The Ancient Egyptians’ use of color is a controversial topic, one which is quite often deeply misunderstood. It is a famous point of contention for those overly concerned with “race,” specifically Afrocentrists, some of whom often make claims to the effect of Egyptian deities being “literally Black” because some were depicted with black or reddish-brown skin in some instances, and that Ancient Egyptian society, rather than being a multi-ethnic Afro-Asiatic mosaic* society as has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated to the point of intuitive ubiquity, were originally and uniformly “Black Africans” by virtue of one of the several names for their homeland: Kemet, or “Black Land.” However, such claims furthering specific racial ideologies grossly decontextualize and distort the Ancient Egyptians’ codified systems of metaphor and depiction. These depictions are not always literal or true to life, particularly where the representation of Divine, Otherworldly beings and sacred concepts are concerned. In this article, I will attempt to clear the air by explaining what each of the major colors meant to the Ancient Egyptians, and how those colors were used.
THE COLORS AND THEIR MEANING
The Ancient Egyptian system of color symbolism was mostly but not entirely consistent throughout all regions and time periods. Colors, meanings for colors, and artistic conventions relative to color were revised or added to this system at various points of Ancient Egyptian history. During the Amarna Period, for example (which will not be covered further in this article), many of the preexisting conventions of color symbolism were altered significantly, in order to more fully break away from “the old religion.” Only the more important, consistent rules of color symbolism and lasting additions to them will be discussed in this article, and must be taken under the advisement of these caveats.
This system initially consisted of four basic color-concepts: green, red, black, and white. In Old Egyptian (the stage of Egyptian language spoken from about 2600 BCE to 2000 BCE), they are called wadj, dešr, kem, and hedj. These were colors derived from mineral pigments, which had been used since Prehistory. Blue (khesbedj / irtiu) and yellow (khenet) enjoyed differentiation and development somewhat later on. Other colors such as gray, pink, orange, and brown, while they clearly could be created by combining the basic pigments and were used in Egyptian art, did not achieve the importance of the preferred, “pure” basic colors. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 106) These “secondary colors” were categorized under the major color-concepts they most closely resembled.
Green — Wadj. This color is predominantly associated with the Nile, the Mediterranean Sea (called Wadj-Wer, “Great Green”), the earth, and vegetation. Ground malachite — a naturally occurring copper ore — was the main source of this pigment, and was the inspiration for the name of this color-concept. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 106) Before the development of the color-concept of khesbedj / irtiu, it is likely that wadj may have included blue hues as well. Additionally, stones and subsequent colors such as turquoise, even while turquoise in particular had its own term, were included under this color-concept rather than the later concept of khesbedj / irtiu. (Robins et al., 58) To do “green things” was an Ancient Egyptian euphemism for life-affirming, ma’at-affirming behavior. Likewise, being associated with vegetation and life in general, the color was a “potent sign of resurrection.” (Wilkinson, SMEA, 108) For this reason, some images of the deceased were painted green in order to identify them with Wesir thus guarantee their (re)birth in the Afterlife. (Robins et al., 58)
Red — Dešr. This Old Egyptian term, while it describes the color red, tended to include the colors yellow and orange, as these were all derived from the same sources: naturally occurring ochre and oxide. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 106, 107; Robins et al., 59) Red was the “heraldic color” of Lower Egypt, embodied by its signature Deshret crown. It was associated with the the sun, both in its terrible radiance and in its life-giving capacity; the solar aspects of Kingship; and virility*; among many other things. It could also be employed to represent negative entities and concepts that embody the dangerous, hostile forces beyond the realm of total control — in other words, isfet. Unlucky days and the names of hostile beings, for instance, were often written in red rather than black ink. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 106) Red as a concept also embodied anger and destruction, and it is from the root dešr that we get the expressions dešr ib — literally “red of heart,” meaning “to be furious” — and dešru, “wrath.” It could also represent the desert, and subsequently the lack of pregnancy and fertility. The use of red in Egyptian art and language was rather ambiguous to say the least, so its meaning must be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Black — Kem. Black pigment was acquired from various forms of carbon, and was one of the earliest pigments known to man. It was chiefly associated with the dark silt of the Nile Valley (hence Kemet, “Black Land”) and the Afterlife. As a natural corollary, it signified “resurrection from the dead and even fertility and thus paradoxically life itself.” (Wilkinson, SMEA, 109) Being akin to wadj, it occurs frequently in all religious contexts. As for its negative connotations, black could also convey total annihilation in the same capacity that red could. This is demonstrated within a relief from the burial chamber of Ramses VI, where bound and decapitated enemies are depicted alternately in red and black. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 112)
White — Hedj and shesep. Like wadj, dešr, and kem, it was a pigment that had been used since Prehistory. White pigment was derived from chalk and gypsum, which were plentiful in Egypt. This was the heraldic color of Upper Egypt, embodied by its signature Hedjet crown. It was associated with light, not just of the sun, but especially of the moon; hedj is also a term for silver, a material believed to have lunar qualities. As the color representative of cleanliness and purity, this was also the color of the clothing of ritual specialists, a number of sacred animals, and of the stone used in temple architecture.
