In our latest feature on the theme of Blue, Anna Aysea explores the origins of the colour blue, the language used to describe it and how our perception of it has developed over time.
There is more to blue than meets the eye. Apparently, the colour blue did not exist for our ancestors. Researchers analyzed ancient texts from all over the world, the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, and ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Inuit languages. All major languages seem to show the same development regarding colour: words for black and white appear first as indicators for dark and light, then the word for red as an indicator for danger, then words for green and yellow, the word for blue is the last to appear in the language. In ancient texts, black and white are mentioned the most, to a lesser degree red is mentioned, then green and yellow, researchers found no mention of blue, not once. The word for blue appears only after the invention of blue synthetic dye by the Egyptians about 5000 years ago. Our ancestors did not see blue as a separate colour but as a shade of green.
The reason that there was no word for blue in ancient times is because blue pigment does not exist in nature. You may ask: “Well, what about the ocean, the blue sky, blueberries, my blue hydrangeas, my blue eyes? The blueish colour of less than ten percent of flowers is caused by a natural modification of a red pigment, which is also responsible for the colour of blueberries. The pigments of indigo or woad are variations of violet. The blue of the sky, the ocean and blue eyes are the result of how light is refracted. This is also true for the vivid blue of exotic birds or butterflies. The microscopic structure of the feathers or wings is such that it refracts the light in a way that the surface appears blue.
Lapis lazuli and the ultramarine made from it is the exception as a true blue pigment in nature. The fact that the pigment is so rare may be the reason why lapis lazuli is associated with healing, wisdom and compassion in Buddhist teaching. Also, plants thrive best under blue light. Afghanistan being the major source of Lapis lazuli, the pigment was mostly used in the east in Buddhist and Mughal art for centuries. Its diffusion in Europe began during the Crusades in medieval times, but its rarity and cost meant that it could be afforded for the creation of artworks only for the most wealthy. Hence blue is the colour of royalty.
The ephemeral nature of the colour blue is in fact true for all colours. According to modern science, colour is the way light is absorbed, reflected and scattered by a surface, colour does not exist as such but is an interpretation of a wavelength by the sensory apparatus. In other words, colour is what reality looks like when it is filtered and interpreted by the body-mind. Sense perceptions are not reality but an image, like the map, is not the territory but a representation of it. I am reminded of the Scripture of Great Wisdom which also dismisses sense perceptions as reality:
… in this pure there is no … eye, – ear, – nose, – tongue, – body, – mind; No form, – no tastes, – sound, – colour, touch or objects…
The world is real, but it is not what it appears to be based on eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Form, taste, sound, colour, touch or objects are images, are representations, not reality. Mistaking the image for the territory is entering the world of illusion. Without that erroneous belief, there is beauty and joy in the play of the senses, in the radiant, glorious blue of ultramarine as one of the myriad faces of the one reality.