Green has long been associated with nature, health, and renewal. However, in some contexts, it has also taken on more sinister connotations. When and how did green transition to becoming a color connected with envy, jealousy, toxicity, and evil?
The Evolution of Color Symbolism
The symbolism attached to different colors has evolved over centuries and varies across cultures. In ancient Egypt, green was associated with regeneration and rebirth. The hieroglyphic language used green determinatives to denote growing things like plants, vegetation, and nascent life.
In ancient Greece, green took on some negative associations. It was the color of bile, which was considered one of the four humors governing personality and emotion. An excess of bile was believed to cause jealousy and bitterness. However, green was also the color of several Greek gods and goddesses, including Demeter, Artemis, and Hecate, representing fertility, nature, and witchcraft.
During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, artists continued to use color symbolically. Green was both the color of nature and a symbol of death and decay. Shakespeare used green to symbolize deceptiveness, jealousy, and sickness.
Green and Envy
One of the strongest associations with the color green is that of envy. This association likely arose because jealousy and envy were considered to be caused by an excess of bile.
The English language contains multiple idioms connecting green with envy, such as:
- “Green with envy”
- “Green-eyed monster”
- “Green around the gills” meaning envious and unwell
William Shakespeare cemented the green-eyed monster as a metaphor for jealousy in his play Othello:
“Beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
The deadly sin of envy is often depicted as green in Medieval and Renaissance art. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the envious are punished by having their eyes sewn shut with green wire because of how envy feeds upon sight.
Green as a Symbol of Toxicity
While green is strongly associated with the lushness and vitality of the natural world, it has also served as a warning sign of toxicity and danger.
|Green as a Sign of Danger
|Green lights signal permission to proceed safely. Yellow lights warn drivers to prepare to stop. Red lights indicate danger.
|Green on safety signage indicates a safe condition or first aid facilities. Red indicates danger or emergency equipment like fire extinguishers.
|Chemists use green on labels or containers storing poisonous substances like deadly nightshade or cyanide.
The association between green and poison likely arose from nature, where insects and amphibians use biofluorescence to signal toxicity and ward off predators. The symbolism was then adopted in manmade visual communication systems.
Green as Evil in Literature and Folklore
The western personification of evil and envy as green-skinned began in the early medieval period. In depictions of evil spirits, demons, and the devil, green skin symbolized a sickness of the soul caused by envy and malice.
Several iconic evil characters from folklore and fiction are depicted with green skin:
- The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz
- The Green Goblin villain in Spider-Man
- H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Green Meadow” featuring violent carnivorous grass
- R.L. Stevenson’s Green Man in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Characters with green skin were visually linked to sickness, jealousy, and toxicity. The color green signaled their evil intent even before their actions revealed it.
Medieval folklore also described magical beings like goblins, leprechauns, trolls, and fairies with green skin tones. While not always evil, connecting these creatures to the color green marked them as wild, unpredictable, and dangerous. They were denizens of forests and wilderness removed from civilized realms.
The Green Man and Nature’s Duality
An important exception to the evil green archetype is the Green Man of medieval carvings and decorations. His face sprouts leaves and vegetation to symbolize man’s reliance on nature. Though powerful, he is neither good nor evil, representing the duality inherent in the natural world. Death and decay enable new growth.
The Green Man visually communicated people’s complex relationship with the environment in medieval times. Nature was unpredictable and uncontrollable. It could nourish or destroy. The color green contained both connotations.
Green has symbolized vitality, renewal, and the bounty of nature since ancient times. However, it has also represented toxicity, danger, envy, and jealous through its connections to bile and the unpredictability of nature.
Evil characters colored green clearly referenced medieval symbolism. Their greenness immediately cued audiences to their malicious intents and unnatural spiritual corruption.
While the color still carries some of these dark connotations, the environmental movement has helped shift green back towards more positive associations with sustainability, health, and conservation. The complexity of the color green reflects humanity’s nuanced relationship with the natural world.