The Light. The Goddess. The Thumb: A Multi-coated History of Green

From rolling fields to leaping frogs to dead presidents, green is the most common color in the natural world, and, second only to blue, the world’s favorite color.

Because the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color (see season one, episode 4 of Fargo), it stands to reason it also represents the widest gamut of images in our lives.

We see green as nature and health. Freshness and growth. Prestige and wealth. But also, as envy and illness.

For centuries, in many languages there was only one word for both blue and green.

In the Neolithic Era (a fancy term for the tail-end of the Stone Age), green dye from birch leaves was used for clothing. Evidently it was of a lousy quality, but considering it was around 2,000 B.C., what are ya gonna do?

In ancient Egypt, because green was widely associated with good health and regeneration, the mineral malachite was ground into powder and used to paint tomb walls (including that of King Tut’s). Artists also combined yellow ochre with blue azurite or saffron with blue roots from the woad plant to dye their fabrics green.

In Aristotle’s time, green was considered somewhere between black (earth) and white (water), and was rarely found in Greek art. The Romans, on the other hand, had a much greater appreciation for it. It was the color of Venus (the goddess of gardens and veggies), and was not only widely used in wall paintings throughout Roman cities, but by the second century A.D., they had no less than ten words to describe the lustrous color.

In the late 14th century, one of the first documented inclusions of green into literature was from the alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Set during a New Year’s Eve celebration in King Arthur’s court, it tells the tale of a strange party crasher (the Green Knight) who arrives with an even stranger challenge—he would allow anyone one chance to strike him with his own axe—on the condition that in one year’s time, the challenger must seek out the Green Knight and receive a blow of the axe in return. Protective of his King, Sir Gawain took the challenge and, in one blow, severed the Green Knight’s head. But a deal’s a deal, and as the next New Year approached, Sir Gawain set out in search of the knight. From here the tale gets weird (OK, weirder), but basically, the green in the Green Knight was actually a silk green girdle believed to possess magical powers that protected all who wore it from injury or death. By the time Sir Gawain comes face-to-face with the mysterious knight, he has since donned his own magic green girdle and thus survives his reciprocal chop, returns to Camelot victorious, and begins a new fashion trend around the round table, where green girdles became an “over knight” sensation. Like we said, weird.

In the 1860s, the growing railway industry in Europe and America was in desperate need of a more efficient way of maneuvering trains through the yards. After much debate and a disastrous trial run using white lights (where conductors mistook night stars for the “all clear” signal, which resulted in a number of crashes), the three colors of red, yellow and green were universally agreed upon for their traffic lights.

Red had long indicated danger, and because red and yellow are so visible from long distances, they were designated to represent “stop” and “start slowing down because you’re going to have to stop sooner rather than later.”

And though green originally meant “caution,” it evolved to become the official go-to color for “Go!”

There are no green eyes. Or rather, there is no actual green pigment in eyes. It’s an optical illusion caused by the combination of amber (light brown) and blue. “Fake” green eyes are more common in Europe than the U.S., and in Iceland nearly 90% of their population has either blue or green eyes.

In the most famous painting in the world, Mona Lisa wears green.

In the 1860s, as the U.S. began rebuilding, the government began printing new currency. Since cameras could only take black and white photos, one side of the bills were printed with green ink, not only to prevent counterfeiting, but because the ink was both plentiful and durable. Since then, Americans have always had “greenbacks” to throw around.

On Saint Paddy’s Day, we all enjoy the wearing of the green. One reason is that many believed it made them invisible to leprechauns (and pinching those not wearing any was a reminder that the diminutive creatures could do the same at any moment). Another is that Saint Patrick often used the shamrock (i.e. three-leaf clover) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity.

Green was George Washington’s favorite color.

Speaking of the General, the military has long used olive green as their standard working color, as that shade fades away the quickest in the dark.

And, up until 2011, the flag of Libya was the only national flag in the world with just one color: green. The sacred color of Islam, it represents respect and the prophet Muhammad.

Famous Phrases:

  • Getting the green light (approval to move ahead on a project)
  • Green thumb (the useful ability to make plants grow)
  • Green room (the area inside a studio where performers could relax before appearances. Its origin is believed to be traced back to 1599 at the Blackfriars Theatre in London where actors waited in a room that just happened to be painted green)
  • Greener pastures, or the grass is always greener (the perception that wherever you are, things are newer and better somewhere else)
  • Green with envy, or the green-eyed monster (being jealous or envious)
  • Greenhorn (a novice or beginner)

Famous Movies and TV shows:

  • The Green Hornet (and the world’s introduction to martial arts legend Bruce Lee)
  • Soylent Green (an icky 1973 film starring Charlton Heston, depicting a bleak, futuristic world (in 2022!) where a mysterious food call Soylent Green replaces the depleted food source for starving populations. What it’s made of is not only a spoiler alert—it’ll spoil your appetite.)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes (a delightful Southern fried chick flick)
  • Green Card (a vaguely cute rom-com, centered around a man staying in the U.S. by entering a marriage of convenience)
  • How Green Was My Valley (drama set in a Welsh mining town)
  • Green Mile (Steven King’s other—but equally good—prison pic)
  • Green Acres (hilarious Beverly Hillbillies spin-off where a New York attorney trades in his briefcase for a pitchfork, and relocates to the oddball town of Hooterville)

Famous Musicians:

  • Green Day (perennial punk threesome)
  • Al Green (ordained minister, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Soul Man extraordinaire)
  • Fiddler’s Green (think Chieftains meet Saliva)
  • Japanese pop band The Brilliant Green (think Lorde meets Toad the Wet Sprocket)

Famous Songs:

  • Ballad of the Green Berets (one of the few '60s tunes to cast the Vietnam war in a positive light, it was a #1 hit for Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler)
  • Green River (both album title and hit song for Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  • Green Light (an “uh-oh-oh-oh-oh” so big hit for Beyoncé)
  • Green-Eyed Lady (one-hit wonder for rock band Sugarloaf)
  • Green, Green Grass of Home (penned by Curly Putman, Jr., first recorded by country star Johnny Darrell and a #1 hit for Welsh singer Tom Jones)
  • Green Shirt (Elvis Costello’s upbeat song of paranoia)
  • Little Green Apples (Grammy-winning tune sung by O.C. Smith that hit #2 in 1968)
  • Green Onions (arguably the most iconic, emblematic instrumental tune of the '60s soul era, by Memphis legends Booker T. and the M.G.’s)
I want more news