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Navaho Sandpainting, cover image: Sandpainting of the Navajo Shooting Chant,

by Newcomb & Reichard. Dover Publications. 1975.

Color and Ritual 


by Daryl White

In one of the fourth grade art projects I loved, we held our crayons over candle flames and drew on paper.  I created a buffalo, the texture of its hump dabbed in high relief.  My teacher responded, “That’s a fine buffalo, Daryl, but are you sure you want it green?”  Sometime later I created a world map and colored the ocean purple. I soon became the involuntary focus of a tedious ritual as classmates to their delight would bring objects to me or point to someone’s dress or shirt and ask what color it was.  I was obviously a curiosity to others. Years later in high school painting classes, using colors strait out of the tube, my instructors urged me to tone down the colors. This advice I followed—mechanically—able to discern a difference yet not able to assess my results. And over the years color itself has become a curiosity that I now explore as a cultural anthropologist. My studies in linguistic and symbolic communication have taught me that although we physiologically perceive color, the ways we name colors, the meanings we ascribe to color and the manner with which we incorporate color into our everyday and ritual lives vary broadly from one culture to another.

Ritual and ceremony are endlessly stylized and open vivid windows on color’s manifold abilities to create meaning.  To avoid stifling abstraction it’s best to leap into the middle of a colorful Navaho myth that narrates the origins of both ritual and human beings. And much more.


“…In the late autumn The People heard someone calling from the eastern mountain. The voice sounded away off in the distance, and then it came nearer and nearer. At last they heard a number of voices close at hand. A moment later four strange, very tall beings appeared before them. This was the first time The People saw the Yei, the far, mysterious gods. There was a long white body on the first being which was like the body of Talking God today. There was a long blue body like the body of Water Bearer, a long yellow body like that of the Home God, and a black body like that of the Fire God, as they appear today. These strange beings made gestures and movements before The People for four days. They were trying to teach The People to be more like themselves, the Holy Ones. When they left on the fifth day Black Body stayed behind to interpret the signs. He said the Holy Ones wanted The People to become human. There were to be many people, they wanted the new creatures to have hands and feet instead of the claws of insects. They wanted a different kind of smell to come from them, too. Black Body told them all to go and bathe themselves. The Holy Ones would return in twelve days.


“After The People had washed themselves with yucca suds and dried themselves with corn meal they heard the call of the Gods again. Four times they heard it coming nearer and nearer, and closer and clearer. Then the Holy Ones were there. Blue Body and Black Body carried buckskins, and White Body and Yellow Body carried ears of corn. They laid a new white buckskin on the ground and on it placed two ears of corn, a perfect ear of white corn and a perfect ear of yellow corn, with their tips to the east. Under the white ear they placed a white eagle feature and under the yellow corn they placed a yellow feather. Then they placed another buckskin over the ears of corn, and they told everybody to stand to one side. They said the Holy Winds were coming and must have room to enter the place. The White Wind came blowing from the east and the Yellow Wind from the west. They went blowing, blowing, between the skins. And eight stranger people came who were called the Mirage People. While the winds were blowing these people walked four times around and around the skins. And soon the edges of the skins began to move. The tips of the feathers began to stir. When the buckskin was lifted the ears of corn had disappeared, and a man and a woman lay there together. The white ear had become a man, and the yellow a woman.


“It was the Holy Winds which gave them life. It is the wind which gives us life. The wind goes into our bodies and comes out of our mouths, and so we live. When the Holy Wind ceases to blow through us it is then that we die. In the skin at the tips of our fingers we can see the trail of the Spirit Wind. It shows us how the winds first blew when our ancestors were born.”

Plucked from nature, transformed into ritual objects, its yellow and white colors specified, delivered by a god, their placement aligned along an east west axis, resting on and covered by buckskins, corn is ritually blessed by the first prayer, and the two ears of corn trans-substantiate becoming a woman and a man simultaneously. Humanity is created, both genders present from the beginning. (A third gender would appear later, but that’s another myth.) As the narrative reveals, ritual makes us human. And we are constantly reminded of this—from our every breath down to our swirling fingerprints. The gods have brought us closer to them.


Rituals make things happen. Rituals accomplish. With a before and an after—betwixt and between—something is transformed: two individuals become spouses; an elected person is inaugurated; a student becomes a graduate; a person leaves one year behind and enters another; contestants becomes winners and losers, the ill healed, the ignorant enlightened, the worried secure, and so on.  Rituals stop ordinary time turning the commonplace into the extraordinary.  What a far cry from the many common ways in Western culture we throw the word ritual around as if it signifies only monotony and uselessness. The opposite of efficacious: “It’s only a ritual.” “I do it without thinking about it.” “It’s become a ritual.” For this we can thank the enlightenment, scientific materialism and Protestant literalism and their regard of ritual as superstition, magic, and empty.


