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Beyond the visual: Sensing the planets with colour

As early as the second-century astrologer Vettius Valens and perhaps before, colour has been a canonical feature in planetary symbolism. Valens writes of Saturn: “Saturn is black, since it is the symbol of time.” A millennium later, the 12th- century astrologer Ibn Ezra also included black in his account of Saturn, along with “the colour of dust”. Meanwhile, the medieval grimoire of astrological magic, Pictarix, applies to Saturn “the colour of burned wool”. Across these and other traditional texts, we see not only colour, but something more. We find texture, ripples in the light.

Where are we taken by these rich images like dust and burned wool? Where do they transport us that mere black does not? How do they convey Saturn?

Back in 2017, I was doing anthropological research at a nature centre in Chicago. The research pursued questions about the landscape, the ongoing history of environmental racism that shaped it, and how people were nevertheless building lives and futures in that context.

The nature centre was the business of a black family who lived in the neighbourhood. While the centre’s mission was to help black people in Chicago “learn about nature”, they also positioned their work as remedying a host of other social issues in the community, from health inequities and food deserts to crime and unemployment. When I encountered it, this work was decades old, starting in 1997 when the family mobilised the community to eliminate lead dust from the neighbourhood. Planets have also been given rulership of metals in astrology and across the tradition there is a general consensus that lead is Saturn-ruled.

Due to the prevalence of lead dust in the neighbourhood, lead levels were extremely high in the local children’s blood. This observation was made more public in Chicago during Saturn’s transit of Capricorn in the late 80s and early 90s, when local newspapers began to print articles about how lead poisoning was impacting child development in the city.

The nature centre was built on an abandoned lot that had become “an illegal dumpsite”, filled with toxic waste from old household appliances and construction materials, totalled vehicles and lead-paint buckets. We might imagine the colour palette of this site: black, brown, rust red — the colour of dust. Identifying the site as a major threat to local children, the community went to great lengths to clean it up by removing the toxic materials and replacing the lead-contaminated ground with fresh soil.

By 2017, the nature centre was no longer the colour of dust but green. Ibn Ezra assigns green to Jupiter, so it is no surprise that this “urban oasis” bore the tagline “a centre for hope, growth and change”. The area’s transformation from toxic danger to hope corresponded with a change in colour.

If Saturn is indeed “the colour of dust”, what is this colour exactly? We might imagine a musty grey or the colour of a photograph browned with age. But what if Ezra was referring to something that was not a colour in the modern sense of the word? What if instead he was talking about the colour of dust as a full, sensory experience of dust, a texture and feeling that resonates across the entire body and all of the senses? Instead of asking what the colour of dust looks like, we might ask how it feels.

One day, for my research, I was at a different site. A once-abandoned warehouse the family had acquired that was now being used for commercial gardening and teaching people how to grow their own food. That day’s project required heavy objects to weigh down the trays in which we were growing microgreens. We went into the back of the warehouse, looking for something that would be up to the task and found some old bricks.

As we placed the bricks on the trays, they crumbled in our fingers, turning to dust. Continuing on with the work, our eyes started to hurt and it became painful to breathe. We finally realised it was the dust from the bricks.

Dust can escape sight, or occlude it, like a haze blocking the Sun. Dust is something we often feel before we see, if we see it at all. Like Saturn, it is subtle but potent. Just as lead poisoning irreversibly alters a child’s development, once the dust is in your eyes or your nostrils, it is often too late. Dust evokes decay. It is the stuff of time, claiming even benign materials like bricks and transforming them into a dangerous substance.

Could it be Ezra’s account of Saturn as reflecting the colour of dust refers not so much to a specific colour but to a particular atmosphere, an inhospitable air scattered with particulates that threaten the breath of life itself? Similarly, could it be that “the colour of burned wool” attributed to Saturn in Picatrix refers not so much to a particular hue of black but to the noxious smell of wool when it burns, like the smell of burning hair and its unsavoury coarseness to the touch?

Picatrix also proposes that the garments appropriate to the magical workings of Saturn are made from black wool. If you could not find a black sheep or you did not have black dye, would the magicians have donned burned wool? What would this have felt like for the wearer? How would this feeling have shaped the magic, its resonance and efficacy?

The ancient language of colour

Accounts of planetary colours in traditional texts evoke colour in a multisensory dimension, beyond the visual. These colourful renderings of the planets push colour beyond a generic feature or appearance, situating it in a more complete material and embodied context. In these texts, the colours of the planets exist in a whole atmosphere of being and feeling.

How might Valens’s account of Saturn play into the multisensory resonance of planetary colour? In the Riley translation of Valens, Saturn is accounted for merely as “black”. However, rather than expressing a difference of opinion with Ezra or Picatrix, this difference may well be a matter of language, translation and different cultural frameworks for colour.

In reading translations of ancient Greek or Latin texts, we must consider that for the ancient Greeks, colour followed an entirely different logic and linguistic structure than in our modern conception.

Baruch Sterman explains the gap between modern and ancient Greek colour language as: “The language of the ancient Greeks concentrated more on luminosity than on hue. They grouped dark shades or light shades together, so that the dark sea could be black or wine coloured. We, on the other hand, do focus on hue, grouping both light and dark shades of the same colour together under the same term, using the word blue both for the colour of the sky at midday and evening.”

The ancient Greeks’ preoccupation with luminosity rather than hue may explain Ezra’s later connection of Saturn with the colour of dust, seeing dust as an obstruction of light and impact on luminosity, rather than a colour in the modern sense.

