Some may argue that black is not a colour, however, Wikipedia describes it as the darkest colour. It is an achromatic colour, which means it has no colour hue. White and grey are two other achromatic colours. Symbolically, black is used to represent darkness, however, there are several other meanings associated with the colour.
Black was the first colour to be used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic cave paintings produced between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago used charcoal or burnt bones to produce the colour black. In fact, the ancient Latin and Greek words for black also translate as “to burn”.
The Ancient Egyptians believed black was the colour of fertility due to the colour of the soil that had once been flooded by the River Nile. The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, associated black with death and the underworld because they believed the waters of the River Acheron, that separated Hades from the living world, were black.
Initially, in Ancient Rome, craftsman and artisans wore the colour black, however, by the second century, the colour had been adopted by Roman magistrates when attending funeral ceremonies. Thus, black became a symbol of death and mourning.
By the 12th century, black was the traditional colour of Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. Yet, two centuries later, the meaning of black changed once again. Due to more expensive processes of producing black dyes, the colour became common amongst the wealthy and signified their importance and position in society. This change spread from Italy to France, eventually reaching England during the reign of Richard II. By the end of the 16thcentury, almost all monarchs and royal courts in Europe wore black.
Although black was the colour worn by members of the Catholic clergy, it later became the colour of the Protestant Reformation and the English Puritans. John Calvin amongst other Protestant theologians denounced the richly coloured interiors of Catholic churches, claiming they represented luxury and sin. Ironically, around the same period, the colour became associated with witchcraft and the devil. People feared that the devil would appear at midnight during a ceremony known as Black Mass or Black Sabbath in the form of a goat, dog, wolf or bear, accompanied by black creatures, such as cats or snakes.
During the Industrial Revolution, black became associated with the colour of dirt, coal and smog. In literature, it became the colour of melancholy and in politics, the colour of anarchism. In the 20th century, it was adopted by fascism and intellectual and social rebellion. On the other hand, it had an alternative meaning in fashion. Black became the colour of evening dress for men and Coco Chanel popularized the little black dress.
The Black Power movement and the slogan “Black is Beautiful” fought for equal rights for African Americans during the 1950s. In the 1990s, the Black Standard became the banner of many Islamic extremists groups. It is also associated with subcultures, such as Goths.
Today, the colour black has different meanings all over the world. In China, it represents water, which is one of their five fundamental elements. It also represents the direction north, which is symbolised by a black tortoise. In Japan, black means mystery, the night, the supernatural, the invisible and death. A black belt in Japanese martial arts symbolises experience. In Indonesia, black represents demons, disaster and the left hand.
In Islam, Muhammad’s soldiers are said to have carried a black banner, hence, the Black Standard of some Islamic groups. In Hinduism, the goddess of time and change is called Kali, which means “the black one”. According to mythology, she destroys anger and passion.
With so many variants on the meaning of the colour black, what does it represent in the Bible? In Christian mythology, black was the colour of the universe before God created light. Occasionally, the devil is known as “the prince of darkness”, a term that was used in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Let’s look at some examples from the Bible.
The colour black appears less than twenty times in the Bible and, on some of those occasions, the NIV translates the word as “dark” or “darkness”. These Bible verses tend to refer to famines, wars and sorrow. An example of this is Job 30:30: “My skin grows black and peels”. Job is lamenting his fate and refers to “blackness” many times throughout the book; however, it is only in reference to the colour of his skin as a result of lack of nourishment that he uses the word “black”.
The colour black also represents the deceitful treatment of Job’s friends, although the NIV quotes “darkness”. Similarly, black or darkness symbolises God’s judgement and punishment of sins. A handful of times, black horses have been used as a symbol of sorrow and famine. In Zechariah 6, there are four chariots pulled by different coloured horses. Each travels in a different direction, the black one going north, i.e. Babylon, where punishment will be given out. Verses involving black horses include:
Another symbol of God’s judgement is the darkening of the sky. Verses include:
Not all references to the colour black have negative connotations. In some instances, black represents good health. Those who have read the previous articles in The Importance of Colours in the Bible series will know that a yellow hair in a wound being inspected by a priest was a sign of uncleanliness or leprosy. A black hair, i.e. a natural coloured hair, on the other hand, gave the afflicted a clean bill of health.
As you know, there are many black animals in the world, including, bears, spiders, snakes, panthers and birds. Two black birds are listed as unclean animals and the Israelites were, therefore, unable to eat:
Another black bird is mentioned in Song of Songs as a simile to describe the hair colour of “the beloved”:
A final mention of black hair occurs during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns people not to break an oath or even make an oath in the first place. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” It is wrong to swear things on heaven for it belongs to God. Jesus also instructs people to not swear by their head:
Matthew 5:36: And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
So, what does black represent in the Bible? Most of the examples I have given relate to sin, judgement and “dark times”. There is no getting away from the fact that black has negative connotations. On the other hand, the other verses show that not all black things are bad. There are naturally occurring black things in the world that have not come about as a result of sin, for example, ravens and hair. We must not be quick to judge something by its colour; we should not be so black and white (pardon the pun) about the world. This way of thinking can debunk many thoughts, ideas and stereotypes about the world, for instance, assumptions about a Goth’s choice of clothing and no one should ever be judged by their skin colour.
I could leave this article with that thought-provoking conclusion; however, I have found some expressions and idioms involving the word “black” that you may enjoy. Also, feel free to add your own.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon