Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ruby Sara :: To Pray in Color

Greetings, friends, from the sweltering streets of the fiercely-wild urban midwest! I am honored to be posting here at Meadowsweet & Myrrh this month — many thanks to Ali for the opportunity!

From where I write this, the land is up to its ears in late summer weather — hot, muggy, days and restless nights. The rise and fall of cicadas and the smell of roasting corn. These days between, when the Beloved has died again for his people (say Hail to that Sweet King of the Raw Feast, Master in the Wheat and the Corn; the Fire in the Whiskey, the Burn in the Blood!) and the orchards settle in for apple season, I anticipate the double-edged lessons of harvest — bread and death, decay and abundance. The days grow ever shorter, but still the Mama overflows — gardens run weedy and rampant with fruit. The tomatoes ripen and swell into a ready red, the rose hips begin to turn, and those who garden anticipate zucchini bread, and zucchini casserole, and zucchini soup, and grilled zucchini, and zucchini conversations, and zucchini jokes... and sacks of zucchini left on doorsteps by anonymous hooligans with green thumbs and dwindling storage space. All hail the mighty zucchini! If we were to create a green saint of determination and fortitude, we might do worse than to nominate this outrageous vegetable/fruit. Zucchini may take over the world yet, haunting our days with its yellows and greens. I love zucchini like I love the summer — the flagrant, saucy ripeness of it, the fiercely mad dancing that goes on and on forever — a whirling, roiling drumbeat of moths and moons, of color and life.

Yes, summer passing slowly into fall is a season of outrageous color. The Mama, giving up her precious ghost, gasps her last in shocking, glorious extravagance — soon the sunset season in red and copper, thrust against a matchless blue sky. Yellow corn, squash and apples. Golden honey, and rain that turns the wind into diamond music. The smell of smoke, even... the colors of harvest not only in those our eyes perceive but our other senses as well. The color of heat, the smell of ripe apples rotting on the open ground, the sound of bees in the field.

I have been thinking about color, see. I’ve been reading Michael Taussig’s mind-bending meditation, What Color Is the Sacred?, and when it is not twisting my leaky boat-brain into summery knots, it has given me much to ponder. Among the many rich ideas floating around in the book, Taussig discusses color as a living thing, a moving, breathing substance, that he calls polymorphous magical substance:

“...all along you had thought it was color, just color, good old color, useful for wrapping up reality as a gift. Some quite other medium? But what could it be, this curious light lightness that floats, that passes, that radiates across the valley like the breath of dying sun? What could it be? I choose to call it polymorphous magical substance. It affects all the senses, not just sight. It moves. It has depth and motion just as a stream has depth and motion, and it connects such that it changes whatever it comes in contact with.” (p.40)

He goes on to talk about color as this breathing substance, “likened by Claude Lévi Strauss to mana, an auratic, sacred power emanating from persons and things and thought by the famous anthropologist Marcel Mauss to be the basis of all magic,” (p.41) as well as its demise with the invention of synthetic, chemical and mass manufactured color. As I said, the book is dense and rich, and I cannot possibly do its subject justice here (I recommend it highly — in addition to its incredible ideas, its deep and gorgeous prose is worth the read alone). But it harbors an incredible fire for the imagination, doesn’t it? Taussig asks, could color be an animal? And what does it mean to imagine color as an animal, as a cat or a bird — the moths that move so easily in a summer’s night? If I maintain, and I do, that authentic relationship is at the core of earth-centered polytheology, and if I approach color as an animal, or a substance — a natural, living, organic, breathing body — what is it to engage in authentic relationship with color?

“Color — now she remembered color. Hot, cold, thick and wide. For she was seeing it again for the first time, and this time she not only saw it but tasted it, as well. She took great licks of the sky like it was a Popsicle and she climbed higher. She let the colors melt all over her tongue.

They had distinctly different tastes. Purple tasted like it hadn’t made up its mind yet. It was sweet but tart. Blue was a sense of longing. The taste of blue was smooth and perfect and seemed just out of her reach. Green was fast and young. It was bitter yet rich, and had the texture of moss. Black was tall and regal and she had a feeling that she knew black. Black was cold, almost icy in her mouth, yet strangely warm and pulsing underneath her tongue.” (from The Girl Who Swallowed the Moon* by Melanie Gideon, p. 22)

Of course, there are those rare people who have synesthesia, a condition wherein an individual’s senses are linked in some way, so that some people taste shapes or hear colors. I’ve always found synesthesia fascinating, but I do not have this condition (unless you count the fact that I perceive numbers to be gendered... which I have just now discovered may be a mild case of ordinal linguistic personification... I give you the miracle of the internets) so I speak from the perspective of one who perceives color as I imagine most others do. Still, from the perspective that color is a substance/entity, one could say that it is just a matter of differing methods of communication... the non-synesthete in relationship as much as the synesthete, but just in a different language. And as someone who espouses the theology of body-as-priest, I might could go even further in speculating that it is possible to pray to color. To pray in color, and through color. Certainly some of Taussig’s language in his book comes across as reverent, nigh spiritual, nigh religious. And color is, after all, a mystery. A deep mystery, larger than myself, evoking majesty, reverence, awe — a source/avatar/mediator of, by and for Beauty. Color as god.

