Wednesday, November 11th, 2015
Last week my students and I were discussing the blue demons that are found in some Etruscan tombs. We were exploring two different reasons which might explain why these demons have blue skin. One theory is that the blue skin is a depiction of rotting human flesh: these demons are embodiments of death.1 A different, yet also related theory, is that the blue color relates to the skin discoloration which occurs when someone is bit by a deadly, poisonous snake, specifically an adder.2
During this discussion, two different students mentioned that the blue skin reminded them of demons and religious figures found in other cultures. I never thought too deeply about how blue skin appears in different cultures across the world, and I thought I’d make a little compilation of a few noteworthy examples.
The oni is an ogre or troll, and it is a common figure in Japanese folklore. They have distinctive long horns, which makes them appear to be a combination of both beasts and humans. Onis most commonly appear with blue, red or green skin, and they are often clad in tiger skin. One particular representation of the oni that I like is from the 18th century (shown above), in a painting by Soga Shôhaku. Here, an oni is used to depict a demon from the Sessen Doji tale.
In thinking about the various colors which can be used for the oni’s skin, I wonder if color is supposed to suggest that the figure is inhuman. From what I can tell, the color of the skin doesn’t matter (since red, blue, and green are all used), but all of the colors are very different from how human skin actually appears. To me, the blue skin of the no suggests that the figure is otherworldly, which by extension makes the figure seem more threatening to me. The creators of the film Avatar used blue skin for the same reason; they played with modern associations regarding skin color and race to make sure that moviegoers could perceive these figures not only as aliens, but as Others.
In some cases, though, the color blue has much more significance than to draw a visual distinction of difference between a the figure-in-question and a human audience. Such is the case with Hindu art, in which more than one blue-skinned figure appears. Perhaps the most common figure who can appear with blue skin is Vishnu (who can also appear with blue skin as Krishna, considered by many to be an avatar of Vishnu). Some claim that the blue skin in this religious context has positive connotations, suggesting the sky and the limitlessness of the sky and universe. Blue also references life and the forces of life, since bodies of water can appear blue. Finally, others assert that the color blue in Hinduism is used to describe manliness, bravery, a stable mind and a depth of character. How curious that the color blue can suggest a depth of character in Hinduism, whereas the blue color in Japanese folklore seems to suggest an inhuman creature (which perhaps implies a lack of character or positive human feeling, right?)!
I know of a few other instances where blue-skinned figures appear, too. In Balinese culture the traditional gods can appear with blue skin. A traditional Balinese monster, the oguh-oguh, also can appear with blue skin (although various colors are used to depict the oguh-oguh, so the color doesn’t seem to be a qualifying feature).
Do you know of other cultural instances in which blue-skinned figures occur in art? If you know of other cultural and/or symbolic associations with blue skin too, please share!
1 How Art Made the World: To Death and Back, directed by Nick Murphy. London: BBC, 2005. Available online: https://youtu.be/ekR_kPJVTtA?list=PLE84B4973D9F49E44
2 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.