The Egyptians considered color as a sign of an object’s true nature. The Egyptian words for ‘character’ and ‘color’ are the same. This indicates that the underlying essence of a figure can be expressed through color.
Early Egyptian written texts and artwork show the use of only four main colors. These include black, white, green, and red. Red in Egyptian art is closer to what we call brown. The Egyptian word for red also includes yellow and orange.
Older tomb paintings showed extensive use of colors obtained from ground minerals. These were mixed together to create rich color palettes of black, white, green, yellow, red, blue, and gray. Gold was also predominantly found in Egyptian tomb paintings.
In classical Egyptian art, male bodies were represented by strong brown and red colors. Females were depicted to have lighter yellowish shades. Artists also used orange color to depict older, frailer men.
Let us find out what the main Egyptian colors symbolized in this rich heritage and ancient culture.
Egyptian color symbolism
Egyptian artists used white to depict radiance, joy, wisdom, and light. They used this ‘pure’ color in people’s clothing, robes, and even in the pharaoh’s attire. White was also used for sacred objects and buildings. The Egyptians believed that white represented pure cosmic light and divine grace.
Egyptian Horus, who had both male and female principles of the Universe, was depicted in white. The color was also symbolic of priesthood. Ritual objects in temples and the ritual of mummification included many objects crafted from white alabaster.
The Ancient Egyptian word for white is “hedj”.
For the Egyptian people, black was the exact opposite of white. It embodied evil and the Underworld. Anubis, the God of Death, was depicted with a black pelt. In tomb paintings, black was used to symbolize the ground to which all living beings must return upon death. However, since the Egyptians believed in rebirth, they also used black to denote fertility and the Goddess Min. After all; all that dies must be reborn.
Frequently paradoxical, ancient Egyptian art also showed the pharaohs with black skin. This may have been done to denote the power of monarchy over the people and even over earth – a power, in essence to give fertility and life eternal.
Black cats were considered sacred in Egypt. Dark earth and black clouds symbolized germination, which takes place in the dark.
The Ancient Egyptian word for black is “kem” and denotes the black silt along the banks of the Nile.
Red has multiple meanings in the Egyptian culture. The people associated it with life-giving blood and radiance. However, red also symbolized war and rage. Red stood for anger. The color was also reminiscent of Egyptian ceremonies pertaining to sacrifice and death.
In many Egyptian art forms, Seth or Set, the Egyptian God of violence, storms, and disorders, was often depicted with red hair and eyes. As a result, the color came to be associated with danger. Seth was the Evil One; the God that brought bad weather and destruction. Red also came to be associated with these events. Unfortunately, due to this association, many people with reddish skin tones and cattle with red tinge on their bodies or fur were sacrificed.
In Egyptian magic, red has different meanings too. It has ambiguous status as one evocative of blood, fire, sun. All these can be destructive as well as life-giving.
Some artists used red and orange to depict the Egyptian Sun God Ra. Red colored amulets depicting the Eye of Ra symbolized the protective nature of the sun. Shades and tones of purple-red often depicted the evening sun as Atum.
The Ancient Egyptian word for red is “deshr”.
In Egyptian symbolism, green color was considered the exact opposite of red. Where red was destruction and violence, green stood for good, harmony, peace, and vegetation. Green sustained life and promised protection and happiness. As a result; green was linked to Osiris. Osiris was Seth’s brother and the God of Order. People worshipped the ‘Green One’ and believed him to be a symbol of rebirth.
The green stone malachite is also associated with the cycle of life and rebirth. The Goddess Hathor is associated with green.
The Ancient Egyptian word for green is “wahdj”.
Blue was an important color in tomb paintings and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and art, as it represented the divine aspect of being. It often adorned the ceilings of Egyptian temples.
The original Egyptian God Amun was depicted as having blue skin color. This symbolized the ‘endless aspect of the Cosmos’. Gods were also depicted with blue colored wigs and beards as it showed their ‘divine origin’. The supreme god, Cneph, was often painted blue.
The color blue enjoyed positive connotations and blue stones and materials were available locally. Therefore, people went to great lengths to procure blue materials for their artists and artisans. Blue colored amulets and scarabs also accompanied mummified bodies in tombs. The color blue also symbolized the life-giving waters of the Nile, without which Egypt would have been an uninhabitable desert. Blue, therefore, became closely linked with life, and therefore, fertility.
The Ancient Egyptian word for blue is “irtyu”.
The color yellow was used to depict gold and the sun. Gods were often depicted with bodies of shiny yellow-gold colors to show their precious attributes. Ancient Egyptian artists also used yellow to depict female bodies and reddish brown to depict the males. This use of red and yellow skin tones was a way of demarcating the dual complementary roles of the sexes in perpetuating the creation myth.
The Ancient Egyptian word for yellow is “khenet”.
Reddish brown colors were mainly used to depict male bodies. This represented the men’s outdoor activities and their virility. The feminine yellow color showed a paler, protected gender with indoor activities.
The Ancient Egyptian word for dark reddish brown is “demy”.
Final thoughts on Egyptian colors
The symbolism and use of color in ancient Egypt provided a template for later connotations concerning nature and design. As mentioned earlier, the Egyptian word for color ‘iwen’ also stood for ‘character’, ‘nature’, and ‘essence’. This shows us how important color symbolism was in early Egyptian art.
Ancient Egyptians used color decoratively, yet purposefully, in their material culture and writings. Symbolic colors also imparted a deeper, more arcane meaning to art. While the Egyptian palette mainly comprised of six primary colors derived from naturally occurring minerals and earth pigments, artists successfully created many secondary colors by mixing these primary colors.
Here is a colorful illustration of ancient Egyptian deities and their symbolism.