Concerning ‘Red Gold’

When you look at gold, what color do you see? Probably some shade of yellow. Why, then, do Old Norse texts often mention ‘red gold’? Is it different from normal gold? If so, what is it? I was asked this question on Tumblr recently, so I took a moment to dig up an answer. Here’s what I came up with: the Norse, it seems, did not conceptualize the color of gold in the same way that we do.

We (as in speakers of Modern English) typically think of gold as yellow in hue, but as far as Jackson Crawford is concerned, the Old Norse word gulr (meaning yellow) was indeed “understood as a hue, but that this hue was originally not yellow/blonde but rather reddish, considering that gold itself is always described as rauðr (red).”[1] Although we conceive gold as yellow, the Norse never used the word yellow to describe gold; it was always red. But why?

Crawford thinks this use of color may indicate a classification system, similar to how we have both red and white wine.[2] In reality, both red and white wine showcase a wide spectrum of colors: red wine isn’t always a true red but rather purplish or even pink, while white wine is often yellow or even orange in hue. Here’s a visual to help (from Wine Folly):

In Old Norse, this wine comparison can be related back to the way that they used language to discuss gold and silver: gold was consistently described as red (rauðr), while silver was always described as white (hvítr).[3] This system of categorization is best represented by a quote from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda:

In kennings gold is called fire of arm or joint or limb, since it is red, and silver snow or ice or frost, since it is white.[4]

For just a moment, however, I’d like us to try and ‘unsee’ the colors being used above and instead think of them in terms of temperature: red is warm like fire, while white is cool like snow. Even the text itself aligns these colors with fire and snow respectively (and gold is routinely discussed in relation to fire—simply read more of the Prose Edda to see just how frequent that comparison really is). Thus, it is possible that the Norse used red to describe gold because it was a warmer hue than silver. As Crawford explains it, “red is ‘the unmarked pole of the hue dimension’ and therefore something of a ‘default’ for color descriptions in the warm parts of the spectrum.”[5] The color of gold would therefore have been a means of categorization rather than literal description, just as we do with wine today.

To summarize after too much rambling, the frequency of ‘red gold’ in Old Norse texts likely comes from their tendency to use color as a means for classifying metals; gold was ‘red’ because it was a warm hue, at least when compared to other precious metals like silver, which was a cool hue.

I should stress, however, that I am trained as a historian, not a linguist (and I do make plenty of mistakes). Naturally, then, my answer here relies solely and heavily on the work of Jackson Crawford (cited below). This topic has been debated by many scholars, and so it is quite possible that I have missed or neglected to mention other possible explanations—but I like this one. Others can feel free to add things that they’ve read or noticed, but I shall leave my answer here (at least until the next time we find ourselves discussing gold in the medieval North).

Keep wandering,

ᚠᛁᚯᚱᚿ


Endnotes

  1. Jackson Crawford, “BleikrGulr, and the Categorization of Color in Old Norse,”   Journal of English and Germanic Philology 115, no. 2 (April 2016): 245. ^
  2. Ibid., 247. This comparison with wine is not my own, but rather Crawford’s. ^
  3. Ibid. ^
  4. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 113. [PDF] ^
  5. Crawford, “Categorization of Color,” 251. ^

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