The meaning of colour in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians used mineral compounds to add colour to their art. As a result, some of the colours are still vibrant and beautiful thousands of years later. They made jewellery out of amethyst, garnet, jasper, onyx, hematite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper, malachite (a form of copper ore), gold, silver, faience and shells

Modern cultures consider many of the materials used by the ancient Egyptians to be semi-precious (like turquoise) or cheap (like glass) but to the Egyptians it was not just the value or scarcity of the materials that mattered (although of course gold and silver were particularly highly prized) but the symbolic meaning of the colours and the beauty of the image that they could construct from it. Colours were not used randomly, but were intended to convey meaning and imbue an image with greater power. The ancient Egyptian palette was formed around six main colour groups: green (wadj); red (desher); blue (irtyu or khesbedj); yellow (khenet or kenit); white (hedj or shesep); and black (kem).
  • Green
  • Red
  • Blue
  • Yellow
  • White
  • Black
The word Wadj (green) also means "to flourish" or "to be healthy". The hieroglyph represented the papyrus plant as well as the green stone malachite (wadj). The colour green represented vegetation, new life and fertility. In an interesting parallel with modern terminology, actions which preserved the fertility of the land or promoted life were described as "green". Earth and fertility gods such as Geb and Osiris are depicted with green skin, indicating their power to encourage the growth of vegetation. However, the ancient Egyptians recognised the cycle of growth and decay and so green was also associated with death and the power of resurrection. Osiris was a god of the dead whose wife Isis magically conceived a son (Horus) and the ancient Egyptians believed that he could help them make their way to an eternal paradise which bore a striking resemblance to their earthly lives (but without any pain or suffering). This wonderful place was sometimes called "field of malachite".
wadj: Malachite mefkaht: Turquoise
Malachite represented joyfulness and was closely associated with the goddess Hathor. Ground malachite was used as a pigment in painting and statuary and malachite jewellery was highly prized. Eye make up made from ground up malachite was known to defend against certain eye complaints and wearing it was also seen as invoking the protective power of the goddess. Hathor was also associated with another popular green stone, Turquoise, known as "mefkAt".
the scarab pectoral of the Vizier Paser
The Turquoise and gold bracelet found on the wrist of Queen Zer is the oldest piece of stone jewellery so far discovered, dating from around 5500 BC. Turquoise was mined in Sinai and its blue colour symbolised fertility, good luck, and protection against the evil eye. The Egyptians also used glazed quartz to great effect creating brilliant shades of green.
In the Book of the Dead, the deceased is described as a falcon with wings of green stone. Because of this connection with Horus (the hawk god) the "Eye of Heru" amulet, which offered protection and healing, was often green. During the mummification process the heart was left in the body and a green heart scarab was placed over it to magically protect it from damage.

desher: red ded: red ochre
The ancient Egyptians favoured the red stones jasper ("khenmet", possibly from the verb hnm, "to delight") and carnelian ("herset", which meant "sadness" by the late dynastic period). They also used sard and glass to great effect, and made rich red paint from iron oxides and red ochres.
red jasper tjet amulet
Red was a powerful colour because of its association with blood, in particular the protective power of the blood of Isis. The Tjet amulet (also known as the "Girdle Tie of Isis") which was placed at the throat of the mummy was often made out of a red stone. The Book of the Dead specifies that the Tjet should be made out of red jasper, but carnelian and red glass examples have also been found. The Tjet is not always red (examples in blue have also been found) but many scholars link the symbol with the blood of Isis and consider that it may represent a menstrual pad. The Shen amulet, was thought to ensure long life. It was associated with the sun god Ra and featured a red stone, often carnelian (although it could also be a blue stone such as lapis). It appears as a disk with the rim resting on a straight line, symbolizing the sun on the horizon.
The Shen represented eternity and as an amulet it was thought to bring long life. The mummies of the pharaohs were interred with a miniature heart amulet which represented the Ba and was placed in the heart cavity with the Scarab. It was made from a precious or semi-precious red stone and was thought to protect the heart. Small red heart amulets were also worn by those with a heart condition to enlist the god's help against their infirmity.
heset: carnelian khenmet: red jasper
However, the colour red also represented anger, chaos and fire and was closely associated with Set, the unpredictable god of storms and Sekhmet, "Lady of the Flame". Set had red hair, and people with red hair were thought to be connected to him. As a result, the Egyptians described a person in a fit of rage as having a "red heart" or as being "red upon" the thing that made them angry. A person could also be described as having "red eyes" if they were angry or violent. Set was also associated with the desert and foreign places, and thus with chaos and danger. Our word "desert" is derived from the Egyptian "deshrt", the red place.
Red could be unlucky or dangerous. Lector priests inscribed particularly powerful or important phrases in red and words describing evil things and recording unlucky days were also written in red. In one case an entire papyrus about Apep (Apophis) was written in red. 

