Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


There will be no difficulty in seeing how and by what mixtures the colours are made. . . . He, however, who should attempt to verify all this by experiment would forget the difference of human and divine nature. For God only has the knowledge and also the power which are able to combine many things into one and again resolve the one into many.

Timaeus, Plato

 The symbolism of a colour is usually inspired by what are perceived intuitively to be its inherent characteristics. There is an archetypal logic common to all persons which unerringly causes thoughtful individuals to identify colour with the most basic forces operating in natural experience. Darkness and light have their analogues in the elements as well as in thoughts and emotions, but mere blackness or whiteness cannot express the enormous power of human response to colour. Colour engulfs, it draws forth or repels, and it floods the psyche with irresistible evocations in such a manner as to suggest an irrefutable manifested essence. In all cultures golden yellow is associated with the rising sun which appears to bring light out of the inscrutable darkness of night, and which expands and illuminates the heavens as well as the heart. It is for mystics the colour of intuition, portraying in its bright flood the penetrative power which grasps, as in a flash of illumination, the origin and outcome of happenings. It is the expansive emblem of magnanimity, advancing in its luminosity, giving light rather than absorbing it.

 Golden yellow is the pristine colour of sacredness and the privileged hue of divine kings. Alchemically, gold itself symbolizes glory in ascension, while its yellow counterpart represents descent and has to do with emanation rather than reabsorption. Dark yellows, however, are the most unpopular of all colours and have signified such negative qualities as treachery, cowardice, envy and disease. At one time a dark yellow cross was the sign of the plague and in tenth century France the doors of traitors and criminals were painted in its unhealthy shade. Judas was traditionally pictured in dark yellow robes, while poets lamented that their youth was yellowed with age like the sickly leaf that cracks and droops and falls to the ground. In a telling passage from one of his letters written to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh reveals the artist's awareness of the negative power of this soiled yellow. "In my picture of the 'Night Cafe"," he wrote, "I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, run mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop, by soft green and malachite, and hard blue greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur."

 For the Hindu and the Christian, the yellow that represents revealed truth, light, life and immortality is that hue which is light and bright, while the saffron robe of the Buddhist monk bespeaks the desireless humility of a life of renunciation. Tsong-Kha-Pa, the Avatar of Amitabha, the eternal prototype of Gautama Buddha, diffused this pure colour of renunciation among anchorites who formed the Gelugpa sect of fourteenth century Tibet. The symbol of his inspiration has been cherished by members of this most pure of all Northern Buddhist orders for seven hundred years in the form of their saffron yellow caps. In displaying this colour they portray that attribute most commonly identified with celestial beings. In the Greek tradition Athena and Apollo were identified with yellow. They were clothed in it and closely associated with its cosmic parent, the sun. In China the Yellow Dragon was designated as he whose "wisdom and virtue are unfathomable". He reigns over all other dragons, wandering the wilds beyond the heavens and fulfilling the decrees of karma at the proper season. It was believed that if there was perfection, he came forth. Subsequent to this, the Ch'ing Dynasty identified itself in all its power and divine righteousness with the colour yellow, striving, as it did, to preserve in the world an echo of that celestial perfection. Thus from the gods and dragons of wisdom was the colour taken and to them was it given back by those who depicted Brahma, the Buddha, Confucius and God the Son in the Christian tradition, as yellow-faced, yellow-robed or with yellow aura. Of the Buddha it was said that "No sooner has he set his foot within the city gate than the rays of six different colours which issue from his body rise hither and thither over palaces and pagodas, and deck them, as it were, with the yellow sheen of gold."

 Some have assigned to yellow a sound and shape through mystical experiences or aesthetic and even electronic determinations. In the science of synaesthesia or colour-hearing, yellow is said to be the colour of nearness, represented by the horn whose bright tones clearly do seem to advance upon the hearer. More than one mystic has associated yellow with the hexagon as a form as opposed to, say, a triangle which might be related to red. Yellow, in its expansive power, does advance forward and outward like a statement of a new world or even of a new twist to an old one. Such an association as the latter was made in the last decade of the nineteenth century when yellow took on a more frivolous meaning as it was blandished across the stage of an effete and slightly jaded fin de siècle. It was the colour of the hour in London society and it seemed to embody the spirit of the times. The pre-Raphaelites had made it their favourite hue, Lily Langtry shone in her yellow robe and Sir Richard Burton gave yellow breakfasts in his rooms on Oxford Street. Yellow sunflowers were painted on the walls of the Oxford Union by William Morris and everywhere there were yellow posters, yellow satin dresses, curtains, carpets and yellow-backed French novels. Aubrey Beardsley, co-editor of the famous Yellow Book, affected lemon-yellow gloves and had his studio painted rich deep yellow with black trim. The provocative poetry and illustrations of The Yellow Book reflected a philosophy well summarized by Walter Pater, who wrote, "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." This became the guiding principle of Oscar Wilde and many others who completed the century with a brittle adherence to affected mannerisms and a substitution of the fashionable elegance of aestheticism for the deeper currents of inner creativity.

