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Rethinking Ancient Symbols. Part I: Color

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Recently I was writing a scene in Splintegrate that takes place in virtual reality. There, information is represented by symbols that can be interacted with in VR.  My quandary at first seemed small: in a scene where imperial security agents are assessing intelligence about a surveillance subject, they are dealing with icons that represent various types of intel. A quick scene to describe and move on  with, yes? But then I hit a speedbump.

What are those icons, exactly?  The problem here lies in the fact that I am not dealing with an Earth-based culture.  Symbols which telegraph much meaning in shorthand to us do not translate culturally to the Sa’adani setting, for they’ve gained their symbolic meanings from a different history and a different heritage than we have.

Conveying this in the story means I can’t willy-nilly plug in symbols with western-American-Earth-centric associations.  Since I “see” stories unfold like I am watching a movie, here was my first problem: I couldn’t at first see these intel icons in cyberspace – not even their colors, much less their forms.  Something here was not mapping to my ordinary lexicon of mental associations.

Trying to see forms, I tried also to focus on their colors. I was getting inklings about them, but my mind wanted to fill in the blanks (so I can get on with the story) – forcing an answer where I did not yet really “see” the answer.  Here, I had to pause and question my culturally based instinct about colors.  My reflex was to refer to color coding in a scheme familiar to us all: using yellow-orange-red for ascending orders of danger or urgency (the much bewailed terrorism alert levels echoed this scheme). 

This was only the tip of the iceberg, though: once I looked at color connotations, I had to question the use of symbols and icons  more generally, to figure out what makes sense in this situation and what springs naturally from the foreign Sa’adani culture I am writing about.

I am actually still in the middle of that process, and for the time being have put placeholders in the story so I can go on without the missing icon descriptions. If I’m true to form, I’ll go to sleep with this question in the back of my mind, and either dream the answer or awake with it in my consciousness.

While I am waiting for this icon thing to resolve (which I will report in part III of this post), I wanted to share with you my thoughts about the symbolic use of colors in this situation. On that much, at least, I did come clear while casting about for the missing icon forms.


So What’s Wrong with Yellow?


Rus of the Sa'adani Royal House

The lowest alert level in our familiar color code would be yellow. We read several meanings into the color yellow:  cowardice, illness (as in “a jaundiced look”),  and its most common association, caution.  We have codified this in our street lights, and use it in warning labels for hazardous materials.  And probably never think twice about this symbolic association.

Yet this is a very culturally dependent thing for us. When a Sa’adani citizen sees yellow, they associate it strongly with two different things. First, it is part of the yellow and green rus, the symbol of the Sa’adani royal house. Yellow and green together have therefore gained a connotation of being the colors of royalty. 

Looking back further into history, these colors are also associated with the Yellow and Green Sa’adani, two related but separate – and once warring – ethnic factions famously united in the early years of Empire. This is why yellow and green play such a prominent role in the royal colors, and why they also bear ethnic associations to the modern Sa’adani mind. (Why ethnic groups were labeled with these colors also has a  history, but that is a tribal tale for a later post.)

What this means for my immediate purpose is that yellow is not used to denote caution or illness or cowardice.  Rather, it has positive and noble connotations (among others). It would feel nearly sacriligeous to use this noble color to flag a degree of danger or urgency.

So what colors do Sa’adani use that map to our “alert levels” of yellow-orange-red? Let us label those caution, urgent, and danger for the sake of adding a layer of textual meaning to our semiotics; they become a little easier to talk about in that context. 


The Wary Guardians

Before Qua-lun rose to a position of power on the cradle world of Àstareth,  the Koribee Empire was a dominant force in the world.  The personal bodyguards of the Emperor were hand picked not only for their martial prowess but for their intelligence and ability to assess danger even before it threatened. Some served the Emperor by being an armed contingent around him, but others of their number mingled with nearby crowds and among courtiers, always watchful, always on guard.  The Emperor’s “wary guardians”, as they were dubbed in poetry and song, became the very symbol of caution, and of proactive measures meant to protect.

