The Colours of Magic

blue green

Back in 2015 there was a brief media sensation about a dress in a photograph. Some people saw it as blue and black. Other people were convinced it was gold and white. Neither group could understand how the other group could possibly see it so differently. How could this happen?

As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation of sorts, although the case raised questions about the ways in which humans perceive colour.

There is one learning point, at least. We have probably all, at some point in our lives, wondered if the people around us see the world and its colours the same way that we do. Now we know that they very possibly do not!

Part of colour perception is due to neuroscience. Part of it is also cultural, and lingistic. People of different cultures and languages literally perceive the world in ways that are different to (say) an English-speaker; they may also perceive colours in a way that differs from their own culture at a different time, and that’s what I want to explore here, because this understanding will be needed for later post.

The colour I want to focus on is glas, a colour word used in both Welsh and Irish. I’m only going to focus on the Welsh usage.

Today, if you only speak textbook Welsh, you will understand ‘glas‘ as meaning ‘blue’. ‘Gwyrdd‘ is the word for ‘green’. However, this is a comparatively recent development. Anyone who is familiar with more literary and archaic usage will understand that ‘glas‘ means something like: “the colour of the landscape”.

In Welsh, as in Irish, and many other languages, ‘glas’ covers a broad spectrum. It means the colour of the sea, and the colour of slate, and the colour of polished metal, and the colour of foliage. And of all of these meanings, the most commonly-used is the last.

The scholar Jessica Hemming, writing in the North American Journal of Celtic Studies*, explains:

Glas in Middle Welsh is pre-eminently a colour term associated with landscape. It applies to vegetation, both up close and from a distance; to the sea; to ice; and to the sky. In the earlier period, it is also frequently used of metal weapons and armour, which likely involves the element of shine, along with greyness or blueness of hue (although it should be remembered that iron is only shiny when burnished).

There is another element, as well. Jesse Russell, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, tells us:

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie.

[…]

In late antiquity and the early medieval period blue and green were associated with Satan and his demonic cohort. This connotation was drawn from blue’s classical association with the underworld, death, and barbarism. By the twelfth century, blue, when shown alongside red, gained a luminous, purple tinge and was detached from the diabolical and barbaric green. Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as “St. Denis Blue.” Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering.

(Russell’s article – a book review of Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau – makes fascinating reading. I highly recommend reading the whole thing).

To understand that colour perception – literally, the way we see and picture the world – is not fixed, but is influenced by neuroscience, culture and language is an important Druidic insight.

As Druids, at the most basic level, we need to understand that many of the sources we drawn upon, the written record of Celtic myth, may not be saying quite what we think it’s saying, if we don’t understand what was originally meant by the colour-words in Celtic culture and language. ‘Glas‘ does not mean ‘blue‘ as a contemporary English-speaker would understand it, and the cultural associations of the colour were also very different. If we don’t understand that, we don’t understand what the tales are saying to us.

At a more advanced level, this undertanding of colour perception should open our eyes – physical and inner – to the understanding that our perception of the world as a whole is not reality: it is a filtered version of reality, and the filters are defined by our language and by our culture.

Thus, as contemporary Druids, we will never see the world as some other species do: in ultra-violet or infra-red. Our bodies are physically not capable of this. We may not be able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field in the way birds do – but recent scientific breakthroughs are showing that we do sense it to a much greater degree than had previously been thought.

This raises the question: if humans can, after all, sense the magnetic field, why haven’t they been talking about it? Why isn’t it part of our general concept of the world? The answer is that our culture has denied it. The people who have sensed it, and who have been talking about it, have been derided, and told they’re talking nonsense. They haven’t had a proper vocabulary with which to describe their experience, because English doesn’t have such terms. (Do other languages and cultures? I don’t know).

What else is there, that we are capable of perceiving, and which other cultures perceived, but which we do not? Is this what the folk tales mean by the Second Sight – things and beings who surround us, and which we can perceive, but which our culture ‘filters out’ before that perception reaches our conscious mind?

I suspect that this is happening a lot. Western culture, with its Christian influences, has a lot of bias about what should and should not be perceived. Modern culture, in particular, overwhelms us with anxiety and stress, with information in general, which keep our minds constantly busy, confused, and unfocussed. My own experience of Buddhist Vipassana meditation suggests that regular meditation, stilling the mind, and focussed only on perceptions of the present moment, simply observing with no mental commentary or analysis, develops a sensitivity to that which is normally unsensed and unseen; Dr. Natalie Trent has an interesting essay on the topic.

I wanted to use colour as the basis for this discussion in part because I need to set the scene for a further discussion of Gwyn ap Nudd. However, I think that as Druids we meet scepticism about the existence of a Second Sight (and, by the way, I don’t claim to have it); when someone scoffs, it may be useful to remind them of The Dress, ask them what colour they saw, and ask them to explain why so many other people saw something different. The concept of mental filters will now become something real to them…

* Hemming, J. (2017). Pale horses and green dawns. Elusive colour terms in early Welsh heroic poetry, North American journal of Celtic studies, Vol. 1(2), pp189-223.

Image credits: SU23 by  JoesSistah on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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