 In the everyday world, pigments are perceived because of their molecular structure, which enables them to absorb and reflect different colours unequally or selectively. Lemon yellow pigment is associated with barium chromate, ochre with clay and iron, the cadmium yellows with cadmium sulphide, and chrome yellow with lead. Nature abounds with yellow pigments resulting from these elements as well as carotene, numerous carbocyclic compounds found in insects and other animals, and all of those combinations found in flowers, roots, leaves, resins and wood. On every continent these provide various sources of dyes and medicines such as those derived from hibiscus, cocoa leaves, foxglove, yerba buena, jacaranda and ergot, to name but a few. Among the human races of the world there is that which we call yellow because of the cast of its skin pigmentation. While modern scientists attempt to explain differences in ethnic pigmentation in terms of climatic and environmental adaptation and the degree of melanin manifested in the skin cells, older traditions speak of racial coloration in terms of stages of spiritual, moral and physical evolution.

  The teachings of The Secret Doctrine depict the Second Race within the Fourth Round as being yellow like gold. After the deluge, it is said, the moon-coloured ancestors were gone forever, leaving men of yellow, brown, black and red complexion. The First Race was comprised of the Sons of Yoga, their sons the Children of the Yellow Father and the White Mother. The Yellow Father is the sun, the Mother the moon, and together they were the "nursling of ether" which carried man in its bosom so that he could be nurtured further by the spirit of Earth and taught by the spirit of Fire. The first "approximately fully developed human beings" were yellow-complexioned and emerged at the close of the Third Race. After they separated into sexes they began to communicate in monosyllabic speech, which, mixed with hard consonants, is characteristic of the present-day so-called yellow races. This is explained by the fact that these early ancestors "of the yellow hue" were the forefathers of Turanians, Mongols and the Chinese. Two-thirds of a million years ago they fled to the land of central Asia where they had ample time to branch off "into the most heterogeneous and diversified types". It is extremely suggestive to consider the function of melanin as it affects pigmentation of skin in the light of these ancient teachings which trace man's spiritual parentage to the sun, especially as the chemical functions within the human system act in coordination with exposure to sunlight. The entire process of biosynthesis of light in the human organism is linked up with the production of melanin and its resultant effect upon skin coloration. The white skin tissue is altered in its ability to reflect external light by the degree of the chemical's presence within its surface cells, thus completing in full circle a mysterious relationship between inner synthesis and outer reflection and exposure to light.

 Yellow is the lightest of colours, which means that it reflects more light than any other colour. A bright, clean yellow will reflect seventy-one percent of the light that strikes it as opposed to white, which will reflect fifty to sixty percent. Its luminosity is a physical as well as psychological fact, and among the known cases of people who are totally colour-blind, yellow has the greatest lightness in a world of colourless shades. Thus it would seem that a truly yellow-skinned individual would radiate more light, which could be significant in itself. All colours, however, appear not merely lighter but yellower when exposed to sunlight. The retina works normally in medium light, but when the light falling on it is strong, the visual element responding to yellow becomes unduly excited and an excess of yellow is registered in consciousness. A yellow object in sunlight will look even yellower, but if the sunlight is very strong it will begin to exert a paling effect. Orange in sunlight moves towards yellow, however, and the same is true of red and green. In fact, when bright sunlight falls upon an object, the average yellowing is so great that the strongest psychological association has been formed between yellow and sunlight. Thus it is that a yellow-leaved tree or a patch of yellow sand on a gray day can delude us into thinking that the sun has come out.

  Pure yellow in the spectrum is closer to pure green than to red, though red itself usually reveals a tinge of yellow which increases gradually with the intensity of red-stimulus light. The order of hues is similar psychologically and in terms of the spectrum. It is an order related to a continuous physical change of radiation of light. This psychological order thus corresponds to what in the spectrum circle has to do with changes in wavelength and what in the circle of pigment samples has to do with dominant wavelength. It is difficult to over-estimate the psychological importance of colour just as it is equally difficult to imagine a world without it. It would be one thing to occasionally watch events portrayed on a black and white television screen, quite another to experience the whole of nature in a similar fashion. In his Theory of Colour, Goethe wrote:

The eye requires colour as much as it requires light. . . .
It gives great pleasure which must be linked to its power to heal.