So I wonder. Those of us who practice magic (and I don’t happen to believe there is a difference between magic and religion) have most likely been educated in the realm of correspondence at some point, based mostly on renaissance hermeticism. We know what colors represent what directions or what need (pink for love, blue for healing, green for money, etc.), but what if color is not merely some visual cue to assist us in our work, but rather a whole set of spirits with whom we perform the Work? Or, what if color is literally magic and vice versa? In the pursuit of a theology that is rooted in the earth, the body, the senses, does it even make sense to consider color merely a “wrapping” on reality? My instinct says no. And for that matter, have we done a disservice to color by extracting and isolating it from its origins, from its natural and organic body? Is red just red, or is red really and actually tomatoes, apples, cardinals, cochineal insects, and blood? Is blue just blue, or is it really and actually mountain lake, evening sky, lapis lazuli, and chicory blossom? Well, I don’t know. I just like asking questions. And my instincts say that authentic relationship demands interesting questions. Color moves, and it may be that it is a substance and a being all its own, in which case, what would it look like to ritualize in honor of Red? Noon and roses. Heat and blood.

I can tell you what I do know. I know that on a recent trip out to the not-so-wild midwest, my intrepid spouse and I drove through endless corn fields as the sun set over the hill and the Mama spun madly on her gorgeous heels. The green corn rustled underneath the blaze of orange and peach and gold — the horizon on fire. Fading into purple and red. And all around, the sky deepening, continuing past blue into a deeper blue that was so deep you thought it could not possibly go so deep and remain blue, but then it would. And then it would go even further than that. And the stars winked open in the hush, and the moon rose. Fireflies mirrored those same stars, paying homage to their distant cousins. And I know the wonderful, uncanny, magical shift that causes the world’s colors to deepen almost instantly upon crossing the border into New Mexico. And I know what red rocks look like in late evening, and that orange and yellow campfires in the distance at the feet of mountains can glitter like rubies. I know Mother Lake has made me gasp on more than one morning, and the miracle that She is rarely the same color twice. These colors are living beings — holed up in my heart, spread out over the good earth, there to be danced with, and prayed with, and given offering to. This polymorphous magical substance, this heat and ice we move in and through and have relationship with.

So this summer’s evening, as the shadows creep closer and the nights brush up against the days in ever intimate exchange, may you come into conversation with the color of the season, friends. With the moss and the tree leaves in their emerald knocking, with the fading light illuminating the grass and the violet sky. The summer idles and rocks, and the Mama throws her arms out to her people in shards of copper and honeyed light.

Grok Earth, best beloveds. Pray without ceasing.

*The Girl Who Swallowed the Moon, by Melanie Gideon. Published by Astarte Shell Press, 1994. A sumptuous, profoundly moving and gorgeous retelling of the Demeter/Persephone myth. One of my favorite novels and one I consider canon in my own list of spiritual numinous fiction. The Girl Who Swallowed the Moon was one of those kismet book moments — I picked it up at random in a used bookstore one afternoon in my early twenties, and reading it was a revelation. I re-read it ever couple of years. Now, like The Last Unicorn, I own multiple copies so I can lend it out without fear of parting from it.

Ruby SaraPoet, essayist, theologian, performance artist, mystic, and devotee of Dionysos (though not necessarily in that order), Ruby Sara is currently a member of the Chicago performance collective Terra Mysterium, a regular columnist for Witches and Pagans magazine, and the editor-in-chief of The Temple Bell (online journal of the Temple of Witchcraft). She is also active in her local community, where she is a member of several Chicago Pagan Fellowship committees. Ruby has spent many years in various poetry and writing communities and has participated in a number of open mic readings, poetry slams, and festivals. Some of her most recent writing can be found in the anthologies Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis, and Devoted, both published by Scarlet Imprint. She also writes regularly on her blog, Pagan Godspell. Ms. Sara holds a Masters degree in Theological Studies, and has academic interests in poetry, ecotheology, and comparative mysticism. She lives in the pretty-damn-wild urban midwest with her intrepid spouse and their demon-monkey-cat, Pinky.


  1. Astounding, Ruby. Your writing is like the Mama herself -- consistently, regularly, abundantly dumbfounding.

    Human languages all have color words, but differ substantially in how they treat them. At one extreme you have English, with perhaps a dozen basic color words, and hundreds of possible variations, and more being created all the time by the fashion and paint industries. At the other extreme you have languages such as Igbo, which has two or three color terms -- dark, light, and possibly red (although if I remember right, the word for 'red' may be the same as the word for 'blood'). It's not that a language like Igbo can't describe the color of, say, a banana; they just say 'banana-colored'. In these languages, the division between color and object -- the idea that color is a "wrapping on reality" -- is much less pronounced.

    Among languages with just two color words, those colors are always 'light' and 'dark'. With just three, you add 'red'; with four, you add 'yellow' or 'blue'; etc. This probably reflects something basic in the human mind's way of dividing up the space of colors.

    I have a mild synesthesia when it comes to color; I associate colors with numbers, letters, and even words and people. It's like every time I think of "4", "7", "R", or "Q", I also immediately imagine "brick red". :-)

    I'm pulled in two directions by your post... On the one hand I'm intrigued and delighted by the idea of worshipping a color. There are some colors that just grab me and rip me apart whenever I see them. (There were a LOT of those colors in New Mexico!) On the other hand, if you worship a color, aren't you treating it as a "wrapper" instead of an integral part of the objects it's part of?

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thank you for your incredibly generous words. :)

    I feel the same ambivalence about worshiping the "wrapper" versus the object itself. After thinking about it some more I know I tend personally towards the idea of choosing what is most physical and less abstract, which favors the object over the color as wrapping...though like you I'm obviously intrigued by the idea of worshiping a color.

    Perhaps it is a question of holism in general, and the balancing act we do in loving the Whole as well as its Parts. On one hand, I want to give praise and honor to the Mama as Her Whole Self...and on the other I want to appreciate and worship every little miraculous part of her individually, while still knowing that they *are* the Mama, and yet themselves. I guess it might be another of those tricky mysticism things, the holding of many things at once in one mind-body: the worship and praise of the color and its embodiment simultaneously.

    Thanks again!!