The orange sashes they wore originally distinguished them from the ordinary palace guard.  Over time, the orange sash, and eventually the color orange itself, became symbolic of caution, and of wise precautions taken.  Koribee cultural influence carried this association to far corners of the world. In later centuries when Qua-lun absorbed Koribee, this color symbolism was also assimilated into their culture, where orange had previously played little role.  The star-faring culture that left Àstareth had its roots in Qualuni culture, and thus carried this set of symbols and associations to the stars.

Today the common Sa’adani symbol for caution is orange.  Orange sashes are still worn by public servants and certain military positions when their role as guardian protector is underscored.  Disaster workers wear orange vests, for instance: not merely for the practical reason that orange is a readily visible color, but because the color itself denotes that they are “wary guardians” in the face of potential danger.


That’s all the time I have for this right now. I’ll return to this exploration of symbolic colors and their history in part II of this post, though that and part III – regarding icons used in intelligence – may have to wait until the book is done. (Imminent!)

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Rethinking Ancient Symbols. Part I: Color”

  • Andy Trembley says:

    So having only been skimming your posts for a while (and not paying attention to a lot of detail)…

    If the Sa’adani are basically human, although not Earth-human, there are some basic color perception standards that aren’t culture-bound but seem to be universally human. Well, at least as puzzled out by linguistic analysis (because, of course, we’re mired in our own culture-based color standards, so it’s the only way to tell that other cultures look at color differently).

    We start with the color perception in less complicated cultures that only really differentiate between light and dark. When color is added into the equation, it’s always red: there’s black, white and red. I would have to dig back into my college anthro textbooks to go further. I believe brown comes next, though.

    The only consistency is that the “early” colors always have major symbolic importance,l and that importance doesn’t go away with time. Look at all the different meanings of red: whether danger, luck or prosperity, the cultural significance is big.

  • Teramis says:

    That’s very interesting, Andy. Thanks for pointing that out. I think I had read something similar back when, but it isn’t in my forebrain. Do you happen to have any cites or book titles you can refer me to on the subject? I’m curious to read more.

    Regarding the symbols we attach to colors: you’re right that certain ones seem to be fraught with especially strong associations (red is a great example, as is white). Of course, what specific association gets attached to that color remains a cultural process. White in one culture = death, in another, purity & innocence. Quite different sociocultural perspectives on either approach, and yet each makes perfect sense in its greater context.

    I think an author who writes, as I do, about non-Earth cultures, has to be that much more critical and careful about the cultural backstory behind things we take as commonplace in more mundane works. It’s more work but I like what it results in if done well.

  • Duane Gundrum says:

    A couple of quick thoughts. In communication, in the study of symbols, one thing that always jumps out is the realization that iconic communication or display tended to be originally representative, so that one can read the symbol as identifying with something. It isn't until we develop script that we change this into being less symbolic, and more in line with pronunciation based communication symbols.

    Second, on color, when dealing with alien races, it is also important to ascertain what colors their species are capable of perceiving. Not every species is going to be able to see the entire color spectrum, and sometimes they may be able to see into the higher edges of the polarity of the spectrum we have come to know, meaning they might cross over into more than just the color spectrum.

    Another point on color is the concept of communication as it is perceived by cultures. Eskimo culture has a myriad of different ways of saying "snow" whereas there are very few in dryer, warmer climates. French language has a ton of ways of saying "love", whereas other languages have not had a use for so many different ways of referring to that sort of state of being. The same could possibly be said for color, based on how much perception a species might have for individual color schemes, and whether or not color is important to their cultural significance.

    Anyway, just some thoughts from a communication scholar.

  • Teramis says:

    Great points, Duane. I appreciate your communications perspective; it is one I covet for my own.

    >>iconic communication or display tended to be originally representative, so that one can read the symbol as identifying with something.< <

    I like to take advantage of that in my stories, in the sense that how things are iconically represented (if they are detailed in the story, that is), subtly helps to build up the sense of 'otherness' about a non-terran setting.

    It's tempting to think how this would look in, say, a graphic novel version of my stories, but only in the text narrative can I connect the dots for present-day reader as to what those symbols mean. I.e., in a graphic novel I could *show* the sympbols, but icons alone will not convey any meaning to the viewer unless they understand the cultural associations as well.

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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