Symbolism of Green

What does green symbolise in art and storytelling?

  • Unripe (and by extension, naïve)
  • Vital and vigorous (because Greek ‘chloros’ may have mostly meant ‘having sap’, independent of colour). By extension, green can symbolise youth. Young things tend to be moist (sorry) whereas old things tend to be dry (also sorry, blame those Ancient Greeks).
  • Latin for ‘green ‘ is viridis. This becomes verdant in English. This may have meant youthful and vigorous as well as naïve, but thanks to that age-old gender hierarchy, ‘virile’ and ‘manliness’ are overlapping ideas. ‘Virile’ and ‘virtue’ are also related.
From The Australian Women's Weekly, March 19, 1975 green glasses
From The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 19, 1975. Green-tinted glasses. I bet he tells everyone, “You look a little peaky today.”
  • It gets worse. Since green can mean virtue and naivety, it follows that green can also symbolise virginity, a bullshit concept made up to control people, mainly women.
  • Green symbolises spring, hence the adjective ‘vernal’. The common Latin idea with this family of ‘v’ words is ‘juicy’ or ‘sappy’.
  • Many landscapes remain green over summer (not here in Australia, where we should be using Aboriginal concepts of seasonality) but anyway, green can symbolise summer as well as spring.
  • There’s a famous medieval poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem may have come from a pop-culture idea of the time: belief in a Green Man who represents the seasonal cycle. (For a contemporary picture book example of personified seasons see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.)

Sir Garwain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian poem which begins with a beautiful Christmas feast. An unexpected guest arrives. He is a gigantic man holding an axe and a holly branch. Although he is bright green all over his eyes are red. The knights at the roundtable don’t know if he’s real or some fantasy creature. The story turns into a bit of a deal with the devil plot when this massive green man says anyone can hit him, so long as he can hit them back with equal force in a year’s time.

Although this Green Knight is never overtly a fairy there are many things in the text which links him to fairyworld. For instance, he lives in a mound (which is where fairies are meant to live), he has power over the chilly landscape, seeming like a metaphor for the coldness of it (same as fairies). He is also in charge of people’s death.

Green in Colour Psychology
Lou Marchetti (1920-1992) 1961 book cover illustration for Sing Me A Murder by Helen Nielson
Lou Marchetti (1920-1992) 1961 book cover illustration for Sing Me A Murder by Helen Nielson
  • Green is frequently the colour of the sea. The sea sometimes does look green, so that explains that. But it is also partly due to the fact that the concept of ‘blue’ took longer than you might expect to be a thing. We think humans began to see blue as a colour when we started making blue pigments around 6000 years ago. Until blue appeared in cave paintings, people had ‘green’ and ‘dark-wine’ to describe the ocean. You’ll find ‘dark-wine’ in “The Odyssey” but you’ll find ‘green’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and in Milton’s “Vacation Exercise” and “Paradise Lost”.
  • Because of its link to regeneration, youth, virtue and all that, green can also be a symbol of hope. This is especially true in the idea of Christian salvation (alongside blue). In Purgatorio, Dante associates green with the realm of hope, which counterposes against Hell, where all hope is abandoned. (And in Heaven you don’t even need it.)
Dante meets Matelda, Purgatory Canto XVIII. Illustration by-Amos Nattini c 1925.
Dante meets Matelda, Purgatory Canto XVIII. Illustration by-Amos Nattini c 1925.

Green can also symbolise inconstancy. Where does this come from? It seems a bit random. Well, not really, it’s all connected. Since green is the colour of vegetation and since vegetation changes with the season… you get it. This, too, links to misogyny in literature because of course it does. Women are commonly regarded as untrustworthy liars. Standout example: (Probably) Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Against Women Unconstant”. Basically, an unnamed lady is criticised for her “newefangelnesse” and “unsteadfastness”. The poem turns this woman into a personified image of May (a female version of the English Green Man of May). This all builds up to a refrain which goes:

In stede of blew,
thus may ye were al grene.

Against Women Unconstant

Although blue and green are similar colours, right next to each other on the colour wheel, using medieval colour symbolism they are symbolically counterposed. When green stands for inconstancy, blue stands for its opposite, faithfulness. When we feel entitlement over someone else’s time, love and attention, it follows that anything less feels like betrayal. The woman in this ballad is beautiful like the springtime, sure, but she also catches all the negative medieval hunting symbolism of green: destruction, death, decay.

See also: Squire’s Tale.