 Goethe proceeded to state that "general impressions produced by single colours cannot be changed". He thought that they acted specifically and must, therefore, produce specific states in living organisms. At the same time, they produce a corresponding influence on the mind which is experienced most fully when the eye is entirely surrounded by one colour. Psychologically, individuals separate warm from cool colours and tend to see them respectively as active and passive. It is colour rather than shape that relates more closely to human emotions and small children will almost always respond to colour long before they learn to identify by shape. Equally strong within the human psyche is the association between personality types and colour response. The world appears to be divided roughly between warm-colour people and their opposite. Experimental psychologists have found that warm-colour people tend to sustain intimate relations with the visible world. They are receptive, open to influence and their mental functions tend to be rapid and highly integrated with each other. Warm-colour people are generally the brunettes of the world and, populating as they do more sunny climes, they provide a contrast with their colder, more detached and less flexible blonde brothers to the north. Such generalizations have their obvious limitations and do not seem to accommodate other psychological findings, such as that which links yellow with both genius and feeble-mindedness. It is possible that the receptivity and openness of the warm-colour person could lead to either extreme though it is difficult to imagine that genius or its opposite may not often be accompanied by reserve or mental detachment.

  In relation to their power to heal, it may be that all possible psychological colour combinations would have to be measured and understood in order to affect either a mental or physical condition. Colour therapy was practised by Pythagoras and Galen among others in history, and a modern example of this approach is shown by the Navajo in their carefully etched sandpaintings. Such a use of colour goes far beyond the simple effects utilized by commercial interests who exploit the fact that yellow packaging tends to sell more goods. The artist Kandinsky worked continually with the primary complements of yellow and blue, realizing that yellow has the maximum spreading action of all colours and that while blue contracts, yellow tends to 'approach' the observer. That this occurs at a profound psycho-physiological level is borne out in the remarkable fact that the human body has a radiation sense. A perfectly blind individual will move towards yellow and begin to open out his arms while, in the presence of blue, he will do quite the opposite. The pulse is affected by colour as well as other autonomic responses and it has been suggested that one should avoid yellow if suffering from an active nervous condition. As a stimulant of the nerves or the mind, however, yellow has a cleansing, sharpening and organizing effect. One writer on the subject of colour therapy in the early twentieth century recommended that "children should be trained to think and feel colours that would be beneficial to them in life".

Neither that which impinges upon, nor that which is impinged upon, but something which passes - some relation - between them, and is peculiar to each percipient. For the several colours can scarcely appear to a dog or to any animal as they appear to a human being; nor, indeed, do they appear to one man as they do to another.


 The sensations of colour are caused by rays of light emanating from self-luminant sources. There is no fixed colour perimeter. Even for the same observer the sensations of hue evoked by a certain wavelength depend upon a number of conditions. These may vary according to stimulus intensity and the state of retinal light and colour adaptation. The retinal loci of different perimetric angles generally convey different impressions of hue even if the stimulus remains unchanged. This may differ by human types as well. Among blondes a greater amount of light filters through the sclera, giving a colder tone to the retinal image. Senile cataracts and other such problems can affect the perception of perimeter and hue as well, which accounts for the blurred yellowish red light in the later canvases of the British landscape artist Turner. In addition to such individual idiosyncracies is the evidence of cross-cultural studies which indicates that people raised in different cultures do not necessarily categorize or even perceive natural phenomena similarly. There are tribal people who generally see black as blue or the reverse, and there are others who do not distinguish between orange and yellow or green and blue, and all this despite the universal appearance of rainbows and other reflections of the spectrum. That there are omissions and fusions of colour perimeters caused by such collective psychological modes of perception indicates the major role that mental preconception plays in the act of seeing.

 Physically, the eye sees colour because light enters it and brings with it information gathered by touching or passing through objects in its path. The image gathered is cast upon the back wall of the retina where some of the light has been absorbed. That which passes through unabsorbed is reflected off the back of the eyeball. If it escapes absorption again, it may pass outwards from the retina through the pupil. The absorbed light is captured by three types of colour receptors (red, green and blue cones) from whence impulses are fed into encoders where the real colour discrimination begins to take place. The codes are made up of two-colour electrochemical on-off signals which are transmitted to the visual centres of the brain. It is the total 'sensation' received by the brain that determines the colour actually 'seen'. The code pairs are complementary dyads: red-green, yellow-blue and black-white. To see yellow, the blue must be negated and the red-green impulses achieve a balanced 'mix'. This occurs without the presence of yellow cones and the evidence suggests that the red-green opponency occurs earlier than the yellow-blue cancellation in the process.

