Colors of Magic, Especially Yellow Magic

For K.C.

According to Chinese medicine, when the five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, wind?) are out of balance, as manifested thru organ dysfunctions, disease results.

Hmm, I’ve heard of something called “five agents theory,” I believe with respect to ancient Chinese folklore. I wonder whether it’s related to the five elements. Maybe it’s the same thing.

In the card game Magic The Gathering (MTG), there are five colors. Maybe there’s a mapping between the five colors and the five elements: blue:water, green:wood, red:fire, black:metal, white:wind? (Speaking of which, if you see the movie Sorcerer’s Apprentice, watch the background for Drake Stone’s Magic The Gathering posters. Apparently, Mr. Stone has his own MTG cards. Also, drake = “dragon”.)


Here is a 1978 paper by H. Nickel (And Behold, A White Horse… Observations on the Colors of the Horses of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Metropolitan Museum Journal 12:179-183) which mentions the five-color system of ancient China. It would’ve been interesting if Magic The Gathering had used the same five colors as the ancient Chinese system, but alas no: instead of white, blue, black, red, and green, the Chinese had white, blue, black, red, and yellow. The following table shows the mapping from cardinal direction to color in the ancient Chinese color system.

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South Red
North Black
East Blue
West White
Center Yellow

As you know, in MTG each color is associated with a general theme. White is associated with righteousness, law, and protection; blue with the mind (especially wisdom and intellect), time, and deception; black with death, decay, and greed; red with chaos, impulsivity, fire, and lightning; and green with nature and life. It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG! (Maybe yellow magic would map onto colorless mana, which is associated with artifacts in MTG?)

(As an aside, in the MTG color pentagram, each color is positioned opposite its two natural antagonistic colors. Thus, e.g., white’s natural antagonists are red and black.)

The ancient Chinese (at least, the emperor Wang Mang in the year 9 A.D.) favored certain colors. H. Nickel writes:

Thus, the emperor seated on his throne faced the south, where the sun was brightest and highest in the heaven. Consequently, the South was considered to be the foremost of the cardinal directions, and therefore the vanguard of the “Generals in Charge of the Enforcement of Imperial Power” was clad in the red of the South direction and mounted on red sorrels.

H. Nickel goes on to write:

In 201 B.C., the Han emperor, Kao, personally led a great campaign against the Hung-no… The finishing touch in this cosmological color scheme was that the center was occupied by the hapless Chinese army with their emperor, whose sacred color was yellow.


It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG!

Yellow Magic, Inc.

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Yellow Magic Cleaner

The King In Yellow (Victorian gothic horror by Robert W. Chambers, which influenced H.P. Lovecraft)

Yellow Lobster (yummy!)

Yellow Submarine

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker


Addendum (08-01-10): Native Americans also had mappings from the four cardinal directions to colors. I think that the Cherokee color system is particularly interesting (here’s another source):

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South White
North Blue
East Red
West Black

The reason this is interesting is because it’s very similar to the Chinese color system — only, the colors have been rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. I.e., the two systems are π/4 out of phase, like sine and cosine, and therefore their cross-correlation is zero. (Wow, that was geeky.)


Addendum (08/02/10):

It’s interesting to compare the MTG color pentagram with this color pentagram of the five elements. Here’s another diagram of the Chinese five-element system, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Five Element System

This time, there doesn’t seem to be a pure phase shift, like we saw when we compared the Cherokee vs. the Chinese color system.

Another interesting thing about the five-element pentagram above is the dual cyclicity: there’s a creative cycle as well as a destructive cycle. This dual cyclicity reminds me of the Outer God Ubbo-Sathla, a creation of Clark Ashton Smith. In his creative cycle, Ubbo-Sathla acts as the source of all life on Earth. And he is destined, in his destructive cycle, to someday resorb all life. (I will write more on this intriguing Outer God later.)

The destructive cycle is also reminiscent of a certain game.


Addendum (08/07/10):

The Five Elements… Which One Are You?
(Myself, I’m primarily Water, with Metal a strong second. Definitely NOT Wood.)

The Five Colors of Magic: Which One Are You?
(I’m most definitely blue.)


Addendum (08/08/10): How about… purple magic?!


Addendum (08/08/10):

Wikipedia’s article on the cardinal directions includes a table showing how various cultures mapped colors to the cardinal directions. Apparently, the Turkic system has the same five colors as in Magic The Gathering: black, blue, red, white, and green. (Note that the Wikipedia article’s reference for the Turkic system does not seem to confirm this!)