Blue — Khesbedj and irtiu. This blue pigment was produced from lapis lazuli, or khesbedj in Old Egyptian, for which the color-concept was named. The method for producing this pigment was discovered circa 2550 BCE. (Robins et al., 58) This rich blue color is associated with the life-giving properties of the Nile’s waters, the heavenly realms, the Primaeval Ocean, and all their eternal, regenerative natures. Blue was not part of the earliest system(s) of color symbolism, though it would grow to become the most prestigious color. It came to be almost synonymous with royalty, not just because of the pigment’s costliness of both source and refinement, but also as a result of its New Kingdom connection to the Supreme God Amun(-Ra), and the subsequent identification of Pharaohs with their State God beginning in the 18th Dynasty. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 108) By the 19th Dynasty, the “blue form” of Amun was for whatever reason chosen over and gradually replaced His interchangeable and original “red(-brown) form.” Depictions of Amun(-Ra) with blue skin coloration were the sole representations of that deity to survive into later periods of Egyptian art. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 114)
Yellow — Khenet. Like red and white, yellow could represent the sun and its life-giving, regenerative properties. It was used, albeit rarely, to represent the heavens themselves. Yellow served as a two-dimensional substitute for gold, and was seen as symbolic of all that is eternal and imperishable. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 108) Naturally occurring ochre and oxide were yellow pigment’s first sources, and by the latter years of the New Kingdom Period arsenic trisulphide began being used as a source of yellow pigment.
COLORS IN CONTEXT
Before we proceed, we must understand how various color-concepts could be made to stand in for others. As should be apparent to the reader from from the last section, each color shares at least one attribute with one or more of the remaining colors in this system. Colors that embodied equivalent concepts were considered equivalent themselves.
For example, heart scarab amulets could be made in red, blue, or yellow materials, as they all carried solar ergo regenerative connotations. Djed pillar amulets could be made from black, blue, green, and yellow/gold materials — just as Wesir’s skin could be painted in any of these colors — as all these colors symbolized resurrection and eternity.
This interchange of color also means that an object colored black should sometimes be interpreted symbolically as though it were green, a green object as though it were blue, and so on down the line. The specific contexts in which these colors appear with which entities, concepts, and objects determines what meanings we should understand them to be expressing.
Colors of Men
Groups of human beings were given stylized, characterizing skin tones in order to designate their ethnicity. Ancient Egyptian artists gave their Nubian neighbors from the South dark brown or pure black coloration, as we would expect most African groups to be portrayed in any art form. Conversely, Libyans and Bedouins* from just beyond Egypt’s borders in North Africa, along with Canaanites, Hittites, and other “Asiatic” foreigners hailing from the Near East were generally given much lighter complexions, often of yellowish or even near-white hues, which was not a terribly realistic choice of color. Egyptian men since the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100 – 2686 BCE) were almost invariably shown with a reddish-brown skin tone, while Egyptian women were with few exceptions given a light golden skin tone similar to that of “Asiatic” foreigners. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 114 – 115) These skin tones were clearly symbolic, and were only loosely based on objective reality.
The skin tones of humans do not always serve to indicate a particular ethnicity. Such coloration of figures could be used in the same purely symbolic and non-real fashion as was employed in the depiction of deities (which shall be discussed in the next subsection).
It was the rule that living Egyptian Pharaohs were to be rendered in the canonical reddish-brown color of all Egyptian men. In funerary contexts, however, this rule changed. A number of Tutankhamun’s tomb objects illustrate these special rules beautifully. Tutankhamun’s famous ka statues that once stood at either side of the entrance to his burial chamber are shown with pitch-black skin. This is attributable to the color-concept of black as a signifier of all things to do with the Afterlife, along with the Divine — being interchangeable with blue, which represents that concept — and the cycles of rebirth and regeneration. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 115) Another item from Tutankhamun’s burial cache, a double cartouche-shaped unguent container, shows two images of the Pharaoh: one in life, and one in the Afterlife. The “living” image shows Tutankhamun with pale, pinkish skin. The image of the Pharaoh “gone westing” shows him with a black face and pinkish limbs, illustrating that he had “become (a) Wesir” and passed into the Duat. The pinkish tone was not the actual color of his skin, of course. It was ostensibly included under the color-concept of red, thereby representing vigor and vitality.