  Since the mixing of spectrum red and green causes the sensation yellow, and stimulation of the retina by the monochromatic radiation of a certain wavelength also gives rise to the same sensation, it becomes apparent that our colour vision does not fully inform us of the true nature of stimulating radiations in our surroundings. Red, green and blue lights are called primaries because they cannot be decomposed or produced by mixtures of other lights, as in the case of yellow. This does not mean, however, that they may not be imitated by a correct combination of wavelengths striking the retina. Goethe said that yellow and blue "demand each other at the same time; they promote each other, further each other". They also inhibit and absorb each other so that when mixed as pigments, their wavelengths are called out, leaving only that of green. What combinations can be achieved with pigments cannot necessarily be achieved by spectrum colours, and so there are many levels of possible complexities that can result in imitations. Add this to the fact that the visual image received in the eye is upside down, and one can begin to appreciate the need to distrust the world of appearances.

 That there are no yellow cones with which blue cones can 'subtractively interact' to explain yellow-blue rivalry (as in red-green rivalry), gives rise to the fascinating question of whether yellow is an independent sensation at all. Or is it simply the combination effect of the stimulation of red and green sensations? Studies have shown that "it is impossible to determine from the character of a sensation that the physiological process underlying it is simple and that the sensation is not the result of psychical fusion of the effects on consciousness of two or more physiological processes". One experiment reveals that if the intensity of spectral yellow is gradually reduced, the yellow becomes whiter and whiter but does not change in hue or in tone. This is significant, as the spectral colour is that which is seen as an after-image of the complementary colour. When one stares for a prolonged period at a bright yellow object and then closes the eyes, one will see the dyadic opposite (blue) of the original colour. Some investigators have argued, however, that when the period of fixation is short, the after-image reveals a red-green struggle for dominancy. On the other hand, increased retinal illumination augments the relative share of the yellow component in the prosensation, and when yellow and blue spectrum colours are overlapped, the result is white.

 The seeming contradictions to the phenomenon of the yellow sensation are difficult to unravel because there are many mysteries that have yet to be understood in the science of colour vision. An important clue is presented, however, in the evolution of colour vision as it has been experienced by various organisms including man. In carboniferous times, light impinging on the retina of living organisms gave a sensation of white only. Long ages later (at what time the sensation of black entered the picture is unknown) the light-sensitive substance became more specific. The colour molecule became constituted of two cleavable portions; yellow and blue. Only in the final development of colour vision did the yellow cleavable portion split again into two portions, yielding red and green sensations. If this process is put in reverse, so to speak, the red and green lights mixed in proper proportion constitute the disappearance of the pair and the arising of the yellow colour sensation. Yellow and blue lights overlapped yield white light, and it is assumed that behind white there can only be black, which would be a constant background, a 'non-light' sensation.

 Through such a process of reversion, consequently, a more primitive condition emerges. It is this idea which has caused many to view red-green colour-blindness as an atavistic throwback. The few known cases of total colour-blindness would then be a result of the next stage in the reversion process which involves the yellow-blue colour vision that is normally experienced by the partially colour-blind. Another interesting question that arises out of this is whether the development of a newborn child recapitulates rapidly the stages of colour vision experienced over time by the race. The final stage of red-green colour vision definitely involves red and green sensitive cones in the retina, the yellow-blue sensation only involving blue cones. It may be significant that though we have identified the red and green cones, no one has located those associated with blue, which are assumed to be much fewer in number and scattered near the centre of the retinal area where lies the foveal opening that leads to the brain. This opening is like a central pit around which the cones are packed and it is covered by a heavy deposit of yellow pigment which filters out some of the blue light that would otherwise affect the colour sensitive cones. Just as visual acuity and maximum selectivity increase in the yellow region of the spectrum, so the visual acuity is optimum for the rays of light that strike the foveal region.

