What color is your devil?
June 15, 2009 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Why is the devil red?

I grew up in the United States, and even thought I am not, nor have I ever been, religious, the symbolic devil I know from mass media is a humanoid with a pointy fork, horns, etc. And he's red. My mother grew up in Poland, was raised a catholic, and the devil she knows is similar in description, but for the fact that he is black - not brown-skinned, black.

I'm curious what this distinction comes from, my normally decent google-fu has failed me completely.
posted by jedrek to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
pg. 78 of The Devil by Jeffrey Burton Russell claims that the myth of Seth (Set) might have something to do with it.
posted by quodlibet at 6:36 AM on June 15, 2009

Some devils are blue, too (in answer to the titular question).
posted by TedW at 6:43 AM on June 15, 2009

Well, in Revelation 12, Satan is described as "a great red dragon".

Also, this page says: "Frequently in Medieval art, Satan was represented by the color red. This symbolized both the fires of hell and the blood of humanity. The Devil’s skin was also sometimes red, or he was dressed in red or his hair flamed like fire."
posted by paulg at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2009

Art history-wise, the Devil is red because it contrasts well with the azure blue pigment Renaissance artists used to connote divinity. In parts of the world where craft traditions designated different hues for different symbols, you get different colored monsters. In many Asian cultures, for example, Heaven and divinity are presented in reds and golds, leaving monsters as black, green, and blue, and as such, conveniently reminiscent of the natural world's coloration, implying that in civilization lies a path away from demons and towards divinity. There are many different variations on this theme. Each region of the world has its own symbolic reason for the color of their monsters, as well as a practical reason, often based around the availability of certain pigments and the popularity of a given artform.

A while ago I learned that every language in the world has a word for only three colors: Red, Black and White. More often than not, a culture's version of the Devil is represented as one of those three hues.
posted by Mizu at 7:22 AM on June 15, 2009 [7 favorites]

I always thought it was because he was burning in the fires of hell.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:05 AM on June 15, 2009

Best answer: I've heard in a few different places (this is one example ont web) that Satan was designed by early Christians to reflect a number of prominent characteristics of the Pagan male God, or his most well-known manifestations.

Along with the horns (the Pagan God often had antlers) and sometimes goat-hindquarters (from Pan, symbolising animal sexuality/promiscuity depending on your perspective/religious morals) red was a masculine colour in many symbolic contexts, and often featured in representations of a Pagan God. Take these ingredients, turn them around to being evil rather than a part of the symbolic story of the Earth's cycle, and you have a potent stick to beat unrepentant Pagans with.

DISCLAIMER: One of the first places I heard this was from a very good pagan speaker, many years ago, whose name I cannot remember. I found a few supporting texts by google-fu, but it could be a myth dreamt up by Pagans resentful of many years of persecution to try and take back some ground :) YMMV
posted by greenish at 8:09 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

A while ago I learned that every language in the world has a word for only three colors: Red, Black and White. (Mizu)

This is bull, and looks like it's heading toward the false notion that the number of words a language has for a concept reflects the experience of the people who speak that language.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:22 AM on June 15, 2009

I think Mizu is definately propagating falsehoods.

posted by mary8nne at 9:32 AM on June 15, 2009

Perhaps Mizu is not propagating falsehoods. This is an excerpt from Talking Hands by Margalit Fox, which is a documentary about study of Al-Sayyid sign language. It describes Berlin and Kay's scheme as essentially correct, at least in regard to color.
posted by plinth at 10:01 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Indeed, in Polish language there is a saying czarny jak diabeł (black as a devil) so definitely devil is black in Poland. Quick googling shows that this is true for at least 100 years since Henryk Sienkiewicz used such phrase in his work printed in 1882.

Perhaps, and this is wild guess, devil is black in Poland because Slavic daemons later transformed into Christian devils (like Boruta was transformed into devil Boruta) were black.
posted by przepla at 12:11 PM on June 15, 2009

Berlin and Kay's 1969 study ("Basic color terms-- Their universality and evolution"; essentially Mizu's comment is a distilled version of their results) has been challenged seriously several times.

Kay and others have continued the research; This link mentions both some of the work challenging the original Berlin and Kay work, as well as giving information on what has been done since then to back up the hypothesis.

I'm not a linguist (sigh) so I have no real insight into how people who are currently view the controversy; but let it be said that there certainly exists research on both sides of the aisle, here, and that if you are interested you can peek into it yourself. In fact, I think I learned about the World Color Survey somewhere on metafilter (couldn't find where in a quick search).

However, that's really a bit of a derail; OP, more in line with your actual question, I once read a pretty interesting book talking about the history of the color blue: "Blue: The History of a Color". It gives you some background on how blue has changed perception over the years, including its use in a religious forum; as such it might tangentially give you similar information about the use of contrasting colors.
posted by nat at 12:39 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ooh, here's another Pastoureau book, maybe more relevant: The Devil's Cloth: a history of stripes and striped fabric.

And there's one on black as well.
posted by nat at 12:46 PM on June 15, 2009

Oh hey I wrote the answer to this when I had been awake for approx. 22 hours? Damn, it comes off as totally loopy, doesn't it! Anyway, I distinctly recall learning that bit about the three colors, but I absolutely could not tell you where I learned it, only that it was in a book. I did, however, study art history fairly extensively in undergrad, and continue to read big fat thick nonfiction tomes about the history of symbolism and color theory and folkloristics. And considering my penchant for buying old used textbooks that smell just right but are dubiously scientific, I'm gonna say, heck, even *I* don't agree with myself in particular. However! I do know my monsters and my devils, hell, I wrote my thesis on dragons, and demons of all sorts have always fascinated me. And the primary head honcho Devil type demons really are almost always red, black, or white. It's the ones that are less evil-aligned or possess less capacity for harming humanity as a whole that tend to be blue, or any other hue. To my knowledge.

Anyway, it's an awfully nice story, regardless.

*biffs off again*
posted by Mizu at 3:36 AM on June 16, 2009

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