The rainbow colours
The seven rainbow colours
In fact, the rainbow does not contain seven colours, but only six: three fundamental or primary (red, blue, yellow) and three composed or complementary (green, orange, violet) and no more. The three last colours are said to be composed of or complementary to the three first as they result from their two by two associations: green (blue + yellow), orange (red + yellow) and violet (red + blue).
No valid reason allows the addition of an intermediary colour between violet and blue (indigo) because why not add another transition colour between blue and green (cyan) and so on to obtain, finally, eleven colours instead of seven. All colours and their nuances are the result of the combination, in different proportions, of the six primary and composed colours, including indigo. To fix arbitrarily the number of rainbow colours to seven has no sense at all. Then, where does the introduction of this seventh colour come from 1 and what is its meaning ?
If we put the three primary colours on the vertexes of a triangle pointing upwards and the three composed colours on the vertexes of a reverse triangle, so that each fundamental colour stands opposite its complement, we get a Solomon seal. This seal defines seven zones composed of six coloured triangles and a central non coloured hexagon. As the rainbow spectrum can be viewed by refraction of sunlight through a prism, the central zone may only represent the source of the manifestation (of colours), namely the “white” light.
Another way of representing primary and composed colours consists in drawing six radiuses joining the centre of the hexagon to the six vertexes of the seal and to attribute to them the colours of the six triangles. The “white” light stands then at the intersection of the six radiuses and symbolizes the Centre.
The Centre represents the Principle, the “white” light, source of primary and complement colours. In fact, it portrays the seventh ray of the sun, the meaning of which has been lost along the ages and come back under the toned down form of the seventh colour of the rainbow (indigo).
The colour perception corresponds to a way out of the non coloured Principle into the manifested; the resorption of the colours into their Principle sounds like a way back to the Centre. This double movement between the non coloured Principle and its coloured manifestation gives all its meaning to the number seven.
The septenarius symbolism
Another way of representing the sun radiating the real rainbow colours consists in drawing it within the three dimensional space. Then, the six directions and colours are opposed two by two and extend from their common point or Centre, symbol of their unity.
In this drawing, the vertical axis links Heaven and Earth and refers to the spiritual order whereas the horizontal plane, related to the four compass points, corresponds to the temporal order.
The real meaning of the septenarius lies in the Centre or the unity of the Principle and its senarius manifestation (of the real rainbow colours).
Many examples of the septenarius may be found in various customs and traditions.
1. The above drawing may be connected with the seven virtues of the Christian tradition.
The vertical axis is related to the three theological virtues: “Faith” or Trust (white), “Charity” or Divine love (red), “Hope” (green).
The horizontal plane represents the four cardinal virtues: “Prudence” or Wisdom (yellow), “Temperance” (violet), “Justice” or Harmony (orange) and “Fortitude” or spiritual Force (blue).
The reasons behind these connections will appear more clearly within the colour symbolism section.
2. In the Veda, it is said that the sun comes every morning riding on its golden chariot pulled by seven horses (“ashva”). In Sanskrit, “ashva” means the horse and the ray as well. So, the golden chariot refers to the seven rays of the sun, where the seventh represents the central one, the “white” light, and the six others the rainbow colours.
A similar meaning can be found in the seven-branched candelabrum (“Menorah”) of the Jewish tradition. The central branch represents, among other things, the “white” light from which six other branches, symbolizing the six rainbow colours, are radiating.
3. In the Genesis, the creation occurred in six days and ended up with a seventh, a so-called resting day (Sabbath). The last is not really a resting day outside the creation, but rather its final crowning consisting in a return to the Principle (Centre).
Similarly, the week, the days of which get their names from the denomination of the astral objects, ends up or starts a Sunday, the day of the sun, the star around which the planets are revolving.
4. In many traditional forms, the number of degrees of the initiation path comes to seven, the highest corresponding to the unity of the septenarius.
For instance, the Chinese tradition, in its overall exoteric (Confucianism) and esoteric (Taoism) aspects, contains an ascent ladder of seven grades. Six of them have a human character whereas the seventh, as the achievement of the realization, is properly supra-human or spiritual and represents the Centre.