More striking examples come from the Great Harris Papyrus, which documents the gifts made by Ramses III during the 20th Dynasty to various temples throughout Egypt. Ramses III is shown in several vignettes with stark white skin. The Pharaoh wears the Hedjet crown of Upper Egypt, but it is atypically yellow rather than white. The Pharaoh’s skin would normally be shown as reddish-brown if he were alive, or golden-yellow to show that he was deceased and had become a deity. The “inversion” of these colors occurs in these vignettes because of their equivalence of meaning. White was not a commonly used color for the complexions of the deified deceased, or the Gods. In the same way that silver and electrum (an alloy of gold, silver, and copper) were considered by Ancient Egyptians to be essential equals to gold in the realm of precious minerals, in the two-dimensional realm white could take the place of yellow. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 115; 121)
Colors of Gods
The hair and beards of the Gods were said to be of lapis lazuli, thus blue. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 111) Because black and blue were regarded as equivalent, they could be interchanged as hair colors in depictions of deities. While mythically the flesh of the Gods was believed to be of pure gold and Their bones to be made of solid silver, in the majority of instances specific color-concepts were assigned to various deities in accordance with Their natures and functions. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 114) Underworldly and primordial deities such as Kherty, Wesir, Tatenen, and the entire Ogdoad could be depicted in blue, black, and/or green, for instance. Deities associated with bodies of water, such as Wadj-Wer and Hapi, could be shown with blue or green skin. Gods associated with fertility, such as Min, could be shown with either black or green skin to reflect this quality. Gods perceived as dangerous, warlike, and sexually aggressive in any given instance, such as Set, were overwhelmingly associated with the color red. Hathor was associated with green as per Her connection to turquoise and Her role as “Lady of the West,” but could also be associated with red in light of Her sensuous, sexual qualities, and in Her capacity as an “Eye of Ra.”
Deities could sometimes be depicted with the canonical reddish-brown and yellowish skin tones of Egyptian men and women. However, this was no indication of a literal skin color or “race” for deities. Indeed, the Ancient Egyptians had a saying about it being “impossible to know the color of the Gods.” (Wilkinson, SMEA, 113) Their ultimate substance and being are ultimately unknowable to human beings. They can only be visually comprehended through symbolic representation.
Color and Amulets and Other Objects
As touched upon in previous sections of this article, color was one of the factors which determined the specific functionality of various amulets. For example, Spell 156* of the Book of the Dead is a “recipe” for a tyet amulet to be anointed, strung on a cord, and placed on the throat of the deceased. The tyet, often translated as “life” or “welfare,” was a type of amulet that was typically carved from red jasper or carnelian, or alternatively made from red glass, though they were sometimes produced from other materials of differing color. (Wilkinson, REA, 201) The red color of the stone, along with the amulet’s form, directly links it and infuses it with the power of the blood of the Goddess Aset mentioned within the same spell. This power would, ideally, prevent any harm from coming to the body. Wilkinson suggests that the tyet amulet is possibly a stylized representation of a secured belt, as it closely resembles the styles of knot which secures the clothing of the Gods in many representations. (Wilkinson, REA, 201) Pinch puts forward, alternatively, that it could be meant to resemble a “sanitary towel,” and that the color and material may have something to do with the creative powers of menstrual blood. (Pinch,116) However, taking into account the general taboo against menstrual blood for its connotations of “the absence of pregnancy and thus the lack of fertility,” along with the belief that “the tomb [was] regarded as a uterus in which the mysterious process of rebirth takes place,” this casts some reasonable doubt on that particular suggestion Pinch puts forward. (Frandsen, 103) The association of this protective amulet with the blood, protection, and life-giving powers of the Goddess Aset seems much more likely than any association with a woman’s menses. It is at least clear that the color of the amulet plays an integral role in determining what kind of power and function it has.
According to Richard H. Wilkinson, black stone seems to have been considered a particularly potent symbolic substance that was almost exclusively chosen for creating healing stelae inscribed with spells, referred to by Art Historians as cippi. (SMEA, 110) Wilkinson only talks about cippi dating to the Ptolemaic Period. John F. Nunn points out that these types of magico-medical objects existed at least slightly before this time in the Late Period, if not earlier, and very well may have drawn upon some spells of much earlier texts given strong similarities. (Nunn, 107 – 111) The protective power of a cippus was realized by pouring water over it, or by submersion in the case of a miniature cippus, and then consuming the liquid. The water was “activated” by the images and spells as it passed over the cippus. (Teeter, 176 – 177) Perhaps the black stone was meant to replicate or channel the powers of the Nile or the “Cosmic Waters” which black could represent. These too could then be internalized by consuming any liquid poured over it. The choice of the color of the stone likely had as much to do with the healing power these cippi were believed to possess and confer as the images and spells engraved upon them. Black was, after all, associated with life and renewal. It wouldn’t have been farfetched to extend the elements and powers associated with black to the protection and restoration of the living body, not simply the protection and successful transfiguration of the bodies and souls of the deceased.
