow, white, or black. Fire represents energy, intuition, passion and vitality, and can be orange or red. Water represents love, emotion, fluidity, and healing, and can be blue or green.
The rainbow is an important symbol for Pagans. To Heathens, it the symbol of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between the world of deities (Asgard) and the world of humans (Midgard). For many Pagans, the colours of the rainbow correspond to the colours of the chakras (borrowed from Hinduism). It is also the symbol of LGBT sexuality.
Photo by Nicholas_T [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Diana Paxson and her branch of Asatru (a Heathen tradition) associate colours with deities: Oðinn is black and blue; Thor red; Freya and Freyr green and gold, or sometimes brown.
White is the colour of light, and is associated with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. It is also the colour most often chosen for Druid robes, because of its association with the Sun.
Black is the colour of darkness, but for Pagans, darkness symbolises a time of rest, dreams, and the hidden powers of Nature. It is also a symbol of the fertile earth, in whose dark depths seeds can germinate. It is also the colour of death and the underworld, but death is seen as part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and so is not to be feared. For some Pagans, black is the colour of the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and so represents the wisdom of old age. It is also the colour of women, of the cycles of the human body, and of those people considered “non-white.” Black speaks to our love of mystery, night, and the realms of the unconscious and “starlight” consciousness. It’s the color of soil, dirt, compost. It represents wholeness.
Important Pagan Dates
There are different Pagan festivals depending on which Pagan path you follow, but many Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wiccan and Druid Wheel of the Year.
Samhain or Hallowe’en falls on 31st October, and is a festival of the ancestors and the otherworld. Its colours are autumnal: the orange skin of pumpkins, the rich reds and golds of autumn leaves, and the brown colour of the bare fields. Heathens celebrate the festival of Winternights around this time; historically this was a big sacrificial feast at which gods, elves and/or ancestors were welcomed. Nowadays Heathens make offerings of mead to the deities and wights (powers).
Yule or Winter Solstice is on 21st or 22nd December, when we celebrate the return of the light as the days begin to lengthen again. The colours of Yule are red and green for the holly and its berries, dark green for the evergreens that are brought into the house, the green and white of the mistletoe, gold for the returning Sun. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, which is where the customs of the Lord of Misrule and giving presents come from, as the masters had to serve their slaves and give them gifts.
Imbolc, celebrated on 2nd February, is when the ewes begin to lactate, and it is associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid, lady of smithcraft, healing and poetry. The colours of Imbolc are white and red; white for the ewes’ milk and the swan, which is the bird of Brighid, and red for the new growth on the trees, and for the fire of Brighid.
Photo by Juggling Mom [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Spring Equinox usually falls on 21st or 22nd March, and is often represented as being darkness and light in dynamic balance, because the days and nights are equal – but the light is in the ascendancy. The goddess of this festival is only known from a reference by the Venerable Bede, but it has been suggested that she may have been a goddess of Spring and of the Moon, since hares are sacred to the Moon and are associated with this festival.
The Festival of Beltane falls on 30th April and 1st May, and celebrates life, love and fertility. Its main colour is green – the fresh green of the leaves on the trees. This is the time of year for Maypoles (traditionally decorated with multicoloured ribbons) and for leaping over the Bel-fire with your beloved.
Photo by yksin [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Summer Solstice usually falls on 21st or 22nd June, and its colours are yellow (for the Sun and for the St John’s Wort flower, which is the flower of Midsummer) and red (for the heat of the Sun).
Lughnasadh or Lammas is the Harvest Festival, and is celebrated on 31st July and 1st August. Its colours are the colours of the harvest: the gold of ripening wheat and the harsh light of the Sun, and sometimes red for the poppies that grow among the corn.
This post was originally published at the Colour Lovers blog on 14 November 2007. It was part of a series on colour symbolism in different religious traditions:
See also: The Colorful Diwali Festival of Light
Acknowledgements and Sources
- M Macha Nightmare – information about green and purple
- Inanna – comments on the colour
- Dana Kramer Rolls – information about Asatru deity colours
- Brenda Daverin – information about the connection of the Triple Goddess colours with Irish myths.
- Chas Clifton – connection of the Triple Goddess colours with Robert Graves
- The Four Classical Elements, Patti Wigington
- Winternights, Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz
The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards. And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.
I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.
The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.
What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.
Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.
According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:
The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.
Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.
My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.
Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers. You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.
Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.
Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft. The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.
So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?
According to CG Jung, there are three levels of symbolism: personal, cultural, and universal.
Personal symbolism is what things mean to you. So, depending on what part of England you live in, the symbolic colour of earth might be different for you. If you live in Devon, where the soil is red, due to the red sandstone geology, then the symbolic colour of earth might be red for you; whereas if you live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where earth is black, then you the symbolic colour of earth for you might be black. Personal symbolism may also vary depending on your experiences, your preferences, and your outlook on life. A particular tree might represent first love for you because you experienced your first kiss under it, for example. Or you might have a strong leaning towards the element of water, and therefore it might represent something particular for you.
Personal symbolic associations are not “wrong” or “incorrect” – but they don’t necessarily have any meaning for anyone else, unless they happen to share those associations. Poets and novelists often make use of personal symbolism to create new and interesting metaphors and imagery in their poems and stories.
Cultural symbolism is the set of symbolic associations something has within a particular culture. For example, in Europe, the colour black represents mourning; in other cultures, white is the colour of mourning. In China, the colour red is particularly lucky; in English folklore, a bride should never wear either red or green, because those are the colours of the Fair Folk. In China, dragons are associated with water, live in lakes and wells, and bring rain; in Europe, dragons are fiery creatures that live under the earth. And so on.
Universal symbolism is a symbolic association that appears to exist independently of culture, or that occurs in all cultures. Universal symbolism is generally derived from our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. For example, a hearth-fire, being generally a pleasurable thing, is good and associated with hospitality; and cold/wet/dark/outside, being generally not pleasurable, is bad.When you are examining symbolism for use in ritual, it is a good idea to think about whether it is a personal symbol, only representing the thing symbolised for you and a small handful of others; a cultural symbol that is specific to a particular group of people; or a universal or very widespread symbol. It is of course fine to use a personal or cultural symbol in a ritual – but you may need to explain how you are using it, and what it means to you, or in the context of the culture or mythology you are drawing upon.
A related concept is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Substantiated Personal Gnosis (SPG). An Unverified Personal Gnosis is an insight or revelation that you have received about the nature of a deity, or the nature of reality. It can be verified by checking it against experience, and/or other people’s insights and revelations, and/or with reference to the lore of the particular culture you are working within. The Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) is similar to personal symbolism – it is not “wrong”, but don’t expect other people to agree with you unless it chimes with their experience, or with the cultural lore associated with the deity and/or pantheon you are working with.
Many people are dismissive of UPG, but there is no need to dismiss it as “incorrect” – you only need to say that it doesn’t chime with your experience, and move on.
Many people are afraid that their personal symbolic associations with particular things are somehow wrong – but again, there is nothing wrong with creativity and personal symbolism, but your personal symbolism may not work for everyone. This is why magic and the occult are an art and not a science.