Colour me Red (and Black and White…)

Oct 24th, 2014 | By | Category: Articles, Celtic Witchcraft, Work in Progress
Image Copyright 2014 Kirsten Savage All Rights Reserved.

Image Copyright 2014 Kirsten Savage All Rights Reserved.

We’ve examined how to feel the turn of the world around us. Now it’s time to look at some of the detail. Let’s get a bit closer to the magic surrounding us every day.

Colour is a fundamental part of our modern world, used in signs, warnings, adverts, clothes and more to send a multitude of messages. Yet this is not a new device. For thousands of years colour has been used to symbolise emotion, magic and hidden meanings. The three colours often associated with Celtic magic and mythology are red, white and black, and in this chapter we will examine why, and how to utilise this knowledge.

Red

The colour red appears throughout Celtic mythology and is normally associated with magic in some way. This may be the prophecy of war and bloodshed. Rowan, the tree with the startling red berries, is strongly associated with powerful magic. The Morrígan herself is normally portrayed as having red hair, especially in her guise as a sorceress or poet. Red is the magic of spells, curses, geas and prediction. Red is proactive magic; visible magic; magic that wants to be seen, admired or feared.

Think about red in our daily lives. Red means stop; warning; danger; love; passion; blood; fire; forbidden; command; hang up; hot; hazard and generally ‘pay attention right now’. It is the colour of compulsion. We are almost programmed to pay attention when we see red. The term itself, ‘seeing red’, denotes a state of rage that implies we are no longer fully in control of ourselves. In nature, flowers are red to attract pollinators, and insects are often red (or red and black) to warn of venom, or to con predators into thinking the potential prey is dangerous. Birds may flash red feathers to attract a mate and among our own ‘plumage’, red is considered a sexy colour; racy, dangerous and daring.

Fire

Red is used as the colour of the direction of south, and the element of fire. Often a red candle is placed at the southern part of an altar, or the southernmost part of a room where magical work is practiced. It may, however, not be practical for you to use fire or indeed to have candles in places where small hands or paws can reach them. So instead, you may want to use a red ribbon, symbolising the way passion binds us. A red pen can symbolise the fire of creativity. A simple blob of red paint on a stone or shell may bring a Spartan and natural beauty to your sacred space. You can use red flowers from the season; poppies in spring, roses in summer and perhaps chrysanthemums or rudbeckia in autumn and perhaps amaryllis or similar in winter.

Other natural additions to a sacred space can be hawthorn berries, rowan berries or holly berries depending again on the season. The juice from elder berries can be used to stain things red, and can even be used as a sort of ink.

Passion

Our passions are not just the obvious trio of love, desire and lust. We all have passions that stretch into other aspects of our lives; our ambitions, our motivation and our goals. Using red in magic helps us reach out from a place of wanting to a place of having or being. Red is also the connection between the human, physical state and the ethereal, magical state. When you are performing magic, you can imagine red blood flowing through an umbilical cord that attaches you to the universe, combining your own energy with that that resides within everything.

If you feel like you have taken on too many tasks, and can’t find a way to prioritise, this exercise is useful. Find a quiet and calming space. Make it feel comfortable; light incense, play music or open a window. Whatever makes you feel more you is very important here. Draw a red spiral on a white piece of paper. Start at the edge of the paper and working inwards from the top left corner, draw the curve clockwise and spiral gently in to the centre. There is no rush. Let the thoughts of the tasks you have piled upon yourself wash through your mind, without focusing on one in particular. While these thoughts flow, keep your eyes following the spiralling line you are drawing. When your spiral reaches a central point, focus on the whole image, then close your eyes and breathe deeply. You should find that you are able to prioritise much more easily, and also that the feelings of stress and pressure have alleviated. You are refilled with a passion to achieve your goals, instead of the fear that you won’t.

Blood

The colour red sneaks into magical and healing practice all over the world. Red is the colour of blood and therefore is intrinsically linked to life, and of course all that goes with that: passions, emotions, health, sickness and even death.

This is a technique I learned through my study of the ancient Mexican practice of Curanderismo. When you are feeling particularly stressed out, carry a piece of red ribbon in your pocket. Whenever a problem crops up, tie a knot in the ribbon, concentrating on the issue that gripes at you. At the end of the day, take the ribbon out of your pocket. Look at all the knots. These are your problems. There may be few; there may be many. Go out into the garden, or if you don’t have a garden, use a pot on your windowsill. Bury the ribbon and imagine letting go of all your problems. You are returning the physical representation of your troubles to the earth. Letting go physically helps you to let go mentally.

Black

Black is not as evocative as red. We use black to delineate and to emphasise, rather than as the primary colour. It is the colour of boundaries and edges; the threshold between spaces. Black highlights the moment of change or transformation. We now know black is the absence of light and therefore the absence of colour. It’s doubtful our Celtic ancestors understood this, but they had the insight to know that the black shadows that swept across fields both green and bloody were not just crows and rooks, but messengers between the worlds. If we think of black as an absence, then it is a void; a portal in the world. Every patch of pure black is the opportunity to send energy into the ether and have it transformed in some way.

Black is generally used in mediaeval and later texts concerning Celtic mythology to denote evil, for example in Keating’s History of Ireland we are told of the ‘Black fleet’ that comes to Cruachain, at the time Seadna, king of Ireland, is killed by his own son. One of the Celtic Triads speaks of three ‘black’ husbandries: thatching with stolen things, putting up a fence with a proclamation of trespass, kiln drying with scorching. The term black in both these cases is used to imply bad fortune and ill winds. However if we look at the source of this assumption, we must remember these manuscripts use the language of their time. The Celts may have seen the omens as bad, but it is later scholars that have chosen the term ‘black’ to emphasise the evil inherent. It is therefore more useful to look at the imagery in Celtic mythology to understand the nature of black: the black of the crow or raven; evaporating water described as black vapour (black here meaning invisible); creatures described as black when they usually would not be to highlight their unique nature.

An old wart treatment from County Tyrone, documented in the Rosa Anglica was:

‘If you meet a black snail accidently, rub it on the wart and stick the snail on the first thorn you meet’’

And

‘If you lick a black snail when suffering from toothache you will be certainly cured.’

The colour black clearly indicates some sort of healing property here. Rivers about to burst are often described as ‘black’. As well as mirroring a stormy image, the term black here also implies fullness, fertility and a moment of crisis or completion.

Feidelm, the Prophetess in Táin Bó Cúailnge, is described as having black eyebrows, black eyelashes and two black horses, associating black with the power of words and prophecy. Lugh is described as carrying a black shield when Cú Chulainn meets him for the first time, associating the colour with protection and defence. This association is deepened when Lugh don’s a black charioteer’s mantle in order to help Cú Chulainn fight.

As part of the triad of colours, often used by Pagans on many different paths, black is the obvious counterpart to white and therefore a symbol of balance, unity and the cyclical nature of all things.

A Black Circle

Sprinkle ground charcoal to mark a protective circle, as well as any other protective elements you may use. The black is a definitive border; a visible edge which helps focus all participants. It serves to protect and connect to the other-worldly. If on a firm surface outdoors, you could even draw the circle in charcoal. Just don’t get in trouble for defacing someone’s property!

A Black Stone

If you find a black stone while out and about, pocket it. Make a note of where you found it. Was it at the beach, glossy and wet? Was it hiding at the foot of a tree? Or simply loose on a city path? Place the stone at an appropriate place on your altar or in your sacred space. The obvious choice is somewhere north facing, to strengthen the association with Earth. But you may find the stone resonates more with the ocean, and therefore water, or perhaps the fire of creativity from within a bustling town. Follow your gut. If you decide to do a spell for someone, you can give them this stone to keep on their person or in a place significant to them. Then when you are working on your intent, you can focus on the stone that is now familiar to you as a way of connecting with that person, who will be doing the same. The stone becomes a way of linking the person’s desire with your own intent, and can sometimes amplify the result.

Here is an example:

I gave my friend a black stone from my altar, and the following instructions.

