The complex symbolism of the color yellow may involve light and warmth, as well as, sickness and/or cowardice. Accordingly, we need to determine if the yellow entity in the dream landscape is displaying its normal ocher color, or if it has become this color due to some cowardly or pusillanimous behavior.
The Sun’s rays, searing the blue vault of Heaven, display the power of the gods of the Beyond, and in the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli, the Victorious Warrior, god of the midday Sun, was painted blue and yellow. Yellow, the glitter of gold, has the properties of a kratophany (manifestation of power), and in heraldry the pairing of or and azure [gold and blue] is the opposite to gules and vert [red and green], just as that which descends from above opposes that which ascends from below. The field on which they meet is the Earth’s crust, our skin which goes yellow, too, at the approach of death.
In the pairing of blue and yellow, yellow is the male colour, the colour of light and of life, and can never be darkened. Kandinsky saw this clearly when he wrote that ‘yellow tends so strongly to brightness that there can never be such a colour as dark yellow’. Yellow is the vehicle of youth, strength and divine immortality. It is the colour of the gods. Anquetil says that Zoroaster’s name means ‘Glittering Golden Star, Freehanded, Living Star’. The Tibetan divine word, оm, is qualified by zere, meaning ‘golden’.
The glitter of gold sometimes becomes a two-way channel of communication, an intermediary between gods and mankind. Thus Frazer emphasizes that a golden knife was used in India for the most important horse-sacrifices ‘because “gold is light” and “by means of the golden light the sacrificer also goes to the heavenly world’”.
In Mexican cosmology, golden yellow was the colour of the Earth’s ‘new’ skin at the beginning of the rainy season. The colour is therefore associated with the mystery of renewal. For this reason the flayed god, Xipe Totec, Lord of the Spring Rains, was also the goldsmiths’ god. During the Spring festivals his priests dressed in the yellow-painted skins of the victims sacrificed to placate this formidable deity. Golden yellow was also an attribute of Mithras in Persia and of Apollo in Greece.
Since golden yellow is part of the divine essence, on Earth it became the attribute of the power of princes, kings and emperors and proclaimed the divine source of that power. The green bays of human hope were covered with the gold of divine power and the green palms of Christ’s earthly sojourn were replaced by a golden halo when he returned to his Father. In Spain, on Palm Sunday, the faithful wave yellowed palms in cathedral closes.
Catholic priests, too, lead the dead towards eternal life against a backcloth of yellow and gold. All conductors of the dead make use of gold to a greater or lesser degree. This was true of Mithras while, in Eastern tradition, hell-hounds, including the one in the Zend Avesta, have yellow eyes - all the better to see in the dark - and ears tinged with white and yellow. In Ancient Egyptian tomb-chambers the colour combination of blue and yellow was most usually employed to ensure the soul’s survival, since gold stood for the colour of the Sun’s flesh and that of the gods.
The discovery of yellow in the guise of eternal life in the chthonian world, brings us to the second symbolic aspect of the colour.
Because yellow was the colour of fertile soil, couples in Ancient China were advised that, to ensure that their marriage was fruitful ‘and that yin and yang were fully harmonized, the hangings, pillows and sheets of the bridal bed should be woven from yellow gauze or silk’. However, this colour of the ripe crops of Summer gives advance notice of Autumn, when Earth is stripped bare and loses its cloak of greenery.
In Chinese symbolism, yellow emerges from black as Earth emerged from the primeval waters. If yellow was the imperial colour in China, this was because the emperor stood at the centre of the universe, like the Sun in the centre of the Heavens.
When it collects at the level of this world, mid-way between the very high and the very low, yellow becomes no more than a perversion of the qualities of faith, intelligence and eternal life. Once the love of God is forgotten, it gives place to Satan’s sulphurous influence, the image of overweening pride and of an intellect which will feed only upon itself. Yellow was associated with adultery since the sacred bonds of marriage had been snapped just as Satan (Lucifer) had snapped the bonds of divine love. The colour was originally associated with deception, as many other customs bear witness, such as that of painting the doors of traitors yellow in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to draw the attention of passers-by. The Lateran Council in 1215 ordered Jews to wear a yellow roundel on their clothes and the Dictionnaire de Trevous (1771) states that it was the French custom to smear bankrupts’ houses yellow.
The traditions of the Peking Theatre bear equal witness to the reversal of the properties of yellow, its actors painting their faces in that colour as a mark of cruelty, deceit and cynicism, while painting their faces red to show honest and decent characters. Nevertheless, in this traditional theatre the costumes of princes and emperors - indicating the social status rather than the psychology of the characters - were yellow as well. This employment of yellow on the Chinese stage takes fully into account the ambivalence which makes it simultaneously the most godlike of all colours and yet, in Kandinsky’s words, the most earthy.
This ambivalence recurs in Greek mythology. The golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides were a symbol of love and concord which, despite their theft by Herakles (Hercules), remained the property of the garden of the gods. They were the true fruits of love since Gaia, Earth, had given them to Zeus and Hera as a wedding-present, and thus they were consecrated to the basic sacred marriage from which all creation sprang. However, the Apple of Discord, which was a cause of the Trojan War, was also a golden apple and the symbol of pride and jealousy. Greek mythology, again, brings together the two aspects of the symbol in the myth of Atalanta. Like the Roman Diana, this bloodthirsty virgin, while running a race against Hippomenes - whom, had she won the race, she had every intention of killing as she had her other unsuccessful suitors - yielded to an irresistible impulse of greed for the golden apples which the youth threw on the ground in her path. They caused her to lose the race and break her vows, but in so doing she discovered love.
Some peoples have tried to divide the symbol on the basis of mattness and glossiness, reminiscent of the symbolic distinction between matt and glossy white, especially as it distinguishes the horses of the Underworld from those of Heaven. This is particularly true of Islam where ‘golden yellow bore the meaning of wise and good counsel, and pale yellow that of treachery and deceit’.
The same distinction is to be found in heraldry, which gives yellow the properties of a metal (gold) rather than a tint.