The Alchemy of Black White & Red

The Brothers Grimm version of the fairytale of Snow White opens thus:

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.

My current work has so far all been in red, white black and grey, I am instinctively drawn to these colours, especially as I like winter which is very much the grey white and red season in nature, at least if you are lucky enough to get a decent winter.  I have been thinking about why I use these colours, and how predominant they are in some fairytales, like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. I found an article by English professor and author John Patrick Pazdziora about the alchemical symbolism of colours, particularly black, white and red, and they seem to fit the fairy tale narrative very well. This article by Pazdziora explains it very well:

The queen’s wish is for a child that’s black, white, red. That’s the classic color spectrum in literary alchemy.

If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’ve encountered a great example of literary alchemy, though the tradition is hundreds of years old. Here’s a crash introduction.* Each color represents a different phase of the alchemical process, or Great Work as the alchemists called it. Black signifies the nigredo stage, where the lead or base metal is burned, to remove its impurities. White is the second stage, albedo, where the purified matter is washed repeatedly to transmute it into the final stage, rubedo, signified by (you guessed it) red and gold. The beginning of the rubedo is signified by the blossoming of streak of red on the white metal; the metal is put into a container, symbolised by burial or interment in a coffin, until the transmutation is complete. The elements in the metal that were in opposition—fluid and solid, female and male, life and death, and so on—become reconciled; this is called the alchemical marriage.

What if  “Snow White” is an alchemical tale? The argument would go something like this.

   Snow White is the philosophical orphan, traveling through the three stages. The nigredo is her loss of home and self-identification in the forest, that labyrinthine fairy tale symbol for peril, liminal space, and the transmigration between worlds.The albedo is her time with the seven dwarf’s (and the number seven has so much symbolism surrounding it, there’s not enough space to even mention it here). She’s reached an equilibrium, and can be herself without the threat and shadow of the forest. The end of the calm albedo is signified by the arrival of the queen-crone, and specifically an apple that’s half white, half red. Snow White bites the red half and becomes as if dead. So she’s put into a coffin that’s decorated with gold lettering. The philosophical orphan is buried to wait for the completion of the rubedo. Enter a prince—the union of opposites and the alchemical wedding, and the completion of the Great Work.

Fascinating stuff, I can see I have years of inspiration and research from this fairy tale theme. I am going to apply the theory to Red Riding Hood and see how it works.Here is a doodle I was playing with earlier in my theme colours… I am taking photographs of local woods and adding red threads and playing in Photoshop. I think I am going to have a book of photographs as part of my work, photos of my work and stuff I have set up in the woods, my little house models etc.

photo 1

photo 2

Symbols of Winter #25

enlightened morning
wisps of smoke shows signs of life
survival signals

white symbols of peace
zen shadows land like snowflakes
origami cranes

so close to the edge
trippy rainbow bubble clouds
the sink overflows