Symbolism of Black and The Night

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.

Black Tree 1903 Joan Gonzalez 1868-1908

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)
  • goths
  • secrets/cloaking/mystery

There are cultural variations on black. For example:

  • In Japan, black indicates wisdom, maturity and high accomplishment, hence black belts in martial arts.
  • 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
Barney Sheppard Sings in the Gloaming ?circa 1889-90 Phil May 1864-1903

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.

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.

Lighting 

The inverse of dark is of course, light.

Light in earlier eras was expensive. Rich folk in the middle ages moved from tallow (which burns smokily, depending on the mix) to beeswax when they could afford it. Beeswax has a pleasant aroma and burns cleanly. In America where there are plenty of pine forests, candlewood was used. Some cultures made use of a particularly oily bird. It gets quite grim, actually. Apparently thieves in the sixteenth century sometimes used the fingers of babies, mostly to scare people they burgled into complete submission. The ‘hand of glory’ was a candle made from the severed hand of a hanged convict. It was turned into a candle using tallow also made from a hanged corpse. Once lit, it was supposed to render the members of the household unconscious. (If this actually worked, I don’t know how it didn’t render the thieves unconscious as well.)

Carrying a candle at night was thought to be a bit wasteful (as was burning a candle during the day ‘burning daylight’) because a moving candle uses more fuel unnecessarily. This meant that people made their way to bed in the dark and more than people are these days, were very familiar with the layout of their homes. They would know how many steps were on the staircase for instance. They might clap in a new environment to gauge the size of the room. In other words, even sighted people used some techniques nowadays really only understood by visually impaired people. 

Compared to today, neighbours were very neighbourly, helping each other at night. But more so than today, they were very wary of strangers and would not venture outside to help someone they didn’t know. 

Like clothes, even lights were regulated according to social rank. Rich people were allowed to carry more lights at night than peasants. 

Without electric light, pre-industrial people were able to distinguish between different levels of darkness. For example there was pit-murk (a black gloom) and a different shade of darkness with a full-moon out. Lowry, darkling, pitch dark (in reference to the tarry resin of pine trees.” Blind nights. 

Curtains

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. 

Devil’s Work

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

See Also

Header painting: Past and Present, No. 2 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863

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