What Does it Really Mean to Be Green?

By Belinda Recio / September 12, 2011

Green is a hot color these days. But not because it is fiery and sexy like red, or cool and jazzy like blue. Green is a more nuanced, more complex color. It took us longer to celebrate the virtues of this verdant hue, which has recently come to symbolize the organic and sustainable lifestyle. And now that so many of us are turning green with environmentalism instead of envy, it’s a good time to take a moment to reflect on what the color green has stood for throughout history.

The Color of Life: Wet and Moist and Green and Juicy

Throughout history, as we recognized our dependence on the natural world, the human imagination established a symbolic connection between Earth’s life force and the color green. Hildegard of Bingen, an eleventh-century Christian mystic and composer, was especially drawn to green’s symbolic energy. She coined the theological term viriditas, meaning “greening power.” According to theologian Matthew Fox, Hildegard used viriditas as a synonym for the divine freshness that makes human creativity and fruitfulness possible. In her opera, Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard wrote: “In the beginning all creatures were green and vital.” For Hildegard, the greening power was the germinating, fruitful force of springtime. When Hildegard corresponded with members of the clergy, she encouraged them to stay “wet and moist and green and juicy.” To Hildegard, Jesus Christ was “Greenness Incarnate,” the divine spirit that makes life possible.

The Color of Love: Give a Girl a Green Gown

If green is symbolic of the life force, it follows that it is also symbolic of procreation. At various points throughout history, green has been associated with sex and love. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, when a person was described as “green,” it meant that he or she was in love. Bridal gowns were often green, as depicted in Van Eyck’s famous painting, “The Amolfini Marriage.” The traditional ballad, “Greensleeves,” from 1581, is a story about an unfaithful woman. Originally, the title probably referred to her dress, but later, the term “greensleeves” came to be synonymous with female infidelity. The color green continued to be emblematic of sex in the sixteenth century expression “to give a girl a green gown,” which meant that a proverbial roll in the hay left a grass stain on a woman’s dress. The giving of green gowns was especially popular during May Day celebrations, as described in the old folk song “Corinna’ a Going a-Maying”:


There’s not a budding Boy or Girlie this day, But is got up, and gone to bring in May. . . . Many a green gown has been given; Many a kiss, both odde and even.

In the Celtic tradition, on the Eve of May Day, young lovers sometimes spend the night in the forest and return at the break of dawn to “bring in the May”—to dress the town in greenery—for the May Day festivities.

The Color of Heaven: All Green and Full of Flowers

In the opening lines of Psalm 23, green colors the Promised Land: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” This passage, so frequently recited at funerals, established green pastures as a metaphor for paradise. The word paradise is from the Greek word, paradeisos, which was borrowed from the Persians, who use the same word for both garden and paradise, thereby associating paradise with the green color of gardens. Both Homer and Virgil wrote about the Elysian Fields, a paradise described by Virgil as a region of eternal spring and sunlight. The ancient Greeks also believed in the paradise known as “Arcadia,” the verdant land of Pan, god of Nature. Avalon, a land of perpetual spring, abundance, and immortality, is the Gaelic paradise in which the mythical King Arthur lives. Tir Nan Og, the mythical Celtic Isle of the Blessed, is described as a “country near at hand, all green and full of flowers.” In Welsh legend, there is the “Green Land of Enchantment,” an invisible island covered with beautiful green meadows. Throughout the British Isles, the paradisiacal otherworld is sometimes called “The Green Isle in the West.” Often sung about in traditional ballads is “Fiddler’s Green,” a land without troubles or cares. And last but not least on the list of green utopias is “Shangri-La,” the lush, green Himilayan valley of eternal youth and happiness described by James Hilton in his novel, Lost Horizon.

The Color of Luck: The Rub of the Green

In golf, the “rub of the green” refers to the good or bad luck that is outside the control of the player, and to “read the green” means to assess one’s chances based on the characteristics of the course. One’s chances are usually not too good in gambling casinos, where green is often the dominant color, and where the rub of the green could make or break a fortune, and reading the green might save one.

The Color of Youth: Greenhorns and Green Hands

Generally, it takes experience to read the various greens that life has to offer, and those who are “green” rarely fare as well in their readings as the more mature. Therefore, youth and inexperience are associated with the color green. In the mid-nineteenth century, to “see green” in someone’s eyes meant to recognize gullibility. The expression greenhorn, meaning inexperienced, derives from the budding antlers of young deer. Similarly, a “green hand” was a term used for an inexperienced sailor. The Druids of ancient Britain had a school with three divisions-scholars, poets, and priests. The lowest division was called Ovates, and they wore green, which was the Druidic color of learning.

The Color of Jealousy, Envy, and Greed

In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the rival Iago warns: “O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Shakespeare recognized that jealousy can make a mockery of its victim by simultaneously loving and loathing it. Closely related to the emotion of jealousy is envy, which can lend a verdant hue to those under its spell. More often than not, when the grass looks greener on the other side, it is because we are green with envy. To want more than what we need often leads to greed, which is sometimes characterized as green because of the association between greed and money. In the United States, paper money is printed with green ink, and was nicknamed “greenbacks” in the late 1800s and “green stuff” in the 1950s.

The Color of Environmentalism

The current green movement is less concerned with green stuff than with the greening, or preserving, of the environment. In 1969, a group of Canadian environmentalists founded Greenpeace, an international environmental organization dedicated to establishing governmental and industrial policies that protect the world’s natural resources. Around the same time as the founding of Greenpeace, a political party in West Germany called the “Grone Aktion Zukunft,” or the “Green Campaign for the Future,” was established. These organizations established the word “green” as an adjective describing environmentalism.

The Color of Time and Hope

What a long, strange journey green’s symbolism has taken: From the color of life, love, sex, and heaven to the color of jealousy, envy, greed, and money, and most recently, environmentalism and a sustainable lifestyle. Green has come full circle, back to a hue more in tune with Hildegard’s viriditas than greenbacks. Hopefully this environmental shade of green will stay with us for a long time, and help us to stay connected to the greening power of life itself. But there’s something else that green symbolizes: The passage of time. Think about verdigris, the greenish patina that marks time on copper architecture and sculpture, or the green vines that slowly reclaim the crumbling ruins of those civilizations that came before our own. It appears as if, with time, green always prevails, which is why it is also the color of hope and renewal. Like the Emerald City of Oz that held a promise for Dorothy’s return home, green reminds us that hope springs eternal.

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio is a writer and curator working at the intersections of nature, art, and soul. She has authored books and iOS apps on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animals to sacred arts. She is the founder of True North Gallery, where she exhibits art that connects people with the natural world. She is also a past recipient of the United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.
Belinda Recio

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