‘Every night, place the stone somewhere in the eastern corner of your room (this stone had strong associations of air for me) and light a candle. Just focus on the stone, and think about what it is you want. Don’t worry if other thoughts come and go, just make sure this is the main hub your thoughts revolve around.’

Each night, at the same time, I would enter my sacred space and focus on what she had asked me to do. In this instance, this was to help resolve a conflict that was brewing. I focused on the image of the stone, and my own candle light. I imagined her sitting there, doing the same. I thought about her gaining clarity of thought, wisdom, and the courage to fight with wit and words should it be necessary. I visualised the happy ending she desired, but also reminded her that she would be OK if things did not turn out the way she wanted. I imagined the stone passing this intent onto her, as she sat and contemplated her problems.

The situation was resolved and mostly happily; she didn’t shy away from the difficult situation and when the stone returned to me I moved it to the south of my space to represent the fires of determination.

A Black Feather

When you find a black feather, pick it up and keep it. These are normally corvid feathers, the feathers of the Morrígan’s messengers: Crows, Rooks, Ravens, Jackdaws, Magpies and Jays amongst others. Use them to represent air on your altar or in a sacred space. They also represent the boundaries between things, messages from the other-world or land of the dead, and cleansing. Corvids are scavengers, but this means they eat many things we see as waste, so they are actually nature’s cleaners. The world would be a much smellier place without them!

Use a bunch of black feathers to sweep your hearth at Samhain to sweep away the summer and welcome your ancestors. Similarly, you can use them to dust a sacred space at any time, to imbue the place with the intent to use it for magic or other-worldly reasons.

In an evocation to the Morrígan, black feathers, particularly crow feathers, may be burnt in an open fire with a chimney or on an outside fire as an offering and welcoming. The smoke must be able to escape as you are sending a signal of invitation and if that is trapped within your home it is ineffective. And burning feathers don’t particularly smell nice! Similarly, in any ritual setting, black feathers may be used to represent the Morrígan or any of her sisters/counterparts: Badb, Macha or Nemain.

A Black Cloth

A black ribbon on your door handle is an excellent way to let your loved ones know you are busy, plus it helps protect your space.

Wearing a black belt or cord can give you confidence if you are feeling anxious, particularly about transitions. Maybe you are starting a new job, or moving house. Or maybe you are changing a course of study, or even something emotionally dramatic like leaving a lover.  Think about how black is a boundary, yet also invisible. You wear the black to remind you that although things are changing around you, you are the same person and you only change on your own terms. The black also represents the unknown things you are going into- the unseen. Wearing the black shows the courage to face the unknown head on, and this will make you feel that courage deep within you.

A Black Space

Find an outdoor space where you are comfortable and feel safe. This is ideal at a campsite where you are surrounded by friends. I don’t recommend this exercise if you feel the place you are going to presents danger of any kind. Find a comfortable place to sit. Take a blanket or a cushion; you will be sat for a while so bring whatever you need to be comfy for this period. If you have the time and patience, I recommend starting at dusk, but if not, do this just after full sunset.

Use a torch to find a good place to sit, where you are safe and calm. Sit, relax, and switch your torch off. Simply exist in the dark. Concentrate only on your breathing, and then as you relax fully, extend your senses to the world around you. Take a deep breath through your nose and note each smell. The aroma of earth, damp and organic. Perhaps there is a note of wood smoke from a campfire. The tang of pine sap melting from ancient trunks. The oddly warm musk of cow dung from the surrounding fields.

What can you hear? Here and there are rustles in the hedgerows. Mice perhaps, or voles. A twig cracks, evidence of a larger animal, perhaps a rabbit or a hare.  Are there any birds still calling? Or perhaps you can hear the first owls of the night calling to each other, ethereal and hidden among the trees; the same trees that you can hear whispering with voice of leaf and creak of branch; limbs reaching for the moon, stark and black against the black-blue sky.