The first two grades (Well-read man, Learned man) concern Confucianism only, the third one (Wise man) refers to both Confucianism and Taoism and the four last ones (Talented man, Path man, True man, Transcendent man) to Taoism exclusively.
5. Similarly, in Hindu tradition, there are seven “chakras” (wheels), situated alongside the spine, in an ascending order. They represent the consciousness levels from the ordinary consciousness linked to fear, greed and sexual instincts to the universal Consciousness, corresponding to the Principle. While each of the six first “chakras” is connected to an organ of the body, a symbolic colour or number etc., the seventh may be associated with the “white” light.
6. This gradual ascent of the initiation degrees from Earth to Heaven are depicted, within the Islamic tradition, by the seven rung ladder in relation to the seven celestial spheres.
7. The Japanese pagoda traditionally has seven stories to mark the different stages of the ascent from Earth to Heaven.
Likewise, according to the Mesopotamian tradition, a spiral slope was winding round the seven-storeyed ziggurat. The last storey, which is empty, symbolizes the return into the non-manifested, the Principle.
8. The image of the philosophical stone of the Pythagorean tradition is also an echo to the septenarius (7). Each of its faces is developed according to a triangle and a square. The triangle is composed of a vertex in relation to the Principle (1) and a basis reflecting its polarity (2). The four corners (4) of the square refer naturally to the four compass points and portray the manifestation basis.
Other examples could be given, but they would add nothing more to the septenarius or colour meanings.
The colour symbolism
The human eye may distinguish seven hundred colour nuances and there is no question to mention here all their aspects. Since the same colour may assume different meanings according to its tonality (clearer or darker) or the world it is applied to (manifested or non-manifested, spiritual or temporal etc.). So, only qualities of main colours, in relation to different worlds, will be touched in the remaining text. We will start with white, source of the rainbow colours.
White and Black
White symbolizes the Principle of the manifestation of colours and everything in general. It corresponds to the being who has reintegrated the Centre, who has overcome the human state and accessed a supra human or spiritual state. White is the colour of druids of the Celtic tradition and Brahmins of Hindu tradition. It symbolizes the spiritual or sacerdotal authority, which has authority over the temporal or royal power.
White depicts the presence, the manifestation (of colours); black the absence, the non-manifestation (of colours).The alternating white and black tiles portray the constant game between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the world of depths
White personifies the initiation path as well, going through all spiritual realization degrees and based on trust and surrendering. Reaching the last degree or the Centre means returning to the Principle. Opposed to white, source of the manifestation, of the presence (of colours), black depicts the non-manifested, the absence (of colours). Seen from the outer (exoteric vision), from the manifestation point of view, the Principle or Centre is white. Apprehended from the inner (esoteric vision), it is non-manifested and black. Black constitutes, in a way, the real Centre, source of all rays, including the seventh. Thus, some ladders of initiation degrees of the Islamic tradition may contain seven, even eight, rungs, the last one being black to emphasize the ultimate step of the spiritual accomplishment.
Moreover, in Hindu tradition, black is also the colour of the lower class (distinct from the lower caste). Indeed, there are two ways not to belong to a class (“varna”, which means colour as well):
- To be deprived of class (“avarna”) as the shudras;
- To be beyond the classes (“ativarna”), that means having rejoined the Centre.
It ensues that black symbolizes the beginning of the manifestation cycle or the Principle and the end of the cycle in relation to its full development. Consequently, black represents both the brightest and the darkest light according to the point of view: non-manifested or manifested.
The juxtaposition of white and black symbolizes naturally pairs such as light and darkness, day and night, yang and yin etc. The white of yang and black of yin put the pre-eminence of yang over yin in an obvious place from the manifestation point of view. A pre-eminence accompanied with a deep complement between both principles, which is reflected by the entanglement of white and black zones within the yin yang symbol.
More commonly, the overlapping layout of white and black tiles of cathedral floors has a similar meaning. So does the chessboard, composed of alternating black and white squares. It conveys the constant game between the non-manifested and the manifestation through its indefinite multiplicity of (coloured) moves.
