Most occult work gets into color-coding quickly. Candles, fabric, paint, stone, all of them might have colors that play a part in determining their occult applications. Because color is so visceral, once we get used to one pattern of color assignments, it can be jarring to confront the reality of alternative assignments. Colors that are all but forbidden appear as basic elements in other practices. We can throw up our hands and say it is all relative or arbitrary, but that sort of approach leads toward some washed out rituals that don’t seem to leave as much of an impression either on ourselves or on the world of spirit.
I am going to try and articulate my answer to that. I tend to do this more intuitively, so talking about this discursively might be a little clumsy or abstract. Still, I’ve found my intuitive stuff falls into otherwise noted patterns, so let’s see how it goes, shall we?
Structuralism provides some assistance. Central to structuralism is that any specific element of language is arbitrary on its own but becomes determined and meaningful in reference to other elements. In other words, elements of language become meaningful and non-random as they enter into expressive functions. For one thing to mean something, other things have to mean something else.
(An aside, we can apply this sort of insight well beyond the linguistic field, into things like organisms, as long as we break out of a too-narrow definition of meaning.)
Once the systematic dimension of language gets going, the meanings of its elements become increasingly non-arbitrary. Words and the components of words all come to acquire meaning in this fashion. Moreover, one of the factors shaping the way in which arbitrary sounds acquire meaning seems to depend upon human physiology, relating to the difficulty of making certain sounds together.
The ritual use of color can be considered in a similar fashion. We can examine it both as an arbitrary system that acquires meaning by differentiation and as a system partially determined by the basic physiological dimensions of our experience. The physiology of the eye (rods and cones) plays some role here, but studies of how languages develop color terms may be even more useful.
If you know how how many basic color terms a language tends to use, you can make good predictions about what color term will next develop within it. This pattern, while not quite universal, is pervasive enough to suggest that it is rooted in basic features of human perception and cognition. Since color terms frequently acquire cultural or semantic meaning, the increasingly specificity of color terms contributes to the development of an affective symbolic repertoire (and perhaps vice versa).
As spiritual pursuits are entwined with affect and symbol, they can make good use of color. Just like language, the spiritual use of colors only makes sense in regards to a spiritual experience to which it refers and in dialogue with other beings (human and invisible) who share the terms, even and especially when they have diverging ideas about what those terms mean.
Like words, color symbols can be more or less proximal to the experience itself. Sometimes they are so close as to be indistinguishable, the spiritual dimension of synaesthesia. Sometimes, they are more commentary and elaboration on each other.
A solid occult system should provide a color ‘language’ that makes sense, that cuts comfortably across a network of meanings and correlates those with physiologically (‘intuitively’) sensible patterns. Nonsense at either level is likely to make things mushy. That mush might derive from a failure to establish clear differentiation between colors; a failure to establish clear conceptual differentiations; or a failure to connect those differentiations to concrete spiritual experience.
In ritual application, color provide a line along which spiritual forces become manifest. Associations between colors and intentions, colors and concepts, can make visible spiritual realities. The meaning of those colors develops within that manifest context. The context serves as a spiritual foundation and without it there is only artistry (which isn’t a bad thing in general).
As with language, much depends upon finding the proper combination of color. There are colors under which a spirit or a work find its genesis, others under which it develops, and still others through which it comes to maturity. In pushing down more remote forks in my own spiritual work, I have found my color associations dissolve and reform, often in ways that parallel the development of color terms in a language. A color dialect, if you will.
For ease of reference, here is the basic sequence of color term development:
(1) Black and White (or, somewhat more technically, the division that will become black and white as other color terms are parsed out of the mix)
(3) Green or Yellow
(4) Whatever color term wasn’t developed in (3) develops
(7+) Purple, Pink, Orange, and Gray, in no specific order
I have found most all of the colors after Green and Yellow to work best as modulations of colors previous. Pink serves like a modulation of Red, Orange a modulation of Yellow, Purple a modulation of Black, Blue a modulation of White. Brown seems like an exception to that, and Gray seems a modulation of it, though I use neither often. Some spirits just ‘speak’ in certain color(s) and using colors to work with them requires figuring out how to negotiate those colors.
If this sounds like communicating by semaphore without a clear codebook, it kind of is. There can be some futzing about to get signals straight (and that seems to be just fine).
Colors can bear more meanings than words, they are more polysemic. That is really saying something when you consider how richly bedecked in meanings a word can become. Some of that polysemy has to be constrained in developing a ritual use of color, but a great deal of it is precisely what gives it occult efficacy. Through color, the potencies to which meaning refer can be brought into constellation, amplifying each other without really becoming homonyms of each other.
One example from my own work. The play of black and white cuts across night and day, earth and sky, dark moon and full moon, matter and thought, dark sky and stars. In any given working, it might summon one of those in specific, but the others are often entrained behind it, like scales through which spirits can play.
The play of light and shadow defines the most field across which other determinations play, the basis of containment and emission that defines all differentiation as differentiation with and alongside others. The cycle of the moon, the passage of the day, can be woven into the manifestation of spiritual forces that move along the black and white.
There is something of a dialectic that emerges, too, with Red negotiating the horizon delimited by Black and White, the surge of blood-filled life. Green and Yellow are both answers to that Red, though I suspect only because our life is so Red. The Green and Yellow are potencies unto themselves, even if I encounter them first as an other to myself.
To be clear: I’m not saying that these colors would have the same spiritual correlated for everyone, because the spiritual forces through which their work passes could be quite different than mine. Nor am I asserting that color is the only vehicle for manifesting spiritual forces. I imagine for some (esp. the color blind and the blind), this sort of thing will be of limited utility. Other perceptual channels remain through which the embodiment can be manifested as it is in color, though. The process of entrainment and differentiation is not exclusively limited to color.