The Color Green by Ellyn Sanna

I have more books in my head than I’ll ever write. An idea that’s percolating right now is a series of books on color. After my musing on the color blue a few days ago, now I’m thinking about GREEN.

It’s Khidr, the Green One, the Verdant One I wrote about a few days ago, who has my thoughts turned to greenness . . . and from there, I’m reminded of the word “viriditas” that’s so often connected with the twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard’s writings are full of references to viriditas; for example, “terra viriditatem sudat,” which has been translated in various ways, each creating new and glowing images of green:

“the earth exudes freshness”
“Earth swells with living green”
“the earth sweats out green things growing”
“that which washes the evergreen globe”

Some translators have added the concept of truth (veritas) to Hildegard’s term, but although the two words are near cognates, the Latin word viriditas meant simply greenness. Hildegard first uses the word in the following paragraph, where she speaks of the Divine Spirit, weaving together fire, breath, greenness, and life itself:

I am likewise the fiery life of the substance of divinity. I flame over the beauty of the fields and sparkle in the waters, and I burn in sun, moon, and stars. And with an airy wind that sustains all things with invisible life, I raise them up vitally. For air lives in greenness and flowers, waters flow as if alive, the sun, too, lives in his light… Thus I, the fiery force, am hidden in [the winds], and they take fire from me, just as breath continually moves human lungs, and as a windy flame exists in fire. All of these live in their essence and are not found in death, because I am life.

Hildegard has been credited with coining viriditas, but it’s a word that other medieval theologians used as well. Gregory the Great, the seventh-century pope, for example, described Christ’s redemptive work as the rain that brings green (viriditas) to desolate land (I’m reminded here of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland). Gregory said that through the Incarnation and Crucifixion, we too experience green growth in our lives.

Greenness and growth are inextricably linked in the human mind. In fact, the five-thousand-and-some-years-ago Proto-Indo-European word for “green” was the same as that for “grow”—and for “grass” as well. The ancient word meant to send out shoots of new life, to sprout. The story behind “green” is also much the same for other languages roots. The Egyptian hieroglyph for green represented a papyrus sprout, and the classical Japanese character for “green” meant literally “to be in leaf, to flourish” (in reference to trees).

In the long-ago eras when our languages were taking shape, humans were only just beginning to think in terms of color—and so for them green was not so much a hue as it was a verb or a noun, something that happened to the Earth each spring, a miraculous event that brought new life from seemingly dead soil. Greenness did not merely symbolize growth and new life, as it does today; it was growth and new life.

Millennia later, Hildegard (and other medieval theologians) weren’t the first to make the leap from greenness to the promise of spiritual vitality. The ancient Egyptians had portrayed Osiris, ruler of the underworld, with a green face, indicating the new life that springs up from death, and they scattered their tombs with small green (malachite) scarabs to give the blessing of renewed life to those who were deceased. Islam considered green to be the color of Paradise.

Of course the color green has taken on many other associations over the centuries. (Envy and rot are two of the less pleasant.) But still, greenness, growth, and the natural world are interwoven in our modern minds. The “Green Man”—the foliate head found carved in cemeteries and on altars and baptismal fonts throughout the British Isles—has a new twenty-first-century popularity that indicates our primal yearning for the wild green life that springs forth regardless of human intervention.

The context in which Hildegard speaks of viriditas makes clear that for her—as for Khidr—greenness has to do with the sense that reality is pregnant with holy potential, that an ongoing Divine creation bursts forth from all of life. Even death proves to be the fertile soil from which greenness swells. “O! Greenness of God’s finger,” Hildegard wrote, “with which God built a vineyard that shines in heaven.”

Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich