By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although perhaps the most famous symbolic quality associated with the colour white is ‘purity’, this summary doesn’t take into account the complexity and ambiguity of colour symbolism when it comes to the colour white: a colour which is at once all colours and no colour. In this post, we’re going to analyse the symbolism and meaning of the colour white as it has been used in works of literature and as it appears in mythology and religion.
The colour white as a symbol for purity and holiness
The colour white has longstanding associations with ideas of purity and virginity. As The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin dictionaries) notes, Celtic priests and druids wore white garments. If you weren’t a member of this priestly caste, you were forbidden to wear white (unless you were the king). The ancient Greeks associated the colour white with mother’s milk.
In his 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, subtitled A Pure Woman, Thomas Hardy associates his heroine Tess Durbeyfield with the colour white, to emphasise her purity and goodness. Tess is often described as wearing white, including a dress of white muslin.
When Alec violates her, she is wearing this white dress and her body is described as being ‘blank [i.e., white] as snow’. The symbolism is clear: Hardy is telling us that Tess is innocent and has been mistreated by Alec.
Of course, this idea is found throughout literature, and it is especially associated with pure and innocent female characters. The fairy tale of Snow White, one of the most enduring examples of classic fairy tales for children, is a perfect illustration of this. Even the heroine’s name points up the fact that she is symbolically white as snow: pure of heart and innocent of any sin or crime.
In ancient Rome, people running for public office wore white, the Latin word for which is candidus (albus, the other Latin word for ‘white’, denoted a less bright white). These people thus became known as candidates, which is why we still use the word ‘candidate’ for someone running in an election to this day.
The word is etymologically related to candid, which means to be frank and honest: again drawing attention to the purity-symbolism attached to the colour white. Because candidus denoted a brighter white than albus, it is also ultimately where we get the word candle from.
The author Robert Graves, in his 1948 ‘grammar of poetic myth’, The White Goddess, argued that all Western poetry was inspired by the figure of the Triple Goddess, a female deity associated with the moon.
For Graves, comparing different religious and mythical structures from around Europe and Asia, this White Goddess figure is tripartite: she is the maiden (the virgin huntress associated with the colour white); the mother (the pregnant woman associated with the colour red, for the body and especially menstruation; linked to the full moon), and the old hag (associated with the colour black, and linked to the waning moon).
Once again, the colour white is associated with virginity and purity.
Negative symbolism of the colour white
However, the colour white can also carry negative symbolism: consider its association with pale things, which relate to death. There is Death himself, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who appears in the Book of Revelation riding ‘a pale horse’. And as Hans Biedermann points out in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), ghosts are often described as wearing white garments, in a sort of inversion of the dark ‘shades’ of the dead.
Because white is the absence of colour as well as (on a scientific level) all colours (white light, as Newton’s experiment with the prism demonstrated, comprises all of the colours of the spectrum), white can symbolise absence, death, the end of life.
And although in the West, cultures tend to associate the colour black with mourning, in China it is white that symbolises mourning, because it is the removal of all colour from one’s normal clothes.
And in literature, too, some of the most famous (or infamous) villains are closely linked with the colour white: witness the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of that name (which we have analysed here), and C. S. Lewis’s Jadis, better known as the White Witch, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Both of the characters are ‘cold’ characters: cold of heart, of course, but also symbolically connected with snow and ice.
The colour white in poetry
Robert Frost’s sonnet ‘In White’ seeks to rhyme ‘white’ (which ends the poem’s opening line) with all but four of its 13 ensuing lines. Opening with a description of a white spider on a white Heal-all plant – a spider holding up a moth like a piece of white satin or a paper kite – the poem tries to ground this curious triangulation of whiteness in deeper meaning, with glorious results.
Later in the twentieth century, Philip Larkin’s ‘Sympathy in White Major’ describes the speaker making a gin and tonic with wonderful and delicious attention to detail, before raising the drink in ‘private pledge’ to ‘the whitest man I know’. Playing on the symbolism and connotations of the colour white which we have explored above, the poem is gloriously ambiguous.
And what of ‘whiteness’ in relation to skin colour? The Black British poet Benjamin Zephaniah has explored this in his poem ‘White Comedy’, whose title puns, of course, on the phrase ‘black comedy’. Zephaniah (b. 1958) uses wit and irony to turn the tables on ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ here in this poem. Why do we talk of black magic but not white magic, and why are people blackmailed but not whitemailed?
What about the symbolic use of white in Moby Dick ? A whole book could be devoted to that subject.
You need to check this out but I seem to recall reading that the Incas initially welcomed the white-skinned Spanish explorers because they were the colour of corpses and, hence important emissaries from the World of the Dead.