 Plotinus and Goethe thought that the eye must be a microcosmic sun in order for us to see light. They thought of this as God inside and outside of man. Goethe asserted that in this macrocosmic and microcosmic process all colour occurs when light yields to darkness (blue) and darkness yields to light (yellow). Thus we have white light emanated by the sun which is then refracted into the various wavelengths of the colour spectrum by the time it strikes the eye. But if the eye is also like a sun, then there must be some way of understanding a reversed or analogous process involving white and coloured light within the human visual process. We know that some light can enter the eye and escape through the pupil after avoiding absorption by the cones. We have also seen that the blue sensation is in closer proximity to the opening to the optic centres of the brain where yellow pigmentation assures the greatest clarity and freedom of visual aberration. Blue is also (in combination with yellow) a more ontologically primitive sensation, and if we pursued the reasoning of Plotinus, assuming a source of pure white light from within the brain, the resulting sequence of colours is most interesting. To do this would require an incorporation of the process whereby the pineal gland converts light into an electrochemical effect (involving melanin and its biosynthetic function) which must parallel the light-producing power of the mystical Third Eye. If there is white light within man which is reflected through lofty and pure consciousness, the aperture of its emission would be that leading to the yellow circle of the foveal opening. This would be like a dark passage of spiritual light which then bursts into manifestation through a golden yellow matrix. If this analogy is pursued carefully, it would appear that the light manifesting would be blue which, in turn, would immediately 'compete' with another yellow that is produced through an ontologically subsequent combination of red and green. Thus there are two yellows in the sequence, with the spectrum yellow playing a pivotal role between blue and the red-green dyad.

  Red and green, being later developments in colour vision, are also symbolic of passion, attachment and that life-force which manifests in such a way as to ensure death. From within without, they are a final affectation. From without within, they are the primary sensations of the external world filtered into the mind to complete the process of illusion that envelopes the soul. This is what gives rise to the reference to red and green monsters in mystical traditions, and the yellow that is produced by their overlapping can be interpreted as the result of either disease and death or renunciation and spiritual life. If the yellow is muddied and produced by an unresolved struggle between the red and green forces, it would answer to the sulphuric atmosphere created by Van Gogh in his cafe painting. If the yellow released was bright and pure, it would indicate a perfect balance (negation) of the red-green dyad and an increased mental acuity would result. Behind this visual yellow rests the blue, like the indigo Spiritual Sun which is said to lie behind the veil of the golden solar orb. It is significant that a brief fixation upon a yellow object will result in a struggling red-green after-image, whereas a prolonged fixation will produce the blue spectre. In just the same way, a brief focus upon higher ideas will not enable one to free oneself suddenly from the machinations of the lower mind. It is inspiring to consider that with a prolonged focus upon higher thought, accompanied by a conscious relation to the correct tone of yellow, one might establish a firm adherence to a matrix from which emanates pure white Akashic light.

 The racial bodies of man with their various degrees of pigmentation can be seen as external reflectors of the yellow and blue acting in consort with the red and green through tissue that is essentially white. The enormous external mixture of races going on in the world today involves white-tissued vehicles affected by equally complex mixtures of karmic tendencies that have resulted in specific refractions of light, so to speak, producing the colour mixes observable in ethnic pigmentation. What is the colour of a spiritually enlightened man? Is it yellow as has been symbolically depicted as the colour of the Buddha or Christ? In the world of inverted images and imitative colour sensations, the physical pigmentation of men's skins is quite misleading and does not reflect the inner spiritual condition at all. One would be much closer to discovering the pure yellow of spiritual Buddhi with the concentrated effort of the mind's eye than by looking for it in the external world of sensations. Mystical philosophy suggests that this requires a balancing of Buddhi and Manas or Goethe's yellow lightness and blue darkness.

  To do this with ordinary spectrum yellow and blue results in white light, but to do this spiritually involves an awareness of a universally luminous colour which has the essential expansive power reflected in the spectrum level on the phenomenal plane. This noumenal yellow is sometimes glimpsed in dreams and leaves an indelible impress upon the mind which enables the dreamer to capture sparks of it in some of Nature's most beautiful flowers and sunsets but not to confuse these brilliant phenomena with their far more brilliant noumenal chromatic essence. Jack Kerouac described "the mad ones who desire everything at once . . . who burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!' " This bright, sharp yellow is like that embraced by the smart set of the 1890's. It is merely a reflection of the yellow that lies within the blue centre which is the source of all radiation, the first phase of the pure sound of the Logoic Spiritual Sun passing into colour. In the language of Adepts, sounds and colours correlate in their vibrations with levels of consciousness. Their hearts and minds must surely be suffused with the pure yellow light of total mental clarity and universal compassion. It is this light which tints all the reds and greens of the world and illuminates them with the hope of immortal, divine life.

Let me put on the yellow robe
in heart and mind I'll wear it.
Let me flood my eye with yellow light
in thought and act I'll share it.
Thus in beauty will I come and go.