As the colour of putting the enemy place to fire and the sword, red represents courage and, more symbolically, the power and the force in this world. As the “uppermost” colour of the rainbow, it corresponds to the highest rank of the temporal order. A role traditionally devoted to warriors and their chief, the king. It is the colour of the Kshatriyas, second function after the Brahmins within Hindu tradition. The cross of the soldier monks, knights of the Temple order, provides a more familiar example. The cardinals of the Catholic Church have inherited this sovereignty symbol.
If white symbolizes the sacerdotal authority of the principle knowledge, red represents the temporal power in charge of their application. In that sense, red symbolizes love of the divine Principle.
As the “lowest” fundamental colour within the rainbow, (dark) blue represents the colour of the productive function.
Blue is the most insubstantial colour, which occurs in nature mostly in its translucency form and essentially in the sky or waters. Therefore, it symbolizes more the essence than the substance, mainly the spiritual force, the Spirit, the inner Peace.
Light blue is the colour of meditation and, as it darkens, it becomes the colour of dreams. The Consciousness yields little by little to the unconscious just as the light of day gradually turns into the colour of night, the midnight blue.
From the temporal point of view, yellow represents, in Hindu tradition, the “middle” colour linked to the vaishyas caste.
As the warmest colour of the light spectrum, yellow is related to sun and gold, two symbols of the spiritual influence, of Wisdom. The transmutation of lead into gold symbolized the inner alchemy transforming the human being into a spiritual or a supra-human being. That is why yellow is linked to the re-birth of the being and the resurrection of Christ.
Situated halfway within the rainbow spectrum, yellow represents the “Middle Path”. It symbolizes the communication channel between Heaven and Earth, blue and red. In ancient China, it was the imperial colour. The emperor ruled over the “Middle Empire” as sun reigned in the skies. In connection with its highly spiritual characteristics, yellow was often associated with black from which it emerges. In various traditions, it symbolizes the transmission of the divine power to emperors and kings.
As the most common colour spread over the earth, green represents both the life rising from the plant and its decomposition. As such, it is associated with the cycle of death and rebirth.
Moreover, mid-way between the so-called warm colours (red, orange, yellow) and cool colours (blue, violet), green is the colour of neutrality, quietness, calming, all what we are hoping for.
Combination of blue and yellow, green is the colour of awakening, re-generation and access to spiritual knowledge.
Myths often refer to the complement of red and green. In the Egyptian tradition, Osiris corpse (green) was brought to life again by Isis (red). In the Christian version of the quest of the Holy Grail, the emerald vase contains the blood of God who became human.
If yellow is related to the sun in its apparent fullness, orange is identified to sunrise and sunset, i.e. sun elevation and descent. In other terms, orange characterizes at the same time the flight towards light and the descent towards darkness, synonym of ignorance.
Mix of yellow and red, orange combines the spiritual gold and the temporal red and symbolizes the equilibrium between celestial and terrestrial worlds, which means justice in a deep sense, i.e. harmony.
This balanced way was sought in ritual orgies regarded as bringing with them the initiatory revelation. This is why Dionysus is represented dressed in orange. To day, the saffron garment of Buddhist monks symbolizes also this search of harmony.
Violet is the colour of temperance as if softens the blaze of red. This is the meaning attached to the bishop's sacerdotal vestments. He has to watch over his flock and moderate the heat of his passions.
Composed of equal proportions of blue and red, violet represents also a balance colour between Heaven and Earth. Lying opposite to yellow, a colour of the passage between death to a state of being and re-birth into another, violet depicts, on the contrary, the passage from life to death to a being state before springing up again or resuscitating into another state. That is why choirs and statues of churches are draped in violet on Good Friday. Prior to the Renaissance, many gospel-books, psalters and breviaries were written in golden letters on a violet background so that the reader could constantly remember the mystery of the Lord's Passion. Later, in Western societies, the colour became that of mourning or half-mourning. As such, violet is related to a rite of passage from a state to another one.
- René Guénon:
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
- More specifically, chapters 47 on white and black and 57 devoted to the seven rays of the rainbow.
1 back The white light breakdown into seven colours returns to Newton. For a long time, one has wondered what was the reason for the introduction of indigo ? It would seem that Newton wanted to establish a correspondence between the seven planets known at that time and the colours of the visible light spectrum. As the “universal” attraction followed from the different planet masses, the colour spectrum would result from distinct corpuscle masses.