Look in to the blackness of the tree’s silhouette. See if you can see any definition at all. Has the night robbed the great plant of all its detail? Or perhaps you can see the roughness of bark or parting of trunk as your eyes get used to the dark. Note the contrast between the tree and the sky; the edges of the tree’s outline. Perhaps the moon is framed between its branches. Think of the black and darkened tree as a bridge between earth and sky; forever grounded but eternally reaching. Imagine yourself this way: deep and honest in your intent and principles, but always looking to improve, to connect with the universe, and to become better than you are: forever growing and changing.

White

White is the Celtic colour of mystery and magic. Unlike black, it is not usually found in a liminal state, but signifies that magic is now taking place; that we have moved beyond transition and become transformed. It is not bound in the physical world like the colour red; it stands apart from emotion and desire and is a power all of its own. Although used by humans on ritual clothing and tools for many millennia, white does not need interaction with human hands in order to signify magic.

We see white creatures as unusual or lucky. White horses (normally called ‘greys’) are considered special, and legendary figures such as Rhiannon, from Welsh Celtic mythology, appear in our world riding such a creature. Rhiannon, often associated with Gaulish horse goddess Epona, seems to ride in on the beautiful, pure white creature to appear next to a burial mound, strongly suggesting their association with the world of the fae. Hunting a white creature often leads the hunter to encounter magic; sometimes good, sometimes not.

 

The hounds of the underworld are supposedly white with red ears. One may immediately say ‘Oh well, white must be associated with death then!’, but it is the red of the ears that signifies the human and visceral experience of dying. The white of the main body of the dog signifies that is a purely magical creature, merely connected to humanity by its abode in the realms of those who have died.

A white candle is used as a central point for ritual or on an altar because white is the culmination of the other colours. White is all colour, and all light, so magically white indicates a central point of power. It is potential, and marks the point at which we are aware we are working with forces beyond the mundane.

White is also the colour of salt, used as a traditional tool of protection for many centuries.

A white feather falling from the sky onto the path in front of you is a message from one who has passed on. Normally this will occur shortly after the person or animal’s death, as a way of letting you know they have arrived safely where they need to be. Often these feathers will be the soft downy feather of a goose or swan fledgling, indicating the start of a new journey. You can take this feather home and keep it safe, perhaps displayed in the eastern part of your home or sacred space. Or you can simply close your eyes, hold the feather while you remember the person concerned, then breath out and with that sigh, let the feather back into the wind to continue its journey.

As a writer, a blank, white sheet of paper can be incredibly magical indeed. The paper in front of me is the medium of magic, and the lines I pen onto it are the witchcraft; the manipulation of that magic. Sometimes I will write in a combination of black and red, with red used for names of deities, spirits or places of significance. The black words are my own thoughts; my own boundary between what is in my mind and what is real. The red words are names that do not come directly from me, but still hold weight and power and so influence my behaviour, thought and emotion. Red is the combination of the other-worldly and my own energy. White is neither my work, nor the work of any spirit; it is the magic inherent in the universe. White is the potential for magic, the doorway to magic, and magic itself.

Think of how these colours appear in your day to day life. Something as simple as a zebra crossing, for example. The black stripe of tarmac highlighting your transition from one place to another, and the liminal state you are in whilst still on the dangerous road. The white is the bright colour that glares at the drivers, protects you and marks the area as special. Of course, zebra crossings were almost definitely not designed with Celtic magic in mind! But by looking at everyday things in this way, you can pull these ideas into your own witchcraft to make it more effective and useful.

To complete our thoughts on Celtic colour magic, take three cords or long ribbons, one each of red, black and white. Tie them securely at the top, and plait them. Do this slowly, all the while thinking of what each colour means to you; the protection, the liminality, the passion. Make it personal to you. Hang this triple chord above the entrance to your sacred space. It will remind you of the triple nature of things; that every situation has more than one perspective and every choice has more than one consequence. It will remind you of the many faceted nature of magic, and how colours can represent this and aid you by focusing your intent. But mostly it will remind you that you can create effective magic with your own hands. Never forget that you hold power within you, and the colours, cords and creativity are all channels for that power. It’s up to you to find the channel that works best for you.

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