Translations of Hellenistic texts on the planets and colour are extremely challenging as their framework for the phenomenon of colour was understood not as a feature of a thing, but as that thing. For example, when we receive “blue” in a translation of ancient Greek, the original word used for blue would have alluded to a specific blue material or blue substance. It could have been
a dark, oceanic blue or the blue of lapis lazuli. However, in the face of a modern translation, we as readers would be none the wiser to these original meanings or the senses of the planets they were meant to evoke.

Ancient colour scholar Mark Bradley writes: “… translations of Greek and Latin colours are never quite going to be able to capture the precise sense of the original descriptions, because colours formulated in that way just don’t make sense in our repertoire.”

These observations about the linguistic conventions of ancient Greek colours help us understand why Saturn is sometimes given the colour blue. Ibn Ezra, for example, assigns to Saturn those stones which are “black, or blue and black”. He probably meant this in the sense of a deep blue — blue like the dark depths of the ocean, a great and titanic presence. This is not the blue of a colour wheel standing outside of material specificity. Blue as a Saturnian colour is a blue that is dark, reflective and impenetrable. Deep like the ocean.

Such a rendering of blue is Saturnian insofar as it evokes a Saturnian atmosphere. This dark and oceanic blue is not a static or generic colour but something that requires the whole body and spirit to understand. It is a blue that consumes all of the senses like a great wave.

The colour wheel

When did we lose track of the rich texture of colour that shaped the composition of these traditional texts? One historical account would locate the emergence of a flattened, mechanistic understanding of colour in the 17th-century experiments of Isaac Newton.

Newton is credited with discovering the visible light spectrum. In his prism experiments, Newton demonstrated that all light is composed of an entire range of colours. Before, when prisms were traversed by light, casting a rainbow of colour on the wall, it was thought that the prisms were acting to colour the light. With his experiments, however, he showed that the prisms were merely refracting the light, revealing its hidden, constituent parts.

Newton depicted the visible light spectrum in the first colour wheel. The colour wheel presents colour as a visual fact separable from the material specificity of a lived, embodied context. Feminist biologist Donna Haraway understands Newton’s colour wheel as proposing “a conquering gaze from nowhere”. When modern readers consider planets and colour in traditional astrological texts, we must take note of this cultural shift, especially how it impacts modern translations and our capacity as modern readers.

If the ancient Greeks conceived of colour primarily in terms of luminosity rather than hue, nowhere is this more apparent than in traditional accounts of Jupiter. Valens assigns Jupiter a colour that moderns would not consider a colour at all: “Jupiter’s colour is brilliant,” he writes. Similarly, Ibn Ezra describes Jupiter as “every pretty and bright colour”. gold and blue. This is Jupiter’s sky.

While these accounts of Jupiter’s brightness and brilliance give us little in the sense of where exactly to place Jupiter on a colour wheel, they nevertheless evoke a particular range of feeling — a rise, a growth, an extension beyond what is currently held. The brilliance of Jupiter is an experience like the saffron of sunrise.

Colour as a sensory experience

On 3 March 2022, I did astrological magic focusing on Jupiter in Pisces under a sunrise election, only two days before the Sun conjoined Jupiter in Pisces. After a long and delightful night in San Francisco that did not end, I found myself arranging the ritual in Dolores Park before daybreak. As the electional moment approached and the light of morning began to reach into the sky, low-hanging clouds rolled in from the sea. San Francisco is a city where fog is ever-present, as if the air itself is made of clouds, a city suspended in a jovial electricity.

When the Sun finally did rise, it was hidden behind clouds, except for a single sunbeam unfurling on the path of a long, twisting cloud, low, helixing toward me from the horizon. Enraptured in the face of this cloud-light, my face and heart were warmed. My eyes witnessed white and saffron as my whole body and spirit were gripped by what Annie Dillard has called the “muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind”.

The moment faded into a day of sustained bliss. I headed home as it started to rain. It was the first rain in months. Just that week I had had numerous conversations with people about the long drought beating down on the Bay. And so it was this day, a Thursday, with both luminaries in Pisces, the drought broke and restored the water of life.

This watery gift from above brings me to Jupiter’s not uncommon association with green. While we moderns tend to give green exclusively to Venus, the verdant and fecund colour is sometimes attributed to Jupiter in traditional sources, such as in Picatrix, where it is suggested that Jupiter’s garments should be green and made of silk. Ibn Ezra also lists green among Jupiter’s colours. If Jupiter is as Valens says “the cause of life”, then why not see Jupiter in the rich forests, the moss and the rolling hills? After all, when the rains do not come, the green of these things turns to the colour of dust. When there is no Jupiter, it feels like Saturn.

The colours of the planets are always situated within entire scenes, atmospheres and embodied situations. This approach to colour is actually modelled for us in many traditional sources. Receiving this wisdom from the texts requires close reading, as well as humility about the translations we have. My own reading of ancient sources has been particularly enlivened by the work of classics scholar and anthropologist Kristin Mathis, who is currently translating the Orphic Hymns in ways that bring our attention to the multiple meanings embedded in their original, idiomatic language.
Approaching planetary colour with greater nuance may be particularly helpful for newer students of astrology, who are so often seeking clear-cut answers regarding planetary significations and rulerships.

I hope these observations about planets and colour inspire you to connect with the planets in rich and fulfilling ways. If Newton’s colour wheel took us out of the world of our colourful, embodied experiences, perhaps
astrology can help us drop back into it.


WellBeing Team

WellBeing Team

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