Red hearts. Red roses. Red lipstick kisses. These are
all popular symbols of Valentine’s Day. While there is no record of St. Valentine ever wearing red, the holiday that bears his name is full of the color. The color red appears again on February 4 for Wear Red Day. Today, red symbolizes love, beauty, power, and passion, but humans have been fascinated by the color for millennia.
After black and white, red is the first color of the spectrum that babies can identify. Perhaps our adoration of the
color comes from this strong first impression. Speaking of
firsts, 40,000 years ago, prehistoric humans painted their
bodies in red clay. Burial rites included covering the dead
in red powder to ward off evil spirits. Prehistoric cave
paintings discovered across the globe from Asia to Africa
and Australia were all made with red ochre. Our Stone
Age ancestors certainly thought red possessed power.
When did red specifically earn its association with love? Many historians point to the ancient Greeks. Aphrodite,
the goddess of love and beauty, fell in love with Adonis.
When Adonis was killed by a wild boar, Aphrodite rushed
to his aid and was stuck by the thorn of a white rose.
The goddess’ blood fell on the white petals, turning them
red. In this manner, the red rose came to symbolize
Aphrodite’s love for Adonis, and both the color red and
the red rose became symbols of Aphrodite herself, as
well as love, beauty, and passion.
This myth also demonstrates the mixed symbolism
presented by the color red: the heart and blood, passion
and anger, allure and danger, love and war. Cultures all
over the world use red to different effects. Chinese brides
wear red wedding dresses to symbolize love and good
fortune. Catholic cardinals wear red robes symbolizing
the blood of Jesus Christ. American drivers are warned
to “STOP” with red stop signs and lights. In February,
red might inspire romance or inflame passion, but on
Halloween, it accompanies gruesome horrors. Good
or bad, the color red has long asserted power over the human psyche.