Thursday, December 11, 2014

Red as Blood, White as Snow, Black as Crow

After posting the article a few days ago about the possible significance of Santa in white and red, I did a little more digging into color symbolism in fairy tales. I found this article, Red as Blood, White as Snow, Black as Chrow: Chromatic Symbolism of Womanhood by Francisco Vaz Da Silva. It's a really great in depth look into the subject of colors in fairy tales if you're interested-it is several pages long.

It looks specifically at the triad of colors that is most often found in fairy tales, white, red, and black. And while that usually brings Snow White to mind, there are other fairy tales Da Silva mentions that have that same combination; more specifically, in which the sight of red blood upon a white background reminds someone of ideal female beauty. Three drops of blood on the snow remind 12th century Perceval of his sweetheart, and the colors of a slain crow's blood and feathers on a stone remind the Prince in Basile's "The Crow" of what he would like his wife to look like. In another Basile tale, "The Three Citrons," a prince does not want a wife until he cuts himself while slicing cheese and decides he wants a wife who is "like ricotta stained with blood." A tale from Brittany, collected by Francois Luzel, features a man who, when seeing a crow and its blood on the snow, decides to marry the princess whose face is just as red, white, and black. Even in the Grimms' "Goose Girl," the princess' mother gives her a white handkerchief with three drops of her own blood on it, which will protect her as long as she has it with her.

The article delves more into the symbolism of the three colors and what they mean, but essentially, it boils down to the female cycle. Fair warning: the article discusses much about women and blood and I'll be talking about it too, so if that makes you uncomfortable you can skip the rest of this post. It's a common way of interpreting fairy tales so although it may be a little awkward I think it warrants discussion.

The three drops of blood are supposed to represent the three significant times a woman bleeds in her life, which all represent her transition into womanhood: her menarche (first period), deflowering (first time she has sex), and childbirth. This is a popular way that people understand this color trio; several other authors make connections like Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger to either of the first two.

This never really made sense to me. If you claim that this is "the meaning" of the colors, that would indicate that the authors intended the reader to make that connection, and that most readers at the time would also do the same. Yet, I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person, but I would never, ever have connected the pricking of a finger, or red blood on snow, to women's periods. Sure, menstrual blood happens every month, but it's always hidden. Especially since, in several of the stories above, the sight of blood involved a man thinking of a woman, how would he make the connection? Men would rarely, if ever, see a woman's menstrual blood. (Basile, author of two of those stories, was a man himself.) I would think a more obvious connection to red blood would be war, in which blood was visibly shed, or red flowers.

I think it might be safer to assume that red on white just means the blush of a cheek against white skin. In days when people farmed the land, white skin would indicate the ability to be indoors; it was desirable because it was unusual, and would also probably mean you were rich (for the same reason that people at the time would have desired curvy women rather than rail-thin models at the time-not everyone could afford to eat their fill, so that body type was more rare). It's clearly a sight we desire today, as evidenced by the fact that blush is still considered an essential part of any woman's makeup kit.

Yet, the meaning could have been vastly different hundreds of years ago. Today, a woman's cycle doesn't really interfere with her regular life. Just put on some protection, pop a couple of painkillers, and you can forget about it. But before drugstores made painkillers available and had aisles dedicated to "feminine products," it's possible that a woman's period may have intruded on her life much more. In Bible times, a woman was considered unclean when she was on her period. Anyone who touched anything she touched also became unclean, not to mention the hassle I assume there would be from laundry and just experiencing severe cramps without ibuprofen. Today we can afford to be discreet about menstruation, but in the days when families shared one room houses, bodily functions were less private, and it might have been obvious when a woman was having her period. (Although still, I don't know that men would associate it with the color red).
Bess Livings

And we can't argue the fact that red has been considered a significant color by virtually every culture. Da Silva cites a study in which they found that if a language has only two words for color, it's black and white. If they have three, it's always red, black, and white. Subsequent colors are always added in a similar order. (Frankly, it's hard to imagine a language that only has two or three words for colors; it's one of the first things we teach our babies, but here's the information from the study: "Berlin, Brent, and Paul Kay. Basic Color Terms: Their Universatily and Evolution. 1969. Berkely: 
U of California P, 1991"

Clearly, these colors are significant to humans. Maybe it is because of female cycles and their unique ability to bear children. What do you think?


  1. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to connect blood in fairy tales to the female cycle, a pricked finger or elsewhere. Menstrual blood is what separates feminine from masculine (well, among other things…), so it stands in for the feminine essence. In a symbolic way, Sleeping Beauty loses her innocence when she pricks her finger; ready or not, she's on her way to womanhood as the curse plays out. So whether or not men (or male storytellers) associate the color red with the female cycle, red in fairy tales is a very ancient and symbolic evocation of the feminine principle.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Maybe it isn't such an obscure connection as I thought. Although, maybe the question then becomes, as we move forward, is that meaning going to be lost on future generations since, as I mentioned, menstrual cycles have become much easier to control and more private?

    2. Haha, I don't think the meaning will be lost any time soon, if it's never known in the first place, but also because there are lots of people who talk/complain/sympathize with each-other about their cycles. It's kind of surprising actually how many kinds of people there are out there, who will or will not talk about certain subjects.