Despite the length of this article, it can only serve as a cursory outline of the ways in which color symbolism functions in Egyptian art. Hopefully the reader can extrapolate from the basic and limited explanations and examples provided here, to better understand and appreciate their encounters with Egyptian art elsewhere. The rich, fluid symbolic use of color, and the myriad uses and forms of symbolism within Egyptian art in general, cannot be adequately explained within a single blog article. That said, it can at least be effectively demonstrated within a survey of color symbolism that Ancient Egyptians saw more to the world and the Cosmos than the just the colors, complexions, and outward appearances of objective reality. The “ultimate appearances” of the Gods were not known to them anymore than they can be known to us, and the Ancient Egyptian answer to this mystery was a beautiful and imaginative one: they presented the Gods in many different hues, in many different forms, and filled their tombs and temples with colors upon colors.
1.) See also Donald B. Redford’s Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Throughout this text, Redford explains how immigrant/prisoner/transhumant/sometimes conquering elements in Egypt proper, from Libyans to Nubians to “Asiatics” (Levantine groups, such as the Canaanites and Hyksos), while they were eventually naturalized and adopted some elements of Egyptian culture (some more than others), still retained a good deal of their ethnic distinctiveness. Egyptians were also xenophobic on the whole as many Ancient civilizations were, and thus did not with ease nor in their entirety adopt the customs of their Levantine neighbors to the East and their major African neighbors to their immediate South (Nubia/Sudan) and West (Libya). Redford uses the term “mosaic” to describe the nature of this phenomenon: each ethnic group making up a piece of the overall picture, but without becoming entirely lost in the picture they’re part of — in other words, a heterogeneous, pluralistic society. Although, the reader must carefully note that this pluralism was not always positive or well-intentioned, as in the way many Ancient Egyptians attempted to socially distance themselves from the foreign elements within their then-expanding borders during the Middle and New Kingdom Periods. This contrasts with the ideas of Multiculturalism we’re popularly presented with today, wherein multi-ethnic societies are typically (if often incorrectly) thought of as “melting pots.” In melting pots, at least in the strictest meaning of the term, individual ethnic elements completely assimilate with the dominant/native culture and lose their distinctiveness, resulting in a homogenized common culture. Which, again, the reader must keep in mind is not always positive or well-intentioned.
2.) Set, Who is said to have red hair and eyes, is renowned for His uncontrollable sexual urges and aggression throughout a number of myths. He had become the patron deity of the Ramesside Kings of the 19th and 20th Dynasties, some of whom may have had red hair, though the results of Ceccaldi’s study are not conclusive. (Wilkinson, SMEA, 106 – 107; 216) Red hair — in addition to red being symbolic of masculine, warlike vigor in general — was something of an indicator of male sexual prowess, and by extension, potency of sperm. Whether the Ramesside Kings’ hair was naturally or artificially red, it would have served to enhance their reputations as leaders, since being (perceived as) skilled and ferocious warriors more than capable of producing heirs was part and parcel of maintaining their position on the throne.
3.) Bedouins are not a unified ethno-cultural group. “Bedouin” is a blanket term that refers to a collection of individual nomadic desert tribes which can be loosely filed under “Arab panethnicity.” This is done more for the sake of ease than for accuracy’s sake. Different tribes inhabit different regions, everywhere from Iraq to Egypt. While these different tribes sometimes exhibit different features, the pale complexion generally given to their ancestors in Ancient Egyptian art was likely not a realistic depiction of any Bedouin tribe.
4.) Full text of Spell 156 of The Book of the Dead reads:
“You have Your blood, O Aset; You have Your power, O Aset; You have Your [heka], O Aset. The amulet is a protection for this Great One which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.”
To be said over a knot-amulet of red jasper moistened with juice of the ‘life-is-in-it’ fruit and embellished with sycamore-bast and placed on the neck of the deceased on the day of interment. As for him for whom this is done, the power of Aset will be the protection of his body, and [Heru-sa-Aset] will rejoice over him when He sees him; no path will be hidden from him, and one side of him will be towards the sky and the other towards the earth.
A true matter; you shall not let anyone see it in your hand, for there is nothing equal to it.
(Faulkner translation, Chronicle Books LLC 2008 edition, plate 32)
The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth By Day. Translated by Raymond O. Faulkner. Edited by Eva von Dassow. San Francisco : Chronicle Books LLC, 2008.
Frandsen, Paul J. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 66, No. 2 (April 2007), pp. 81-106
Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London : British Museum Press, 1996.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. 2006 Revised Ed. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2006.
The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Edited by Donald B. Redford. New York : Oxford University Press, 2002.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art – A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1992.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1994.