The color Red is symbolic of intense passions including anger, lust and shame. Moreover, its association with blood manifests deep emotional and spiritual connotations. Consequently, any and all red figures found within the dream landscape may refer to a raise in the entire propensity and fervor of the symbols revealed.
Dark red is the colour of the soul, of the libido and of the heart. It is the colour of knowledge and of esoteric lore forbidden to the uninitiated, which the wise man conceals beneath his cloak. In the Tarot, the hermit, the female pope and the empress are dressed in red beneath a blue cape or cloak and all three, in different degrees, stand for hidden knowledge.
As we have seen, dark red is related to the womb. It might only lawfully be seen in the course of an initiatory ‘death’ when it was endowed with sacramental properties. In the mysteries of Cybele, candidates went down into a trench and their bodies were washed by the blood of the bull or ram ritually sacrificed upon a grid placed over them, while a serpent sucked the blood from the victim’s wound.
The ‘wine-dark sea’ of the Ancient Greeks and the ‘Red Sea’ derive from the same symbolism, standing for the womb in which life and death are transmuted the one into the other.
While dark and centripetal red is initiatory, it is also a funereal colour. ‘According to Artemidorus, the colour purple is connected with death’.
For such, in fact, is the deep ambivalence of blood-red - when hidden, it is what conditions life: when exposed, it means death. This is the basis of the taboos relating to menstruating women. Menstrual blood is impure because it inverts its polarity when it passes from the darkness of the womb to the light of day and passes from the sacred right-hand to the sacred left-hand. Such women are untouchable and, in many societies, they have to go into retreat to be cleansed before they can be restored to their place in the society from which they have been temporarily excluded. For a long time this same taboo was extended to men who, even in a just cause, had shed another’s blood. The medieval French executioner, dressed in red, was, like the blacksmith, an untouchable; both had handled the very essence of the mystery of life embodied in the centripetal red of blood or of molten metal.
Malinowski records a myth of the Melanesian Trobriand Islanders which illustrates how ancient and widespread are such beliefs. At the beginning of time, a man learned the secrets of magic from a crab. It was red because it was charged with magic and, after gaining its secrets, the man killed it. This is why nowadays crabs are black. They have been deprived of their magic. All the same, they are still slow to die because they were once lords of life and death.
Bright, diurnal, solar, centrifugal red is, on the other hand, a spur to action. It is the image of youth and health and wealth and love, free and victorious, this last explaining how, in many customs, including that of the red lamp mentioned above, both aspects of the symbol are present. It is the red dye, generally diluted in vegetable oils which enhance its strength and vitality, with which women and girls in Black Africa paint their faces and bodies. Among North American Indians, young people of both sexes painted themselves with red -again diluted with oil - since they believed that this aroused their strength and quickened their desire. This too is the meaning behind the countless traditions, from Russia, China and Japan, which associated red with all folk-festivals and especially with those celebrating Spring, marriage and birth. Frequently ‘red’ was used as a metaphor for ‘handsome’ or ‘lovely’ when applied to a boy or girl and this is still true of Irish Gaelic.
In Irish tradition red was above all the colour of the warrior. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of this, and the druid-god, the Dagda, is called Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Great Red Sage’. In literature, and especially in the tale of the destruction of the hall of Da Derga, there are examples of red druids, a reference to their warlike skill and to their twofold office of priest and warrior. In Gaul there was a cult of Mars Rudiobus or Rudianus (red).
Thus it would seem that, with this warlike symbolism, red will always be the spoils of the war - or of the dialectic - between Heaven and Earth, the fire of the Sun and the fires of Hell. It is the colour of Dionysos, the liberator and orgiast. Alchemists, whose chthonian interpretation of the colour has already been noted, also said that the Philosopher’s Stone ‘bore the sign of the Sun'. When solar symbolism bore it off and Mars supplanted Vulcan in Venus’ arms, the warrior became the conqueror and the conqueror the emperor. A richer red, slightly tinged with violet, became the emblem of power and was soon reserved for exclusive imperial use. This was purple, and that variety of red ‘in Rome was the colour of generals, nobles and patricians. Consequently it became the imperial colour. Byzantine emperors were dressed entirely in red.... In the beginning of heraldry there were laws forbidding the use of gules (the colour red) in coats of arms’. Justinian’s laws condemned to death those who bought or sold purple cloth. This was the same as saying that it had become the very symbol of supreme power. ‘Red and white are the two colours sacred to Jehovah as God of love and wisdom’, which would seem to confuse wisdom with conquest and justice with force. The Tarot provides the true answer, necessity, the eleventh major arcanum, depicts a man forcing open the jaws of a lion with his bare hands. He is dressed in blue with a red cape, while the eighth arcanum, justice, like the Empress, wears a blue cloak over her red robe.
There is no single nation which - each in its own way - has not given expression to the ambivalence from which the colour red derives its powers of fascination.
In heraldry red is called ‘gules’ an Old French word suggesting gueule, mouth, with all the symbolic ambivalence of the latter, basically that of undifferentiated libido which haunts childhood dreams, children throughout the world being attracted by the colour red.
Generally speaking, in the Far East, too, red conjures up notions of heat, intensity, activity and passion. It is the colour of the rajas, the colour of the full Moon.
Throughout the Far East red is the colour of fire, the south and sometimes of drought. (It should be noted that red, the colour of fire, is used to ward off fire especially in rites connected with house-building.) It is also the colour of blood, of life, of beauty and wealth and of marriage (symbolized by the red threads of Fate, tied in Heaven). As the colour of life, it is also the colour of immortality, obtained by means of red cinnabar (red sulphur of mercury) or by the red rice of the City of Willows. Here, as we have seen, Chinese symbolism converges with both Western and Islamic alchemy.