I present here a few common, but certainly not inclusive, features of ritual because I want to draw attention to the panoply of ways ritual creates meaning.  Ritual’s magic lives in  its potency. Perhaps it goes without saying rituals are performed. Not just human action, ritual performance enacts meaning and invigorates it. Our Navaho narrative is chanted, signaling not only the meaning of words and phrases, but by extraordinary pronunciation and special cadence the chant also imparts powerful authority.  But the chanting doesn’t do this alone: It is accompanied by creation of an accompanying prescribed sand painting. The way I present the Navaho narrative here as words on a screen reduces the words to mere communication. In living contrast, the narrative’s chanting accompanies and is accompanied by a parallel visual narrative composed of equally stylized images. The artist skillfully strews grains of colored sand, charcoal and pollen on carefully prepared sand. A mistake halts the chant while the colored sand is carefully, fully removed and the image recreated. Memorized chanted words and painters revealing the narrative visually—like base and treble clefs chanter and painter—form a full performance. Chants can extend well over a week. Once completed, if the ceremony is on behalf of a person who may suffer from an illness or possession, or who may be preparing for a long journey, is placed in the center of the painting as the ceremony achieves its zenith. After the necessary ritual actions, the sands are thoroughly mixed erasing any semblance of the image, cleaned up and deposited outside. During World War Two an almost forgotten chant that prepared warriors for battle was revived by an old chanter. “The Shooting Way” ceremony prepared Navaho men enlisted for service in the South Seas. Some would become the famous “code talkers” whose translation of English messages into Navaho baffled enemy interceptors.


Rituals employ objects. Every type of material culture: costume and appropriate dress (or no clothing at all); innumerable “props” from a judge’s gavel to a becandled birthday cake; special foods, music, scenery, and so on. Virtually any thing can be employed to serve ritual purposes. Where a ritual is performed matters. Not background at all and certainly not mere scenery, the Navaho hogan houses and contains the chanting ceremony. With its entrance facing east, the hogan structure mirrors how the world is shaped and becomes a microcosm of the expansive Navaho landscape brought inside. By their very performance, rituals take place and create space.


But how do we consider the role of color in ritual? I believe the ritual potency of color abides in color’s ubiquity. Ever present, color can be taken for granted, even ignored, except when a ritual prescribes or proscribes particular colors. Either way, color is consciously brought into ritual meaning-making. In Navaho ritual, color assumes an existential and transcendent status. Red East Yellow West Black North White South. Not only are the cardinal directions assigned color, the winds imagined in the narrative are White Winds and Yellow Winds. The only thing we know from the myth about the four Holy Ones is that they have names and embody the four colors. We generally don’t see wind, and by coloring the winds the Navaho seem to elevate at least these four colors and perhaps color itself to a wondrous status.  It seems to me that identifying the four directions with the four colors empowers the colors to signify completeness and harmony. Just as the four directions encompass our world, the four colors together express unity and wholeness. For the intent of virtually all ritual chanting and sand painting for the Navaho is to revive, recreate, strengthen, restore and maintain harmony. To put people on the pollen path.


It seems obvious in every culture color is a ubiquitous signifier. Yet a single color never has a single meaning. Diversity abounds. My color-blind comrades notwithstanding, humans beings are biologically endowed to see the same colors within a fairly narrow range of variation. The words and phrases assigned to colors and the grouping of hues into color categories is full of cross-cultural surprises. In the 1960s two linguistic anthropologists questioned a common assumption that languages determine thought and so shape how we see the world.

Daryl_White_TABLE_ Evolutionary Stages o

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay collected words for colors in ninety-six world languages from a wide range of language families. Using a Munsell Color Chart as a standardized reference, they elicited names for individual colors as well as names for groupings of color. What we could call generic color terms that serve as umbrella labels that encompass a range of specific hues. For example, red includes many kinds of red such as scarlet, crimson, fire-engine-red, and so on. Although crimson is a kind of red, red is not a type or kind of any broader color term. Berlin and Kay called the “generic” colors, basic color terms. When informants were asked to identify on the Munsell chart which color chip is real or true red, there was considerable agreement among informants from all languages about which chip or other close clustering of chips represented the basic color.  But there were considerable differences between languages concerning the boundaries or ambiguous zones that separate one group of colors from another.  


But here’s the kicker: The actual number of basic color terms among these languages differs remarkably from as few as two to as many as eleven. When a language has just two basic color terms, they are always black and white. Every other chip on the cart fit into one or other. That is, every color was either a kind of white or a kind of black. When a language has three basic terms they are always black, white and red. If four terms, the fourth was either green or yellow. And so on up to eleven. There appears to be an evolution of color terms. The Navaho language has six basic color terms: Black, White, Red, Green, Yellow and Blue.


As you can imagine, Berlin and Kay’s work has led to a profusion of further research. For example, one study revealed that the greatest influence on the number of basic color terms related to the culture’s technical ability to manufacture a color. Still for me the bottom line is that human color perception is universal (with a few exceptions like me).  Meanwhile evolutionary anthropologists tells us that humans share with most other primates abilities to distinguish reds, yellows, and greens—arguing that there was evolutionary advantage for our ancestral primates living in trees, eating fruits, and favoring ripe fruits because they pack the most energy-giving sugars. It doesn’t surprise me that the common human color dysfunction is labeled red-green colorblindness. I grew up surrounded by fruit trees. Among other varieties we had five apricot trees and when it was time to harvest them I played a crucial role. Being the youngest of five siblings and loving to climb trees I could reach furthest out toward the ends of branches, where always the largest fruits dangled and seemed to ripen earliest. But since I could not distinguish ripe apricots from green ones, my mother would stand below guiding me to the colorful ripe ones. I’d touch one and she would say, “No, the one next to it.” And so it is.



Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. University of California Press.1969


Link, Margaret Schevill. The Pollen Path. Stanford University Press. 1956.


Newcomb, Franc and Gladys Reichard. Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant. Dover Publications. 1975. Originally published in 1937 by J. J. Augustin.

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Daryl White is retired Professor of Anthropology emeritus at Spelman College where he has taught since 1985. He continues to teach two courses he created, Ritual & Performance and Food & Culture. He helped create and continues to work with Spelman’s Food Studies program. Daryl White is also a printmaker with the Atlanta Printmakers Studio.

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