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Color-Full Ritual

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: May 4th. 2008
Times Viewed: 5,040

We use many tools to work our magic. We have our sacred tools, of course, like athames and wands, chalices and charms, spells and symbols, and the like. We also have herbs and stones and special oils. We cast circles and call in the elements and the directions. These and other tools we use to move our consciousness to that place between the worlds where we can exert our wills to bring about our intention. There is another powerful tool that we rarely talk about, but which we can use to great effect, if we employ it purposefully – color.

To use color effectively, it is important to know a little about how color works. There is an excellent article on the subject at Michael Douma and his colleagues produced this article and it is provided as a public service of the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement (IDEA) and Brandeis University.

Douma describes three parts of color perception: capturing the image, processing it, and finally interpreting it. Most animals do not see color. Bees, however, can see yellow, green, and blue (but not red). Birds can see more colors than we do because their eyes are more complex. Even butterflies can see colors. They go for the prettily colored flowers when feeding because that is where the nectar is, but they deliberately go to dark green leafy places to lay their eggs because caterpillars eat leaves, not flowers.

Psychologists have long known the effects of color on human subjects, whether the effect is instinctive or learned. Red often excites, yellow cheers up, and institutional beige, gray or green dulls. That’s probably why the bordello parlor is red and the doctor’s waiting room is beige. We all know that a flashing blue light in the rear view mirror causes fear, often followed by a colorful expletive on our part.

Marketers have referred to psychological studies to use color more effectively in packaging. Smart chefs are keen to use color in their dishes for a more appealing presentation. Politicians dress up the most fatuitous crap in red, white, and blue to make it look patriotic – even if it is a “bridge to nowhere”. If these people can use color for commercialism, why can’t we use it for worship?

We can. The Catholic Church tapped into the power of color long ago. They don’t use it much nowadays, but in the pre-Vatican II mass, color was everywhere. Purple was for Advent and Lent, white for high holy days, red for martyrs and the holy ghost, and green for the ordinary time from May to December. Black was worn at funerals and there were even two Sundays when pink was in. In Spain and some Latin American countries, blue vestments signaled a holy day for Mary.

You saw the color even before the priest came out. The tabernacle was screened in the cloth of the season, as was the chalice and the pall (a square envelope in which the sacramental napkin was kept). The priest wore a white alb with a cincture rope belt in the color of the season. He also had a stole around his neck, the chasuble cloak over his shoulders, and a maniple on his left arm – all color coordinated to fit the occasion.

The effect of this uniformity of hue is to focus energy and intention. It creates a sense of atmosphere; it sets the tone and the mood of the mass. Just as mood rings reflect the wearer’s emotions by changing color, the colors at mass trigger the audiences’ emotions toward the meaning of that day’s ritual.

We pagans can use colors in our rituals, too. A good place to learn about colors in pagan rituals is in a table of correspondences, which can be found in the back of almost any Neopagan or Wiccan textbook, like Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. There we find that yellow is often associated with the East, red with the South, blue with the West, and green with the North.

The Mayans and some other Native American tribes associate red with the East, yellow with the South, black with the West, and white with the North. Whatever system is used, this could be a good starting point for using color in our seasonal rituals. Since the directions are often associated with seasons, their colors can be carried over into our Sabbats.

In my own circle, we place great emphasis on color. At Ostara the color is green. That means we will have a green altar cloth and green directional candles. The communion drink may be minted and for the bread we may use key lime pie! Of course all the women will wear green. We do not require that everyone come robed in full green witch regalia. A green t-shirt or dress works just as well. It is the uniformity of color around the circle that creates effect of helping to focus our attention.

Having a different color for each Sabbat helps raise energy, too. We often photocopy our Sabbat invitations in the color of the season. Instead of wearing the same old thing every time, we have to check the invitation and scrounge our closets. We may even have to visit the local thrift store or make something quick and creative. In effect, we are preparing for the ritual days or hours before we get there. We are transforming our appearance to align with the intention well before the casting. And seeing everyone dressed in the color of the Sabbat creates a sense of unity and community, which automatically helps get the energy flowing.

Which color to use at which Sabbat is up to each circle to decide. We use white at Candlemas as a symbol of purity and a clean slate upon which to write our course for the coming year. Spring Equinox is green for new growth and new hope. Beltane is red, pink, or purple for passion; that is, if we wear any clothes at all!

Summer Solstice is often shades of blue for lighthearted fun, but it can be pastels for Midsummer with the Fey. Lammas is yellow or light green for the joy of sunshine (this is Seattle, you know!) and the ability to be outdoors without a sweater.

Autumn Equinox is a riot of fall colors – yellows, oranges, reds, and browns as we satisfactorily complete what we started. At Samhain we let go of it all and enter death in black. At Winter Solstice we rest in space and time, wearing deep rich blues, maroons, magentas, or black.

How’s a witch going to keep that many outfits in her wardrobe?

Actually a creative witch can get by very well with only a black cloak and a white robe if she accessorizes cleverly. Scarves, shawls, and jewelry can transform a white robe into appropriate garb for any Sabbat from Candlemas through Mabon. Dark jeans and t-shirt can be very witchy under a black cloak for the winter Sabbats.

There are other ways to use color in the ritual itself. At Spring Mysteries, put on by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church ( every year at Ostara, we all gather in a grand opening circle. The priestess leads us in visualization as we raise huge shields of yellow, red, blue, and green, corresponding to the four directions. These shields contain the energy we raise during the four days of Pagan playfulness and ward off the negative energies that may be directed towards us. At the ending circle, we carefully bring down these shields and return the park to its mundane state.

Barbara Walker, in her book Women’s Rituals, suggests using black and white at the equinoxes to symbolize the balance of day and night. One could go further and halfway through the ritual, clear the altar and change the altar cloth from white to black (autumn) or from black to white (spring).

The witches at Concentric Circles, a multi-tradition gathering every September sponsored by Our Lady Of The Earth And Sky (, did a very effective ritual last year employing color. The white witch was shadowed by a black witch through the first half of the ritual and then she retired to the throne while the black witch performed the second half.

At our Women Of The Goddess Circle’s Spring Equinox, we have one of our senior priestesses garbed in black to sweep the circle, and then she doffs the black to reveal her green dress underneath when a junior priestess comes forth as the Spring Maiden.

There are lots of possibilities for using color effectively to add power and depth to your worship practice. So next time you are planning a ritual for one or for a whole circle, consider using color as one of your tools. The magic you work may be more powerful for it and it adds a lot of fun as well!

For more information on color, see Color in Nature: A Visual and Scientific Exploration by Penelope A. Farrant. The book focuses on a dozen different topics, such as "the universe" and "animal pigments." Answers why snow is white, a leaf green, ocean water blue, and a zebra striped? Not too technical. (Published 1999, Blandford Pr, ISBN: 071372806X. 208 pages).

There is also Color and Light in Nature by David K. Lynch and William Livingstone. (2nd edition. Published July 2001, Cambridge Univ Press; ISBN: 0521775043. 288 pages.)

Copyright: Janice Van Cleve; Copyright 2008.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

Author's Profile: To learn more about Janice Van Cleve - Click HERE

Bio: Janice Van Cleve is a priestess in the Women Of The Goddess Circle. Her closet is a riot of color. Copyright 2008.

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