Scattering Violets

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Powerful Hues: Protective Colors in Household Lore

Color symbolism is a major and timeless element of magical practice. Colors have been used in spells and rituals, in the construction of talismans and spiritual art, and in the protection of the household for centuries. Humans are highly visual creatures; as animals, we rely primarily on our sight for nourishment and protection, and color perception has helped our species identify safe things from dangers. It's natural that colors would take on powers of their own over time.


The symbolism of color and its presence in folklore is a vast field of study. It wouldn’t be possible to cover traditional color symbolism with any great depth or breadth in a single blog post, even after narrowing it down to household lore, so I'll touch on just a few here: blue, red, and black.


I live in a nearly 100-year-old house in southern Appalachia, embedded in a culture woven from many different sources, including African, Scots-Irish, German, and Indigenous American. The house bears a few signs of traditional folk beliefs, like the witch marks on the sealed chimney port in my bedroom and the front porch ceiling painted pale blue. Blue porch ceilings -- haint blue, to be precise -- have their source in the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, with roots in West Africa. Haints are the restless dead that feed on, negatively influence, and endanger the living. The blue color both attracts and traps these harmful spirits, preventing them from entering the house, until dawn comes and the light of day destroys them. Over time, haint blue porches spread across the South, making it all the way inland to Appalachia, where (like the Low Country) beliefs in all kinds of spirits and powers persisted longer than in less-insulated areas of the country. 


It's also not uncommon to see blue bottle trees in the gardens of Southern homes. Again, this tradition originates in African American culture, which has had a powerful, enriching influence on Southern culture as a whole. As with the haint blue roofs, the blue color of the bottles has protective powers against evil-intented spirits: it draws them in, and the glass traps them until dawn, when they are destroyed. The belief in the power of glass to trap spirits as a form of spiritual protection is ubiquitous across the Western world, from the UK and Germany down to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East where it originated, and into Africa. We see this in the traditions mentioned above as well as in the blue-and-white glass evil-eye talismans called nazars from the Middle East/West Asia, the German folk tale "The Spirit in the Bottle," and witch bottles from the UK.


Blue objects have protective power in European traditions, too. In The Tradition of Household Spirits, Claude Lecouteux describes a German method of keeping witches from harming infants: "In Thuringia, the lock should be bound with blue apron strings until the newborn child has been baptized" (53). Witches -- i.e. both spirit-traveling living people as well as malevolent spirits -- are believed in folklore to slip through keyholes, hence the need for protection during a child's most spiritually vulnerable phase. Note that deceased unbaptized infants were believed inadmissible into the Christian Heaven -- instead, they would be adopted into Frau Holle's or Perchta's night-roaming trains. To prevent this from happening, a symbol of the household -- and the mother in particular -- bound the point of entry, using a color that symbolizes purification and protection.


Red is almost universally linked with fire, and by that association symbolizes passion (both of love and rage) and vitality. As the color of blood, it is the hue of both life and sacrifice. Dreaming of red animals was an omen for impending death among the ancient Norse, yet blood was an important sacrifice to Norse gods. Similarly, many readers are likely familiar with the part in the Exodus story where doors were marked red with lambs’ blood to ward against the death of the firstborn child in Egypt. There is also a Christian tradition of wearing red string on the left wrist to ward off misfortune, inspired by Genesis 38:28-30.


Red berries are ubiquitously powerful wards across Europe, including serviceberry, holly, and rowan. Rowan branches wrapped with red yarn or thread to form a cross are a protective talisman among Gaelic peoples. Holly sprigs with their bright red berries are still found in homes during Christmas and Yule, symbolizing vitality and eternal life. Serviceberry branches were placed over entrances for protection. In addition, North German folklore states that if a goose’s breastbone is red, the winter will be mild.


Some house spirits are described wearing red jackets or hats, such as the klebautermanchen, kobolds, and tomten. The red clothing seems to be a symbol of their connection to the hearth fire, the sacred source of a home's and family's power. After all, many European house spirits make their homes in or around the stove or chimney.


While black is too often viewed these days as a frightening color, this was not always the case. In fact, black was a powerfully protective color for households in Europe for a long time. Lecouteux notes that, in Finland, “it was said evil spirits feared the color black.” For this reason, black roosters or chickens were sacrificed on the doorsteps of newly built homes to prevent evil from befalling the house and propitiate the household spirits. Black chickens and roosters were also sacrificed in Germany, Russia, and France for the same reason.


In addition, an 18th century German collection of folklore by Johann Georg Schmidt claims that “the fire never goes out in a house where the cat, dog, and rooster are black” (Lecouteux 181). The fire in the hearth is the spiritual center of the home, preserving and even defending the family’s health and prosperity. The same collection recommends that a black chicken be first brought into the home of newlyweds when they return from church so that “all misfortune will fall upon it” rather than on the young couple (180).


Chthonic creatures are often distinguished in folklore by the color black, and while they can symbolize death (the mystery of caves and barrows and the night), they also bring wealth and fertility from the earth. Benjamin Thorpe describes a northern German belief in “underground beings” that help on farms, wearing “black clothes and a peaked, red cap” and “wherever they came, people thought they brought a special blessing on the house.” This reminds me of the tradition of chimney sweeps -- particularly those with dark hair -- entering houses on New Year's Day in their black clothes to bring health and prosperity to the household. Other house spirits, such as the alf, are described appearing as black cats or chickens.

The Power of Color

To a certain extent, color meanings are personal and affect everyone differently, depending on many factors, including memory. Yet symbolism is also deeply ancestral, developing over centuries, passed down from generation to generation. Not taking symbolism for granted and studying it in the context of your spiritual practice and culture can be a great way to deepen your connection with both.


Which colors have protective powers in your culture and spiritual practices?

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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