Inspired by this question on history.stackexchange about the etymology of "Belarus" = "White Russia"...

@SigueSigueBen writes in a comment:

There is a tradition of giving naming compass directions after colours in Turkic cultures. The best example is from the perspective of Anatolia, you have the Black Sea to the north, the Red Sea to the south, the White (Mediterranean) Sea to the west (the east is blue, by the way).

And the Wikipedia page for White Croatia writes:

The epithet "white" is related to the use of colors for cardinal directions among Eurasian people. It meant "Western Croats/Croatia", in comparison to lands where they lived before.

(The "lands where they lived before" would be Red Croatia, by the way.) That claim is simply a gloss by Wikipedia user Crovata of the equally unsourced claim previously added by an IP user:

[...] 'white' (cardinal direction north) would be somewhere at the upper Vistula/Slovakian Paradise, while 'black' Croatians would have lived in Lesser Carpathia [...]

What's missing in all this Internet game of telephone is some actual reference to original sources or peer-reviewed publications.

Is there any culture (Turkic or otherwise) in which cardinal directions are customarily associated with specific colors? Prove it.

UPDATE: Wikipedia's page on "Cardinal direction" has a whole section devoted to color associations in Turkic, Asiatic, and Native American cultures! But its sourcing still leaves a lot to be desired; most of the links are dead and/or point to personal webpages which themselves don't say where they got their information.


2 Answers 2


In recent time the association seems to have been generally dismissed but not so long ago it was credible. Roland B. Dixon, The Color-Symbolism of the Cardinal Points, J. of American Folklore, V. 12, No. 44 (Jan. - Mar., 1899), pp. 10-16 is perhaps an outdated example.

The 7-regioned cosmos of the Pueblo peoples (yellow-corn of the North, blue of the West, red of the South, white of the East, speckled of the Above, black of the Below and varicolored, ripened corn of the Here such even today is the key symbolism of the whole Pueblo culture)..

This is a more recent statement in A.H. Burr, The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians, NY:Dover books, 1953 (reed. 1999 p.85 /see gogle books/)

However C.L. Riley in Color-direction symbolism: An example of Mexican-Southwestern contacts, America Indigena, 1963 wrote:

One of the most striking things about the color-direction symbolism through out the entire Meso American SW area is the remarkable lack of uniformity from one culture to the other. Even within the same group two informants may give different color-direction association.

(quoted by John Gage , Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, New 2000 ed., p.110 /see google books/ )


Random data point:

Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (Primitive Classification ~1903, trans. Rodney Needham 1963) says—

A particular colour is attributed to each region and characterizes it. The north is yellow because, it is said, the light is yellow when the sun rises and sets; the west is blue because of the blue light that is seen at sunset. The south is red because it is the region of summer and fire, which is red. The east is white because it is the colour of the day. The upper regions are streaked with colours like the play of light among the clouds; the lower regions are black like the depths of the earth. As for the centre, the navel of the world, representative of all the regions, it is all the colours simultaneously.

Durkheim credits this information to Frank Hamilton Cushing ("Outlines of Zuñi creation myths," Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology 13, 1883). This direction-to-color mapping exactly matches the quotation above from Dixon (1899), but my guess is that they were both paraphrasing the same meager source.

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