art, Art & Aesthetics, Holy Wild

Black & White & Red All Over: The Mysterious Power of Three Common Colors

“Red as blood, white as snow, black as a raven’s wing….” These three colors appear again and again in folklore the world over, but why? What is it about this triad that exerts such power on our collective imaginations?

I’ve been on the trail of a particularly wily band of colors recently. You might have spotted them in some of your favorite fairytales — tagged and tracked as Z65.1 in the Folk Motif Index: “red as blood, white as snow, black as a raven” (or sometimes a crow).

I recently encountered these three colors while researching the old Irish tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows, possibly the most famous love story in Ireland. Certainly the most tragic. An excellent story to tell around Valentine’s Day, in any case. The story tells of the beautiful young maiden Deirdre, who is cloistered away to be raised exclusively by women, denied the company of any man save the King, her intended future husband. One winter morning, her elderly caretaker is slaughtering a calf when its blood spills out across the snow and a raven swoops down to drink. Upon seeing the grotesque scene, Deirdre says that she “could love a man of these three colors” — red, white and black.

It’s a disturbing vision — one that sets off a series of events that leads first to love, then betrayal and ultimately death. But the question I had was: why these three colors?

These colors appear everywhere. Often in other tales of beauty and longed-for love: Snow White is maybe the most familiar example, but there are also several stories of men whose dreams of red-white-and-black beauty leave them lovesick, and tales of young women who long to be mothers, wishing for a baby of these three colors. In Irish folklore, red and white are particularly associated with the Otherworld — white deer with red ears turn out to be fairy-women; red-eared, white cows and pigs are gifts or stolen goods from the Fairy Realm.

There is a power in these three colors — something that compels us, pulls us in, changes the way we see the world. Some scholars speculate that their impact comes from the visceral symbolism of these colors and their bodily associations: red is the color of our life-blood; white, the color of bone and the brightness of pure light; black is rot, decay and the darkness of death.

The problem with this theory is that this grouping of three colors appears in almost all cultures throughout history and all over the world, but they do not always carry these same associations. In some cultures, the red of this tricolor group is not the pure, bright color of blood, but the brownish-red of tree bark or the orange-red of ripe fruit. White may refer to the color of eggs, rice or curdled milk. Black isn’t necessarily the color of death and burial in lands where the soil is red with clay. Instead, it may be the color of a cloudless sky above the wine-dark sea.

It’s almost as if these colors have a force of their own. They bend our stories and traditions to their own peculiar will, force themselves in where we least expect them. In both Africa and South America, traditional folktales tell of idealized pale-skinned beauties despite the lack of pale-skinned people; in the folklore of Northern Europe, Snow White and her idolized ilk have striking black hair despite fair hair being preferred in most other contexts. It’s as if these three colors refuse to be parted from one another. The red and white of candy canes and Santa Claus’s jolly, fur-lined suit demands to be balanced out by the black boots, the black fireplace soot, the black coal, and Black Friday. Our folk etymologies scramble to compensate: we say we call it Black Friday because it’s when most stores sell enough merchandise to make it “out of the red, back into the black” on the clean white pages of the ledger book — but this isn’t true. People started calling it Black Friday decades before this explanation began to circulate (not to mention, most businesses can’t afford to operate at a loss for eleven months of the year).

It’s starting to happen with Valentine’s Day, too. In the United States, red and white abound in flower shops and grocery stores this time of year, along with the broad continuum of pinks in between. But in Japan and other Asian countries, February 14th is a day especially for women to give “true love” chocolates to their boyfriends and husbands, and “courtesy” chocolates to male friends and co-workers. Starting in the 1970s, a Japanese confectionary company decided to create an “answer day” to Valentine’s Day exactly one month later, on March 14th, and began marketing their marshmallow treats to men to give as reciprocal gifts to their wives and girlfriends in return for the chocolates they’d received the month before. They declared this day “Marshmallow Day,” and its popularity took off. Soon, men were giving not just marshmallows, but also white chocolate and gifts decorated with white wrapping paper. A “rule-of-three” (referred to as sanbai gaeshi, meaning “triple the return”) encouraged men to give gifts worth three times what they had received. Today, people who celebrate this holiday throughout Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and many other Asian countries call it simply, “White Day.”

The red of the rose. The dark of chocolate. The white of marshmallow. Here they are again, the same three colors, that persistent primal bond. Even when we know the origins of the three colors and their associations, their recent history as a marketing strategy — they have a kind of gravity all their own, a weight that lends them an archetypal power.

What I want to know is: why? In cognitive linguistics, we say that word-meanings and conceptual metaphors are “motivated” — that is, they aren’t predictable according to a set of predetermined rules, but there are tendencies and trajectories that can help us explain why certain conceptual metaphors appear and how they evolve. I’m fascinated by what these three colors — red, white and black — might be able to tell us about the way we see the world. And so I return to my research and Deirdre of the Sorrows. Happy Valentine’s Day…?

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3 thoughts on “Black & White & Red All Over: The Mysterious Power of Three Common Colors”

    1. Thanks for the link! I’ll definitely check it out!

      And yes! Berlin & Kay first proposed a universal order for the development of color terms in language in their break-through study back in 1969. It’s been refined and updated since then as further research undercut some of their initial claims, but their work made a significant contribution to cognitive linguistics (in particular regarding prototype theory). It turns out that the effects we see with color terms also happen in lots of other conceptual categories!

      If you’re interested in this type of thing, I would highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s book, Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages. (I’m not with him 100% on all of his claims, but it’s a fascinating read!)


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