Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade : Plant Dyes and Pigments in World Commerce and Art

By Robert Chenciner | Go to book overview

3

The 5,000-year-old root:history in the Old World

The first colours

THERE ARE SEVERAL THEORIES on the origin of religion. The following layman's narrative links one theory with the use of red. In the beginning, to use animal imagery, there were ruminant humans who were quite happy and hunters who were not. This was put eloquently by the author(s) of Genesis in the description of Adam before and after the Fall. The unhappy ones focused on the insoluble and admittedly more interesting problems of survival. Different aspects of survival attained their own pre-eminence: the weather, the harvest, fertility, disease, enemies who had better living conditions and of course inevitable death. However widely the hunters roamed and conquered, these quandaries never seemed to retreat.

So their leaders, who were both the most unhappy and articulate, constructed a parallel universe and in common belief became variously witch-doctors, sorcerers, hierophants or shamans. Such roles could only exist because the leaders were genuinely convinced that they could act as bridges between the real and the spiritual worlds. The parallel universe, being imaginary, resided in their minds, but in order to communicate their revelation more convincingly to their people who were less unhappy or even happily ruminant, they had to give their story a physical form. This also meant that these hierophants (used as a general term) could invent or reveal ritual which when brought to bear on this parallel universe would change it as required and subsequently by a process of spiritual osmosis change the real world.

Nowadays, this is known as sympathetic magic. Roughly, if they chose convenient problems, half the time they were right and if not, often everyone either went away or even died, which silenced dissent. Otherwise, the disillusioned people rose up and the hierophant or king was expelled or in extremis put to death. If the religious idea had caught on with the people, and it certainly did fill both a spiritual and a political void, then a successor appeared or was chosen. The simplest physical manifestation was for the witch-doctor to decorate himself and his acolytes with both colour and

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