Thursday, March 5, 2015

Red As Blood, White As Snow, Black As Ebony... Discussing The Big Three Colors in Fairy Tales

'She bade him leave his horse with her and ride on her own two-winged horse
Illustration for The Bold Knight, the Apples of Youth, and the Water of Life

by N. Puttapipat (aka Himmapaan on social media)
This was written yesterday in response to the Tales Of Faerie post (Wednesday, March 4, 2015), which references tri-color themed fairy tales, but my comment was so long it wouldn't post on the site so I sent it via mail. I've posted it here with encouragement from Kristin, who thought more of you might like to read this. I omitted the part of the comment that responds directly to yesterday's post, just because it makes no sense out of context.

You may want to go read Kristin's Tales Of Faerie post first, HERE, before continuing below or at least have a glance at the academic article/paper she mentions (HERE), that she also posted her thoughts on, in December last year HERE(The referenced paper is a number of pages long and quite detailed but you'll get the gist of the topics with just a scan.)

Note: generally, when writing comments on someone else's blog I write very informally, conversationally, if you like, sometimes almost like shorthand, so it's even less formal than my usual writing for OUABlog.
'But he could not hold the firebird herself; she tore herself from his grasp and flew away'
Illustration for Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf.
The tri-color aspect of many fairy tales (and cultural color recognition order*) is fascinating and one of the things I'm always curious about (my investigations started in my teens with my wondering about Snow White - of course). Vaz da Silva's article/paper has a lot of interesting points, things I've read or heard about quite a bit but it's also missing some basics I think. 

White and black should be obvious just because there is no greater contrast in the world, and this jives with one of the main interpretations too: ultimate good vs ultimate bad - however, true black and true white are almost impossible to create as well, so there's that dichotomy of the color significance. 
'Next morning the seven-year-old girl took off her clothes, donned a net, took the quail in her hand, sat upon the hare, and went to the palace'
Illustration for The Wise Little Girl.
White is interesting because, while Westerners tend to think "purity", it's the color of death in many other cultures. A strong theory of why clowns freak people out so much (especially children and babies) is because of the white face: it's basically a death mask (and if you know anything about the history of clowning, you'll know this was done on purpose - to remove the personal nature of the performer, among other things). 
'The sorceress was waiting for her, seized her, tied a stone around her neck, and cast her into the sea'
Illustration for Sister Alionushka and Brother Ivanushka
Black, on the other hand seems like a no-brainer: death, darkness. The dark was always a scary, dangerous time for people pre-electric lights but there's more to that as well. In many cultures the absence of a shadow is an indication of something supernatural - usually something bad - but once a shadow was seen/restored, then the human/natural element was returned and things were back in balance/safe. (Think of the significance of Peter Pan trying to get his shadow back too.) One of the reasons the twilight time of day is considered magical (or one of the dangerous Faerie times of day - and today - one of the worst times to drive because cars are so hard to see) is because shadows are hard to see/define/distinguish too. Gray is 'in-between" - neither here nor there - there are no silhouettes, no shadows, no easy proof of life.
'She became a terrible lioness, but when she was about to swallow the good youth, his magic steed came running and took hold of her with his mighty legs'
Illustration for Two Ivans, Soldiers' Sons
Red has almost always been related to blood and though we see it as violence as well, more often it means life (when you stop bleeding, you're dead.) Women bleeding monthly is still weird and mysterious to guys! How does one bleed without injury or threat of death? In many ways, it's like women have a secret "in" to what life is all about - something further enforced by the ability to create and birth children. I think menstruation and a women's cycles of maturation are a natural connection and a fairly common way of interpreting the appearance of red. Red is blood - blood is life, and blood also rises in passion (of love or violence) - proof of life in many ways.
'She waved her right hand, and lakes and woods appeared; she waved her left hand, and various birds began to fly about'
Illustration for The Frog Princess
Black and white are also not technically "colors" - true black is the absence of color and white is all colors together (or, if you want to get more technical - since trying to do this in paint always fails - white is the reflection of every color frequency/wavelength seen together, black is no reflection of any light wavelength). Red is the color that contrasts most against both black or white and especially against black and white together. It could be because we're built to recognize the importance of red (due to blood and the life connection) but I'm guessing there's a scientific reason too. Red is one of the lowest frequency colors - not much light is needed to see "red' at all, whereas other colors can only be distinguished if there's enough light. (Am I boring you yet??)
The fox is carrying me away … Cat Cotonaevich, rescue me!’
Illustration for The Cat, the Cock, and the Fox.
For an example of how these interpretations work both ways, think of how vampires are represented almost the world over: black, white and red. Black clothes, white skin, red mouth because they've drunk someone's blood. They're a scary symbol of supernatural-meets-human because they have both - the human element (red lifeblood), the white (death and supernatural) and black (evil but also earthly). Weird, right? But it makes sense too.

Anyway, I think all this has significance with regard to tales across the globe since it works for all interpretations of the how different cultures see black,white and red. 
'She boiled water and poured it into the barrels, thus scalding the six robbers to death'
Illustration for The Wise Maiden and the Seven Robbers.
One fairy tale (**in addition to the ones Kristin and Vaz de Silva mention) that comes to mind from Japan, is The Crane Wife - almost all white feathers but with a distinct black pattern, against the snow, in the dark, wounded, red and bleeding... Again we see the implication of the supernatural mixed with the natural in a single form (the woman), the "real" implication (not a ghost), because of the blood and the almost magnetic attraction to that combination for "man".

If you haven't gone there yet, but want more I suggest going to Tales Of Faerie. There's an Irish tale using the tri-color theme for your reading pleasure as well ("The Snow, the Crow, and the Blood").

All these amazing silhouette illustrations are by N. Puttapipat for the Folio Society edition of Aleksandr Afanas'ev's Myths and Legends of Russia (though I cannot find it on the Folio website!). See left for a description of the book.

* Quote from Kristin's post HERE: "Da Silva cites a study in which they found that if a language has only two words for color, it's black and white. If they have three, it's always red, black, and white. "

** Tales mentioned specifically using the red, white & black tri-color theme, listed below:
  • Snow White (& variations)
  • The Crow - Basile
  • Perceval - Conte du Graal
  • The Three Citrons - Basile
  • The Snow, the Crow and the Blood


  1. Great post! Those illustrations are gorgeous! I really want that book now. Silhouettes seem like an especially appropriate form of illustration for fairy tales somehow. These remind me of a book I had as a kid, The Kingdom Under the Sea and Other Stories by Joan Aiken with beautiful silhouette illustrations by Jan Pienkowski. My copy is now in pieces, literally, but I had to pull it out, put it back together and revisit it after seeing this post. Especially as I cannot afford the $100 Amazon is charging for Myths and Legends of Russia...But thanks for sharing that beautiful art:)

    1. Thanks. :) I'd love to see pics of your book! Can you post them anywhere?

  2. Late to the party, but are you familiar with the story of Deirdre from Irish mythology? She was prophesied to be so beautiful she'd bring the kingdom to ruin, so of course the king declared he alone would marry her when she came of age. While being raised by an old woman in the woods, she sees a raven with blood on the snow. She immediately announces that she will love only a man who is those three colors... unlike the gold-blond king... and tragedy and ruin eventually ensue. (Irish!) The parallel between her desire and Snow White's mother's has always struck me.

    1. Some of this is familiar but some isn't. I have to look it up now - sounds intriguing. Thank you!