The effects of color on life must have been of great significance to early human beings, whose very existence was governed by light and darkness. Most living things appear to be vitalized by the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of daylight -- and calmed and rejuvenated by the blues, indigos, and violets of the night.
For the ancients, the colors that make up sunlight were each considered to show a different aspect of the divine and to influence different qualities of life. Color is therefore an important feature in the symbolism of ancient cultures throughout the world, and the origins of healing with color in Western civilization can be traced back to the mythology of Ancient Egypt and Greece.
According to Ancient Egyptian mythology, the art of healing with color was founded by the god Thoth. He was known to the Ancient Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus, literally "Hermes thrice-greatest", because he was also credited with various works on mysticism and magic. Teachings attributed to him include the use of color in healing. In the Hermetic tradition, the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used colored minerals, stones, crystals, salves, and dyes as remedies, and painted treatment sanctuaries in various shades of color.
Interest in the physical nature of color developed in Ancient Greece alongside the concept of the elements -- air, fire, water, and earth. These fundamental constituents of the universe were associated with the qualities of coldness, heat, wetness and dryness, and also with four humors or bodily fluids -- choler or yellow bile, blood (red), phlegm (white), and melancholy or black bile. These were thought to arise in four organs -- the spleen, heart, liver, and brain -- and to determine emotional and physical disposition. Health involved the proper balance of these humors, and disease would result if their mixture was in an unbalanced proportion. Color was intrinsic to healing, which involved restoring the balance. Colored garments, oils, plasters, ointments, and salves were used to treat disease.
By the end of the Classical period in Greece, these principles were included in the scientific framework that was to remain largely unchanged in the West until the Middle Ages. In the first century A.D., Aurelius Cornelius Celsus followed the doctrines established by Pythagoras and Hippocrates and included the use of colored ointments, plasters, and flowers in several treatises on medicine.
With the coming of Christianity, however, all that was pagan was exorcised, including the healing practices of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The progress of medicine throughout Europe was effectively halted while those who clung to traditional principles and practices of healing were persecuted. The ancient healing arts, preserved by secret oral tradition passed on to the initiates, thus became hidden or "occult".
It was an Arab physician and disciple of Aristotle, Avicenna (980-circa 1037), who advanced the art of healing. In his Canon of Medicine he made clear the vital importance of color in both diagnosis and treatment. Avicenna, noting that color was an observable symptom of disease, developed a chart which related color to temperament and the physical condition of the body. He used color in treatment -- insisting that red moved the blood, blue or white cooled it, and yellow reduced pain and inflammation -- prescribing potions of red flowers to cure blood disorders, and yellow flowers and morning sunlight to cure disorders of the biliary system.
Avicenna wrote also of the possible dangers of color in treatment, observing that a person with a nosebleed, for example, should not gaze at things of a brilliant red color or be exposed to red light because this would stimulate the sanguineous humor, whereas blue would soothe it and reduce blood flow.
The Renaissance saw a resurgence in the art of healing in Europe. One of the most renowned healers of the period was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known as Paracelsus, who attributed his understanding of the laws and practices of medicine to his conversations with witches (women who were primarily pagan healers purged by the Church).
Paracelsus regarded light and color as essential for good health and used them extensively in treatment, together with elixirs, charms and talismans, herbs and minerals. A great exponent of alchemy, Paracelsus insisted that its true purpose was not to make gold, but to prepare effective medicines. He used liquid gold to treat ailments of all kinds, apparently with a good deal of success. Consequently his fame as a great physician spread throughout Europe.
However, after the Middle Ages Paracelsus and other alchemists lost their prestige when mysticism and magic were overtaken by rationalism and science. By the eighteenth century, "enlightenment" had taken on a new meaning. It was the name given to a philosophical movement that stressed the importance of reason and the critical appraisal of existing ideas. Reason dictated that all knowledge had to be certain and evident; anything about which there could be doubt was rejected. As a result the divine gradually disappeared from the scientific world view.
By the nineteenth century, the emphasis in science was exclusively on the material rather than the spiritual. As medicine came under the umbrella of science it, too, focused on the material physical body, ignoring the mind and spirit. With the advent of physical medicine, and such treatments as surgery and antiseptics, interest in healing with color declined. It didn't resurface until the nineteenth century, and then not in Europe but North America.
In 1876, Augustus Pleasanton published Blue and Sun Lights, in which he reported his findings on the effects of color in plants, animals, and humans. He claimed that the quality, yield, and size of grapes could be significantly increased if they were grown in greenhouses made with alternating blue and transparent panes of glass. He also reported having cured certain diseases and increased fertility, as well as the rate of physical maturation in animals, by exposing them to blue light. In addition, Pleasanton maintained that blue light was effective in treating human disease and pain. His work gained supporters but was dismissed by the medical establishment as unscientific.
However, in 1877 a distinguished physician named Dr. Seth Pancoast published Blue and Red Lights, in which he, too, advocated the use of color in healing.
Edwin Babbit's The Principles of Light and Color was published in 1878; the second edition, published in 1896, attracted worldwide attention. Babbit advanced a comprehensive theory of healing with color. He identified the color red as a stimulant, notably of blood and to a lesser extent to the nerves; yellow and orange as nerve stimulants; blue and violet as soothing to all systems and with anti-inflammatory properties. Accordingly, Babbit prescribed red for paralysis, consumption, physical exhaustion, and chronic rheumatism; yellow as a laxative, emetic and purgative, and for bronchial difficulties; and blue for inflammatory conditions, sciatica, meningitis, nervous headache, irritability, and sunstroke. Babbit developed various devices, including a special cabinet called the Thermolume, which used colored glass and natural light to produce colored light; and the Chromo Disk, a funnel-shaped device fitted with special color filters that could localize light onto various parts of the body.
Babbit established the correspondence between colors and minerals, which he used as an addition to treatment with colored light, and developed elixirs by irradiating water with sunlight filtered through colored lenses. He claimed that this "potentized" water retained the energy of the vital elements within the particular color filter used, and that it had remarkable healing power. Solar tinctures of this kind are still made and used today by many color therapists.
Chromopaths then sprang up throughout the country and Britain, developing extensive color prescriptions for every conceivable ailment. By the end of the nineteenth century, red light was used to prevent scars from forming in cases of smallpox, and startling cures were later reported among tuberculosis patients exposed to sunlight and ultraviolet rays. Nevertheless, the medical profession remained skeptical of claims made about healing with color.
Discover Color Therapy: A First-Step Handbook to Better Health
by Helen Graham.
Helen Graham is a lecturer in psychology at Keele University in England and she has specialized in color research for a number of years. She also presents workshops on the use of color healing.