Colour Symbolism in the Folk Literature of the Caucasus

Article excerpt


Colour associations are analysed indirectly by a study of oral traditions and legends, using methods developed in structural anthropology. Colours are considered not in isolation, but mainly in contrasting pairs or in sequences. It has been found that a specific colour could have different associations in different conditions, and that generally the associations are more abstract than concrete.


Why use folk literature, and why from the Caucasus? The answers to these questions lie in the quality of the evidence. One method of gathering data about associations of colours in the minds of people is to use some kind of psychological tests. An alternative method is to make use of the ideas incorporated in folklore and folk literature, which have been handed down through generations of narrators and listeners. During this process, the narrators have unconsciously filtered the material to ensure its relevance to their community. This latter is an indirect method--as nobody actually answers the questions of the experimenter, the colour associations must be derived by inference from the context.

The advantages of using folk literature from the Caucasus is that almost the entire culture of the indigenous population, with the exception of the low-lying parts of Georgia, was oral until the early 1920s, by which time alphabets had been developed for their various languages to be written down. Between around 1860 and 1920, before writing was developed for most of the mountain tribes, this oral literature was extensively recorded. These records cannot therefore be dismissed as just the stories of ignorant peasants, but were the "classical literature" and the entire actual culture of these people, who had committed it to memory rather than being able to record it in writing. Although the Caucasus is usually considered a part of Europe, its indigenous culture is blended with those of Turks, Persians and Mongolian peoples, as well as with those of Europe. And, in spite of local variations, scholars have concluded that there is a distinct Caucasus culture. For example, Abayev, when referring to the mountain dwellers, states: "Among all the impenetrable mixture of languages of the Caucasus, a single world takes shape in its essential characteristics" (Abayev 1982, 51). This was partly dictated by the special living and economic conditions of life in the mountains. At the times when most of these folk traditions were collected, even religious differences had only a relatively superficial effect on the local folk literature, since most of the ethnic groups in the mountains had passed through a series of religious changes, resulting in mixtures of pagan, Moslem and Christian traditions (Nauka 1988, 495-7). Dirr came to the conclusion that "by studying the mythological ideas and beliefs of the Caucasus peoples one cannot avoid the thought that there used to exist in the Caucasus one religion, which was subsequently obscured ..." (Dirr 1915, 13-16).

The present paper is based on some selected examples of references to colour in Caucasus folk literature. The selection is based on only those colour references where the narrator could actually choose the colour, and therefore its choice could well have significance for the narrator and the audience. The selection of material in this paper has avoided obvious colour descriptions such as "blue sky," "green grass," and so on.

Approach to Analysis

The traditional approach to the analysis of colour symbolism is to look for associations between a colour and a meaningful symbol. Thus, for example, red might be associated with blood, blue with sadness, and so on. While this approach can yield useful results, a more fruitful one is often that of structural anthropology, in which colour combinations or colour contrasts are studied. Much of the early development work on structural anthropology was done by Claude Levi-Strauss (for example, Levi-Strauss 1963), but a simplified version was published by Edmund Leach (1976). …


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