And al withoute, the mewe is peynted grene,
And on all the outside, the pen is painted green,
In which were peynted alle thise false fowles,
In which were painted all these false fowls…

Squire’s Tale, Chaucer

NATURE AND VEGETATION

King Pelican Lettuce, circa 1920. Advertisements of this era and earlier frequently surprise me. Pelicans, to sell lettuce? A pelican lettuce chimera? Okay. Brb, need to go buy some right now.
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 - 18 March 1990; England) Green Willow Farm cover squirrel
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 – 18 March 1990; England) Green Willow Farm. This is clearly a utopian space with unspoiled nature, where children can roam and not fall into too much strife.
The Girl in the White Hat, Story and pictures by W.T. Cummings, 1959. This shade of green allows the white of the significant hat to stand out nicely.
Thomas Brooks - The Ferryman's Daughter
Thomas Brooks – The Ferryman’s Daughter. Is this the River Styx? The green suggests a liminal space between something good and something sinister.
Harold Williamson, Picnic, 1940
Harold Williamson, Picnic, 1940. Is that Pan in the background, taking a dip? If nothing else, the green sets off the orange of the butterfly.

GREEN AND ENVY

William Shakespeare’s famous play, “Othello,” is a story that is wrought with jealousy. Othello’s best friend, Iago, manipulates Othello so successfully that the title character believes his wife has been unfaithful.

In his treachery, Iago describes jealousy as a “green-eyed monster which doth mock.” Chaucer and Ovid also use the phrase “green with envy.”

Some believe the colour green has been associated with jealousy dating back to the ancient Greeks. They believed jealousy occurred as result of the overproduction of bile, which turned human skin slightly green.

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Shakespeare went with run-of-the-mill ‘green’ but Edmund Spenser (the English poet best known for “The Faerie Queene”) had his own weird word to describe jealousy: ‘whally’.

Lechery’s goat has “whally eies (the signe of gelosy) looking askance, with “wanton eyes”. I’m with Spenser on this. Goats do have freaky eyes.

GREEN AND SEDUCTION

Green indeed is the colour of lovers.

Adriano de Armado, Loves Labours Lost
Do you inhale Art by John LaGatta
Do you inhale? Art by John LaGatta. This is how they used to sell cigarettes to women. I guess 20-year-old white boys from posh schools were writing the copy and directing the art.
Cachou Lajaunie. Recommended for smokers, drivers, cyclists, 1890. Drawing by Francisco Nicolas Tamagno. What are these things, biscuits? Even other products were helping to sell cigarettes. Come to the other side, where all the dangerous and fun people hang out.
Cachou Lajaunie. “Recommended for smokers, drivers, cyclists”, 1890. Drawing by Francisco Nicolas Tamagno. What are these things, biscuits? Even other products were helping to sell cigarettes. Come to the other side, where all the dangerous and fun people hang out.

GREEN AND THE ‘OTHER’

Why are witches green? (It’s not just witches. Green and blue are used to depict inhuman creatures in art.)

Omar Rayyan - Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale green
Omar Rayyan – Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale. Your archetypal green witch. Great foreshortening with those hands.
from Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Illustration is by Dean Ellis, 1974. Aliens are green for the same reason witches are green.
Illustrator unknown, circa 1930
Illustrator not found, circa 1930. Wizards would definitely prefer green as their interior decoration.
Somewhere Within This House
Somewhere Within This House by Jean Francis Webb is something, or someone, otherworldly. He probably has a blue beard.
‘The Seven-Headed Dragon’ by the Grimm Brothers. This illustration is by Vittorio Accornero, 1950. Beware the green sky. Oh, and the many headed dragon, also green.
The Iron Man (pictures by Chris Mould)
The Iron Man by Ted Hughes has been illustrated by artist Chris Mould, who makes wonderful use of an otherworldly green. The movie adaptation makes use of a quite different autumnal palette.
Mary Blair (1911 - 1978) 1953 illustration for Disney's Peter Pan
Mary Blair (1911 – 1978) 1953 illustration for Disney’s Peter Pan, with a wonderful green sky.
'Moonlight, Wharfedale', John Atkinson Grimshaw, oil on card, 1870s
‘Moonlight, Wharfedale’, John Atkinson Grimshaw, oil on card, 1870s.
Illustration by Robert Kresin. In 'Childcraft The How and Why Library' Volume 11, Field Enterprises, first printed 1964
Illustration by Robert Kresin. In ‘Childcraft: The How and Why Library’ Volume 11, Field Enterprises, first printed 1964. I think she should probably quit painting pronto, don’t you?
Fungus the Bogeyman. Green is also the colour of disgust and abjection. On the covers of gross-out books for kids, green frequently features large.
Daniela Drescher is a German illustrator and has made this key scene more interesting with dramatic use of an unusual green.
Daniela Drescher is a German illustrator and has made this key scene of Snow White more interesting with dramatic use of an unusual green. FFS, Snow White should’ve seen the green and KNOWN not to eat the poisonous apple! Green is of course the complementary colour of apple red, and I don’t know how many more clues the kid needed.

