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Color in Ancient Egypt

By Graciela Gestoso Singer

Color means many different things to different people and cultures. We all have our own favorite colors. Color also represents feelings, people, countries, cultures, and color symbolism (Sahlins 1977: 165–180). Color symbolism can have a powerful effect on human emotion. We use color to describe emotions. In ancient Egypt, color (jwn) (Faulkner 1991: 13) was an integral part of the substance and being of everything in life. The Egyptian hieroglyph for color can also be translated as “being”, “character”, “disposition”, “nature” or “external appearance”. This clearly illustrates the significance of color as being an essential and integral part of the Egyptian worldview (Rankine 2006). In art, colors were clues to the nature of the beings depicted in the work. The Egyptian use of color in their art was largely symbolic. For example, when the god Amon was portrayed with blue skin, it alluded to his cosmic aspect (Dolińska 1990: 3-7). Osiris’ green skin was a reference to his power over vegetation and to his own resurrection. The Egyptian artist had at his disposal six colors, including black and white. These colors were generated largely from mineral compounds and thus retain their vibrancy over the millennia (Warburton 2004: 126-130). For example, they used red ochre or hematite for red; yellow ochre for yellow; Egyptian blue was a synthetic pigment created mainly from copper silica and calcium; green from malachite (a natural copper ore) or, then, from a paste manufactured by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium; and black was made of carbon compounds (soot, ground charcoal, and animal bones). Each of these colors had their own symbolic meaning (Aufrère 1991). Egyptian color words are attested from the mid-third millennium BCE (Baines 2007: 241; Kay and Maffi 1999: 743– 760). In Ancient Egypt, the Old Kingdom repertory of painted colors consists of black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, and grey. In the New Kingdom material (ca.1530–1070 BCE), the use of color becomes richer and more diverse and develops within the period, especially from 1400 to 1250 BCE. The extended range is black,white, red, green, yellow, strong blue, light blue, grey, brown, and pink (Berlin and Kay 1991: 104; Baines 2007: 247-249).

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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