The Colors of Ancient Egypt

The roots of color technology trace back to Ancient Egypt, where visionary chemists concocted recipes for synthetic pigments. Color (Ancient Egyptian name ‘iwen‘) was an essential part of life in ancient Egypt, adding deeper meaning to everything the people created. Paintings, clothing, books, jewelry, and architecture were all imbued with colorful symbolism. African historian Alistair Boddy-Evans explains that color “was considered an integral part of an item’s or person’s nature in Ancient Egypt, and the term could interchangeably mean color, appearance, character, being, or nature. Items with similar color were believed to have similar properties.”

Egyptologist Anita Stratos informs us that the Egyptian palette had six colours:

photo by Cesras
by Cesras
  • red (desher)
  • green (wadj)
  • blue (khesbedj and irtiu)
  • yellow (kenit and khenet)
  • black (khem or kem)
  • white (shesep and hedj)

Boddy-Evans notes that organic sources yielded two basic colors: crushed bones and ivory provided white pigment, and soot provided black. Red dye was produced from the dried bodies of female scale insects (family Coccidae, genus Kermes). Indigo and crimson pigments came from plants. Most other colors were made from mineral compounds, Stratos notes, “which is why they retained their vibrant colors throughout thousands of years.”

Ancient Egyptians considered green to be a positive and powerful color, Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch notes (Magic in Ancient Egypt, 1995). It was associated with fertility, growth and regeneration. “A person was said to be doing ‘green things’ if his behavior was beneficial or life producing,” Stratos says. “Wadj, the word for green, which also meant to flourish or be healthy, was used for the papyrus plant as well as for the green stone malachite. Green malachite was a symbol of joy. In a larger reference, the phrase ‘field of malachite’ was used when speaking of the land of the blessed dead.”


Blue and turquoise were considered divine colors and appropriate for sacred places. Stratos explains that “Dark blue, also called ‘Egyptian’ blue, was the color of the heavens, water, and the primeval flood, and it represented creation or rebirth. The favorite blue stone was lapis lazuli, or khesbed, which also meant joy or delight. . . . There is also a theory that blue may have been symbolic of the Nile and represented fertility, because of the fertile soils along the Nile that produced crops. Because the god Amen (also spelled Amon or Amun) played a part in the creation of the world, he was sometimes depicted with a blue face; therefore, pharaohs associated with Amen were shown with blue faces also. In general, it was said that the gods had hair made of lapis lazuli.”

egyptian_sky egyptian_turquoise

Stratos explains that red was considered a very powerful color, “symbolizing two extremes: Life and victory as well as anger and fire. Red also represented blood. . . . In its negative context of anger and fire, red was the color of the god Set, who was the personification of evil and the powers of darkness, as well as the god who caused storms. Some images of Set are colored with red skin. In addition, red-haired men as well as animals with reddish hair or skins were thought to be under the influence of Set. A person filled with rage was said to have a red heart.”

egyptian_red ancient_egypt

“In the Graeco-Egyptian papyri, a special kind of red ink, which included ochre and the juice of flaming red poppies, was used,” Pinch says.

The color yellow “designated the eternal and the indestructible, also considered to be qualities of the sun and of gold,” says Stratos. “Many statues of the gods were either made of gold or were gold-plated; in fact, Egyptians believed the gods’ skin and bones were made from gold. Tomb paintings showed gods with golden skin, and pharaohs’ sarcophagi were made from gold, since the belief was that a deceased pharaoh became a god.” Incidentally, the color orange would have been classified as yellow in Ancient Egyptian times.

egyptian_gold Egyptian_Sun

Sometimes, Stratos notes, yellow was used interchangeably with white. “White denoted purity and omnipotence, and because it had no real color, it represented things sacred and simple. White was especially symbolic in the religious objects and ritual tools used by priests. Many of these were made of white alabaster, including the Apis Bulls’ embalming table. ‘Memphis,’ a holy city, meant ‘White Walls,’ and white sandals were worn to holy ceremonies. White was also the color used to portray most Egyptian clothing.”


Black was a symbol of night, death, and the underworld. Stratos explains: “We see this reflected in Osiris, who was referred to as ‘the black one’ because he was king of the afterlife, and also with reference to the god of embalming, Anubis, who was portrayed as a black jackal or dog. Because Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was the patroness of the necropolis, she was often shown with black skin.” Black also symbolized resurrection, an idea likely related to “the dark silt left behind by the annual Nile flood. From the most ancient Egyptian times, Egypt was known as Kemet, or ‘the black land,’ because of the dark soil of the Nile Valley; therefore, the color black symbolized Egypt itself. When used to represent resurrection, black and green were interchangeable.”


Cover by seyerce.

Craig ConleyAbout the Guest Author, Craig Conley
Craig is an independent scholar and author of dozens of strange and unusual books, including a unicorn field guide and a dictionary of magic words. He also loves color: Prof. Oddfellow

Author: Prof. Oddfellow