Across the globe, black has negative connotations. This is probably because night-time is black, and historically night-time is the scariest, most dangerous time for humans. Our eyes have evolved for daylight. That’s why I’m combining ‘night’ and ‘black’ when delving into symbolism.
Black is not technically a colour, rather an absence of colour. Artists are often advised against using black out of the tube. Instead we are to mix a dark hue from other colours. More interesting blacks are achieved if they are red black or blue black, say. This is debatable advice.
Other associations with darkness and black:
- evil and general badness
- mourning and funerals (especially in the West)
- anything taboo
- depression (e.g. Black Dog)
- witchcraft (e.g. black cats, black cloaks, cauldrons)
There are cultural variations on black. For example:
- In Japan, black is one of the four important colours. Black indicates wisdom, maturity and high accomplishment, hence black belts in martial arts. In Japan black is also the opposite of the colour purple, associated with the armoury of samurai, and in ancient times geisha used black to colour their teeth.
- The Cathars were a dualist medieval religious sect of Southern France. Like Japan, the Cathars also used black to mean perfection and purity. (Today purity is most often symbolised using white.)
- Though black is generally considered bad, black cats are lucky in the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. Black contains layers of flipped symbolism.
Associations With Night-time
- In English we say night ‘falls’ but actually it rises, emerging first in the valleys.
- Fading rays are known as ‘sun suckers’.
- Eventide is an archaic term — Irish people have a saying that bushes and men look alike. Italians say hounds look like wolves.
- Night feels palpable, like some sort of dark mist. The Old Testament talks about darkness that befell Pharoah’s Egypt.
- Night Vapours: Noxious fumes are widely thought to descend from the sky. “Night fogges” and “noysom vapours”
- Shakespeare — “the daylight sick”. “Make haste, the vaporous night approaches.”
- Noctivagator was a Latin term used to refer to people who walked around at night causing trouble in the Middle Ages. It was later replaced by nightwalker in England in around 1500.
- Linkboys were orphans and urchins, paid to carry lights for pedestrians. They were not well trusted, sometimes leading customers straight to pick-pockets.
Ancient Times Of Day
Before the industrial era nightfall was known as ‘shutting in’. Watchdogs have been let out by nightfall, so it is time to lock yourself in for the night.
- Gloaming (twilight, dusk)
- Cock-shut/cockshut — twilight
- Crow-time — evening
- Daylight’s gate — The period of the evening when daylight fades; twilight. From the early 17th century.
- Owl-leet — perhaps Lancashire dialect for ‘owl light’, when owls come out
Darkness and Fear
All humans seem to fear the dark, probably an instinctive thing after many generations of learning to fear things which emerge in the dark. But not all cultures fear dark equally. Fear levels depend on the cultural narratives around night-time.
We don’t just fear the dark because we can’t see through it. We fear it because we can’t be recognised as ourselves. This is especially scary for children, who fear their parents may not recognise them in the darkness. In ancient stories, the coal man who covers children’s faces with coal is a terrifying bogeyman.
Deinos melas means ‘scary black’ and describes the ghost of one of Odysseus’ sailors.
Also, cultures change across time. Modern cultures fear dark less than earlier cultures — in this modern era there is no true darkness in populated areas anyway.
People weren’t really afraid of the dark until the END of the middle ages. Before then the dark was considered a peaceful time. Then we got vampires, werewolves, witches and all sorts of horrible night creatures and people actually believed these things existed, outside a few analytic mindsets. A great number of people sat on the fence, agnostic about the existence of such things. Others were absolutely terrified by their own supernatural beliefs, sometimes to the detriment of others:
On a winter night in 1725, a drunken man stumbled into a London well, only to die from his injuries after a neighbour ignored his creeds for help, fearing instead a demon.At Day’s Close: Night in times past by A. Roger Ekirch
Since people were so scared of the night, this was excellent for pickpockets and thieves, who were able to utilise that and almost always used the cover of darkness to commit their crimes. It even became a separate crime. Housebreakers worked in the daytime, burglars by night between 1660 and 1800.
Curtains weren’t a thing until the 18th century. When people first got them, neighbours assumed the worst regarding what was going on behind them. At that time everyone knew everyone else’s business. That’s not to say people hadn’t wanted privacy. The reason privacy became paramount then and not at any earlier time is because that’s when people started to accumulate personal possessions of their own. The words ‘privacy’ and ‘private’ didn’t exist in English until the 1400s. But by the time of Shakespeare these words were known and used by everyone.
In earlier eras across Europe, there were laws about what jobs were allowed to be done at night. Basically, working at night was considered very suspicious because night was for the devil’s work. People were even beaten to death for working after dark. However, you were allowed to work if it was in service to a noble family. You were also allowed to work if you were preparing for a carnival or fair. Depending on the culture, exemptions were made for overnight working. In Sweden and Amsterdam for instance workers were allowed to make beer overnight because beer was very important.
Although work was generally not allowed at night, ‘day-labour’ really did mean from dawn until dusk, until modern labour laws came in. Just as well for the superstitions, I suppose, or the working class would never have been afforded sleep.
According to some belief systems, prayer, piety and church attendance can protect you from sin (darkness) because your body emulates light. Take the following from a Pentecostal churchgoer in Papua New Guinea:
When witches confess, they say things like: “When we encounter people who follow Jesus, when we would like to get close to them, there is a light! A strong light! It reflects against our vision, and we can’t get close to them.”Becoming Witches
- Illustrating the dark
- The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen
- The rule of oversized moons in picture books
- Moon signifies night, sun signifies day
Header painting: Past and Present, No. 2 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863