At the heart of symbolism

Colours of compass points and elements


Concentric squares and circles by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Colourful diagrams

Compass points and colours

Since the dawn of time, man has always sought to get his bearings in space. For that purpose, he observed the various positions of the sun during the day or stars during the night:

  • At day light, the shade of a post stuck into the ground allowed to determine the position of the sun at its zenith, i.e. the direction of south. The other compass directions followed;
  • At night, the observation of the fixed point, around which stars seemed to turn, gave the direction of the (geographical) North pole and, then, the other directions.

The diagram of the four compass directions could then be used to represent the four periods of the day, the four seasons, the four ages of the human being etc. The idea to associate compass directions and colours followed. It was enough to think, among others, to the green spring, the yellow summer, the russet autumn and the white… winter.

The choice of colours had however to reflect the relationship between clearness and darkness (south and north, east and west) underlined by complementary colours (red and green, yellow and purple for example). The correspondence between compass points and colours could, for instance, associate east with green, south with yellow, west with red, north with purple or dark blue. As for white related to winter, it called its complementary, black. Together, they also represented the relation between brightness and darkness for the two vertical directions associated with zenith and nadir.

The association of the six colours, mostly widespread in the traditional societies, with the six directions of space gave the first diagram below. It constituted only one of the eight diagrams generated by joining the four possible couples of complementary colours (red, green), (green, red), (yellow, blue) and (blue, yellow) with the two couples of compass points (south, north) and (east, west). However, only four of these diagrams will be kept, the four others resulting from the former by exchanging the colours along each axis:

Christian and Hinduism coloursGreek and Indian coloursChinese coloursMayan colours

White and black have a great symbolic importance. White represents not only the unified state of the colours of the visible light spectrum, but more generally of all beings and things. It symbolizes the terrestrial perception of the non manifested primeval Principle at the origin of manifestation. As for black, it is even the image of the non manifested, beyond our perception of the Principle symbolized by white.

In a more prosaic way, white and black characterize light and darkness, clarity and obscurity, knowledge and ignorance. As often in the hermetic tradition, what is the highest at the celestial level is the lowest at the terrestrial plan.

Compass points and elements

Some of the previous diagrams were enriched by the introduction of elements in various traditional forms. They were symbolized in ancient Greece by fire, air, water and earth according to the hierarchical order provided by Plato and his disciple, Aristotle. The criterion of material production of elements alone would have led to reverse the order of fire and lighter air. However, that would have put aside the symbolic aspect of both elements. Fire was associated with verticality, with the rise towards Heaven, the states of higher beings. Air, mainly characterized by the transversal movement of wind, represented only the horizontal expansion related to a given existence state. As for the elements water and earth, they were also in relation to verticality, but downwards.

It followed that the elements could not be swapped according to people's wish; they proceeded from each other as well in their hierarchical as in their production order.

It was always possible to associate fire with red and water with blue, green or turquoise for example. But what about the other elements and colours ? The task was all the more difficult since the introduction of the elements implied moving from a descriptive or material approach to a more symbolic one.

Indeed, the elements of various traditional forms had nothing in common with the chemical elements, at the root of the composition of bodies in general. They represented elementary principles determining the manifestation of bodies of the physical or substantial world only, the lower world. Moreover, any (physical) body proceeded from the totality of the elements in various proportions, contrary to chemical compounds.

Could a correspondence between the four elements and the four phases of matter, namely solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air) and plasma (fire), have brought us closer to a traditional vision ? Surely not! These four phases could not coexist in the same body, contrary to the traditional elements.

It follows that the colours attributed to the compass points and elements could not be fixed once and for all. The choice and arrangement of colours largely depended on the cultural backgrounds they were reflecting and hierarchical or production orders brought out during the manifestation process of the physical world.

Only some cases will be examined for the six previously selected colours. Many others would be possible according to the basic colours or nuances proper to each culture, but this simple outline will already enable us to measure the symbolic repercussions of the colour in ancient societies.

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