GREEN AND FAIRIES

Speaking of the strange and the Other, fairies are strongly linked to the colour green. Green might be a sign that fairies are present.

An old Somerset tradition advises mothers not to dress their children in green until after the Christening (lest they be taken by the fairies).

Absinthe, is a distilled, anise-flavoured spirit. Traditionally, the spirit is green from the inclusion of green anise, and this is where the nickname, “la fée verte” or “The Green Fairy” comes from. But the actual name of the spirit comes from the plant “Artemisia absinthium” (commonly referred to as “wormwood” or “grand(e) wormwood”) from which absinthe derives much of its flavour. Wormwood contains thujone, which is where the notion that it is a hallucinogen comes from in the first place.

What is Absinthe? Will I Hallucinate and See A Green Fairy?
EUGENE GRASSET (1841-1917), ABRICOTINE LIQUER POSTER, ca 1905
EUGENE GRASSET (1841-1917), ABRICOTINE LIQUER POSTER, ca 1905
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 - 1960) The Little Green Road to Fairyland
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 – 1960) The Little Green Road to Fairyland. Why do witches turn princes into frogs? To expose them for the disgusting people that they are, I suspect. (Frogs themselves are a cute and very necessary part of our ecosystem but don’t talk to me about cane toads. I live in Australia.)
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970)English illustrator who worked in the youth book sector and especially around fairy tales. The Enchanted Wood
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970) was an English illustrator who worked in the youth book sector and especially around fairy tales. The Enchanted Wood clearly inspired later children’s book creators such as Enid Blyton.

When people believed it was dangerous to utter the word ‘fairy’, they could dress in green to secretly express the idea that fairies were the topic of conversation.

Printed Cloth 'Flower Fables', by Louisa May Alcott. Published 1854, her first book, green
Printed Cloth ‘Flower Fables’, by Louisa May Alcott. Published 1854, Alcott’s first book.
Florence Liley Young. Watch out, kid. Those fairies don’t look friendly. In fact, fairies can fall at any point on the morality spectrum. Some are good, some are terrible. Today’s kids tend to think of Tinkerbell when they think ‘fairy’, but that’s not how earlier peoples thought of them at all.
Dream boats and other stories 1920 by Dugald Stewart Walker
Dream boats and other stories 1920 by Dugald Stewart Walker
Greg Hildebrandt (born 1939) 1980s illustration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum green
This is a magnificent 1980s illustration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by artist Greg Hildebrandt (born 1939). L. Frank Baum was explicit about his use of green to denote the otherworldly (Emerald City).
John R Neill- the Royal Palace of Oz John Rea Neill reigned as the Royal Illustrator of Oz for forty years - 1904 to 1944
John R Neill- the Royal Palace of Oz John Rea Neill reigned as the Royal Illustrator of Oz for forty years – 1904 to 1944

Albert W. Hampson’s woman in his illustration “St Patricks Day” reminds me of the middle-aged women Leyendecker loved to paint. Green is now the colour of St. Patricks Day but this wasn’t always the case. Royal blue was previously the national colour of Ireland. Since fairies are important to Irish lore, and because of the fairy-green link, I wondered if this had anything to do with the switch to green as a national colour. My second guess was landscape related: The first thing you notice if you travel to Ireland (at least from England or Australia, not so much from New Zealand) is how bright green the place is.  I’m right about the landscape but wrong about the fairies. Ireland’s colour is green for religious reasons. In the 1640s the Irish Catholic Confederation started to make use of the green harp flag. The Irish flag is green, white and orange. The green still represents the Catholicism and the orange the Protestant side,. White symbolises peace between them.

Albert W. Hampson, “Saint Patrick’s Day”

England has “Jack-in-the-Green”, who goes from door to door when May Day comes.

Jack in the Green, also known as Jack o’ the Green, is an English folk custom associated with the celebration of May Day. It involves a pyramidal or conical wicker or wooden framework that is decorated with foliage being worn by a person as part of a procession, often accompanied by musicians.

Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town Jack In The Green
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town Jack In The Green
Movie poster, USA 1973 The Wicker Man
Movie poster, USA 1973 The Wicker Man. Given the history of wicker constructions around Jack-in-the-green, this colour is a good choice.

WOMEN IN GREEN

Green Sickness (chlorosis) is a sixteenth century construct and described adolescent young women who were probably anaemic. Severe anaemia may give your skin a greenish hue. Menstruators are especially susceptible to iron deficiency, and in times of famine, it’s a given.

But people have always needed to control the fertility of young women, so green sickness also described ‘unhealthy desires’ (i.e. any desires) on the part of a young woman. Chlorosis was also called the Disease of Virgins.

From from the 1590s on (the Renaissance), Green Sickness was commonly used by storytellers to generate domestic conflict. William Shakespeare was one.

Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.