Hmm, according to this web page, the Cherokee system also included green for the center. So the Cherokee system also maps to the five colors in MTG.


Addendum (08/08/10): See also the “five-factor model” of personality, sometimes called “Big Five.” My understanding is that the “big five” were determined using a multivariate method called factor analysis (not principal components analysis, or independent components analysis?).

According to this, the Big Five have been labeled as: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. How would you map the five personality types to the five colors of MTG?

Take the Big Five test.


Addendum (08/08/10): Above, I had given a link to the old Rock-Paper-Scissors game. I just discovered that this game has been extended to include two new “weapons”: lizard and Spock. Now with five “weapons,” it forms a nice pentagram.

Here’s a diagram showing a 7-weapon version of RPS (although it’s captioned “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock”).

Here’s a 15-weapon version.

And a 101-weapon version!


Addendum (01-15-11): I saw this news story about the world’s foremost expert at vomiting. I wondered what his name would be if he were to be a super-hero. Then I remembered that black dragons in Dungeons and Dragons spit acid. So, his name could be Black Dragon, or perhaps Ancalagon.

Then I remembered that the evil “chromatic” dragons in Dungeons and Dragons came in the following five colors: black, white, red, green, and blue. Just like the colors of magic in Magic The Gathering. Here’s a list of the five chromatic dragons and their breath weapons, along with some other characteristics.

Color Breath Armor Class Hit Dice Damage / Attack Size Alignment
Black Acid 3 6-8 1-4 / 1-4 / 3-18 30′ Long Chaotic Evil
Blue Lightning 2 8-10 1-6 / 1-6 / 3-24 42′ Long Lawful Evil
Green Chlorine Gas 2 7-9 1-6 / 1-6 / 2-20 36′ Long Lawful Evil
Red Fire -1 9-11 1-8 / 1-8 / 3-30 48′ Long Chaotic Evil
White Cold / Frost 3 5-7 1-4 / 1-4 / 2-16 24′ Long Chaotic Evil
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The Golden Compass vs. The Chronicles of Narnia

For K.C., regarding your forwarded email entitled “POLAR BEAR.”

The polar bears reminded me of a movie I saw on DVD (Netflix) the other day in which a polar bear played a major role: The Golden Compass.

It is interesting to compare The Golden Compass with The Chronicles of Narnia. The latter is of course by C.S. Lewis, and is full of Christian allegory. E.g., the hero Lion-King who doesn’t seem to be around to help yet you must believe in him, who sacrifices himself to save the day, and who is miraculously resurrected.

The Golden Compass, on the other hand, is a not so thinly-veiled dig against organized religion, perhaps specifically organized religion of the Christian type (hmm, Snopes has an entry on this). In the movie, the evil Magisterium wants to control everybody’s thoughts, to vanquish free will across all the universes. This Magisterium represents organized religion. Since the story is set in what looks like late-Victorian or Edwardian England, we might take the Magisterium to represent the Anglican Church, but it might instead represent the Catholic Church (the Wikipedia entry seems to indicate the latter).

I wonder, if the version of Christianity that became dominant had instead been a knowledge-based Gnosticism variant rather than the belief-based version that we know, could movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Golden Compass have been written? Would there even have been any movies at all? Would religion-based issues such as evolution and abortion have figured so largely in politics? Perhaps other topics (particle physics? professional sports? music theory?) would have been contentious instead?


If I recall correctly, some religious communities were against Harry Potter because of the alleged promotion of witchcraft. I’m not aware of any religious issues associated with The Lord of the Rings, although I know that Tolkien (friend of C.S. Lewis; they were both Oxford dons) was a devout Catholic.


And it’s interesting that The Golden Compass, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter are all set (at least partially; most of the action in The Chronicles of Narnia takes place in Narnia, after all) in what looks like late-Victorian or Edwardian England. And the Shire in The Lord of the Rings looks like medieval England.

Welcome, Rodney, to the Dungeons of Derinkuyu!

This underground city is cool. Beware Durin’s Bane!!

Twenty levels have been discovered. Unfortunately, only high-level archaeologists and anthropologists are allowed past the first eight levels. Just too dangerous.

Love the round stone doors, and the underground river. Also evokes the Morlocks.

At the lowest level, you find the Amulet of Yendor, which allows you to go back up and exit the dungeon. (Without the Amulet, you can go only down staircases.)

Published in: on 16 December 2008 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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