 irtyu: Egyptian blue
In ancient Egypt blue (irtyu) was the colour of the heavens and hence represented the universe. Many temples, sarcophagi and burial vaults have a deep blue roof speckled with tiny yellow stars.
blue hippo copyright Rama
As blue is also the colour of water and hence the colour of the Nile and the primeval waters of chaos (known as Nun). As a result the colour blue was associated with fertility, rebirth and the power of creation. Blue glass or faience hippopotami were a popular symbols of the Nile and the creator god Amun was often depicted with a blue face. According to myth, the hair of the gods was made of precious Lapis Lazuli (khesbedj). A number of Pharaohs imitated the god and were depicted in art with blue faces or hair.
In painting the ancient Egyptians made blue pigments out of a number of minerals, including azurite (tefer) and copper (bia). However, the most famous and prized pigment was "Egyptian blue" (irtyu) which was made by boiling quartz (silica) with copper (in the form of malachite), calcium carbonate and natron. This was expensive and tricky to make, but produced a beautiful deep blue colour which was very popular.
tefer: azurite khesbedj: lapis bia: copper
They used Lapis Lazuli and blue glass to great effect in their jewellery. Although turquoise is often a beautiful aqua-blue, the Egyptians associated it more closely with the colour green. Lapis beads found in burial sites from the Predynastic Period is evidence that even at this early time the ancient Egyptians traded commodities with their fairly distant neighbours in the Euphrates valley. Its dark blue colour symbolised fertility and good luck. Feldspar was mined in the eastern desert. It is a lighter blue colour, but also symbolised good luck and fertility.

khenet; yellow nebw; gold
In ancient Egypt yellow (khenet, kenit) represented that which was eternal and indestructible, and was closely associated with gold (nebu or nebw) and the sun. Gold was thought to be the substance which formed the skin of the gods and numerous statues of the gods were either made of gold or covered with gold leaf and the skin of the god was often painted gold in two dimensional images. The pharaoh's sarcophagus was made of gold as he was thought to become a god on his death and he was adorned with a variety of gold amulets and jewellery during mummification and the deceased often wore a golden mask. A golden "Shen" amulet was placed over the breast of the mummy to give the deceased the protection of Ra and ensure that he or she would live as long as the sun shone.
gold mask pf Psusennes I, Dynasty 21 copywright 2005 Daniel Speck FreeStockPhotos.com gold and Lapis mask pf Tutankhamun, Dynasty 18 copywright Michael Reeve
In the undisturbed burial of Tutankhamun archaeologists discovered a beautifull solid gold and Lapis Lazuli funeral mask as well as a 300 pound solid gold coffin and an assortment of beautifull gold or gold plated funeral goods. The Twenty-first Dynasty pharaoh Psusennes I (Third Intermediate Period) was buried with a solid silver coffin and a beautiful solid gold mask (pictured above). Gold was often paired with blue in Egyptian royal jewellery. The popular Pharonic "Nemes" head scarf was composed of blue and gold stripes and numerous pieces of gold and lapis jewellery have been recovered from royal burials.
The anient Egyptians also made yellow pigments such as yellow ochre (an ore of iron) and massicot (an oxide of lead). By the New Kingdom they also used orpiment, a sulphide of arsenic. Yellow was sometimes interchangeable with white, which represented purity.
Tutankhamuns lapis and gold crook and flail

hedj; silver hedj; white
In ancient Egyptian art the "colour" white represented purity and omnipotence. White was particularly associated with symbolic religious objects and tools such as those used in the mummification rituals, many of which were made of white alabaster. Alabaster was highly prized by the Egyptians because of it's beautiful shimmering white colour. As a result, it was often used for ritual items such as the canopic chest and offering vessels.
White was also seen as the opposite of red, because of the latter's association with rage and chaos, and so the two were often paired to represent completeness. The two crowns which were combined to form the dual crown were the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt.
The holy city of Memphis was originally known as "Ineb hedj" which is generally translated as "White Walls", and white garments and sandals were worn to holy ceremonies.
Alabaster canopic chest and jars of Tutankhamun
The word "hedj" represents both white and silver. Silver was very highly prized in Egypt, and fairly scarce. It was very popular in pharonic jewellery, when it was available, and was known as "white gold" (nub hedj). Silver and gold together represented the moon and sun respectively. White paint was made from chalk or gypsum which were plentiful in Egypt.

kem: black hbny: ebony
The colour black represented death and the afterlife to the ancient Egyptians. Osiris was given the epithet "the black one" because he was the king of the netherworld and both he and Anubis (the god of embalming) were portrayed with black faces.
black scarab inscribed with the name of Senusert III
However, the Egyptians also associated black with fertility and resurrection because much of their agriculture was dependant on the rich dark silt deposited on the river banks by the Nile during the inundation. When used to represent resurrection, black and green were interchangeable. As a result, the gods Osiris and Geb were depicted with black or green skin to emphasise their connection with fertility.
Egypt was known as Kemet, "the black land" and it is though that this was a reference to the Nile not a description of ethnicity. Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was often depicted with black skin. While some have argued that this was a comment on the fact that she was of Nubian descent, it is equally likely that it was symbolic of the fact that she was the patroness of the necropolis.
Black paint was made from soot or charcoal and occasionally from an ore of manganese. Black onyx was a popular gemstone and Ebony (which takes its modern name from the Egyptian "hbny") was also highly prized. It was often paired with ivory to make beautiful furniture. Tutankhamun had a beautiful ebony and ivory senet board in his tomb so that he could enjoy the popular game for eternity.

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