Romeo

Juliet doesn’t want to marry Paris, like her father wants her to. Because he can’t control her fertility due to his daughter’s pesky desires he yells, “Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!”.

Once Freud came along, people started talking about ‘hysteria’ instead. Hyster- means ‘womb’ (cf. hysterectomy) and ‘hysteria’ is therefore a word I’d like to see erased from contemporary vocabularies.

It’s also true that people can look fabulous dressed in green:

Thomas Wilmer Dewing - The Recitation 1891
Thomas Wilmer Dewing – The Recitation 1891
Dean Cornwell
Dean Cornwell
William John Leech (1881 – 1968) Irish green umbrella
William John Leech (1881 – 1968) Irish
Marcello Dudovich (1878 - 1962) green dress
New Yorker cover ball Garrett Price green
New Yorker cover ball Garrett Price green
The Green Goddess 1923 Starring George Arliss With H.B. Warner, Alice Joyce & Ralph Forbes
The Green Goddess 1923 Starring George Arliss With H.B. Warner, Alice Joyce & Ralph Forbes
Harper’s Bazaar magazine, George F. Kerr; 1902
This image is from John Martin’s Book The Child’s Magazine, and the art is perhaps by George L Carlson (USA, 1887-1962) “No matter what just smile.” Good advice for compulsory work parties. Children’s books of the first Golden Age frequently told children to grin and bear it, suck it up.

GREEN ROOMS

Green is thought to be calming, which is why the room near a theatre stage has green walls (and even if it doesn’t, is still called the green room). Stage lights are blindingly bright and a nice green room offers a calming balm.

There are many competing theories about why the theatre green room is called the green room. Here’s another:

The term ‘green room’ is also attributed to the makeup worn by actors; long before modern makeup was invented, the actors had to apply makeup before a show and allow it to set up or cure before performing. Until the makeup was cured, it was ‘green’, and people were advised to sit quietly in the ‘green room’ until such time as the makeup was stable enough for performing.

Wikipedia

Note that the room were actors wait to go on stage is also the ‘transition’ room, and green is all about transitions (i.e. liminality).

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865 – 1925) The Green Room, 1904
Norman Rockwell, Home from Camp, 1968 green
Norman Rockwell, Home from Camp, 1968. Why has he come home to so much green? Given that this is a Rockwell illustration, it’s probably completely cosy and the boy has simply brought the glow of nature home with him.
Animation background from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, 1961
Animation background from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, 1961
The Green Room is a famous painting by Henri Matisse.
Harold Gilman (English, 1876 - 1919) In Sickert's House 1907
Harold Gilman (English, 1876 – 1919) In Sickert’s House 1907

MONEY

The American dollar is widely known as ‘the greenback’, so of course green symbolises money. (In my own home countries money comes in various different bright colours. In Australia the $100 note is green. In New Zealand, the $20 note is green.)

At the vast majority of casinos, you’ll notice that every card table is lined with the same green felt. Much like a billiards table, this felt is seemingly ubiquitous, as if it was the last fabric on Earth when the table manufacturers were ready to throw into production. There is, however, a method to the madness. Green isn’t just the color of money (in the U.S., at least), it’s also a color that evokes feelings of calmness and relaxation

Why Are Card Tables Green?
Henri Manguin (1874 - 1949) Interior ,1900
Henri Manguin (1874 – 1949) Interior, 1900

GOLF

When Bob Peak was commissioned to create advertisements for lemonade 7UP, sold in distinctive green bottles, he utilised various aspects of green. In this particular image, lemonade is connected to the fun and powerful feelings you get on a golfing green.

Robert M. Peak (May 30, 1927 – August 1, 1992) 7Up advertisement golf
Robert M. Peak (May 30, 1927 – August 1, 1992) 7Up

GREEN AND YOUTH

Pooh, you speak like a green girl.

Hamlet

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment

Anthony and Cleopatra

Salad days refer to “a time of youth, innocence, and inexperience.” Although it first appears in Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, “it only became popular,” says World Wide Words, “from the middle of the nineteenth century on.” The link between salad and youth is the color green, like that of “young green shoots of spring.” Today salad days also refers to “a period in the past when somebody was at the peak of their abilities or earning power, in their heyday, not necessarily when they were young.”

Words that Shakespeare made up and revitalised from Wordnik

GREEN IN OLD PICTURE BOOKS

Before colour printing was revolutionised, picture book illustrators had to pick just a few colours. Sometimes they chose green.

'Dancing all through the six-month-long polar night' Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1933
‘Dancing all through the six-month-long polar night’ Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1933

STARTLING EXAMPLES OF GREEN IN NATURE

Homer Dodge Martin - The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York
Homer Dodge Martin – The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York.

Header illustration of the Green Mask is by Elmer Cecil Stoner.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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