Beyond St. Patrick: A History of Green in Global Culture

“Silhouetted Person in Green Metro Tube” by vpix
This Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day, which means people observing the occasion are starting to see green. But the popular color (which comes second only to blue when people are picking favorites) has signified a lot more than Irish pride throughout history. With the green day almost upon us — and to celebrate the launch of our new Spectrum color search tool — we take a look at some of the other things that irresistible blend of blue and yellow has represented throughout time and across the globe.

“The Green Evolution” by Andrei Kukla

In modern times, the most prevalent appearance of green is easily the environmental movement. Facing global warming, reduced resources, and new insights into the devastating impact of many human practices, people are increasingly aware of the need to offset our harmful activities by living in more Earth-friendly ways. “Going Green” is a term pretty much everyone knows by now, so it’s no surprise it topped the list of Shutterstock’s evolving design trends for 2013.

“Spring Girl” by Gizele

The Green Fairy
In the 19th century, Absinthe was an extremely popular spirit, especially among creative types. Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde were all big fans. Due to its misrepresentation as a hallucinogen, it received the nickname “The Green Fairy,” as it would supposedly possess drinkers with its narcotic properties. Although that was never actually the case, the stories were enough to get the drink banned in many parts of the world, until it finally was restored to shelves in the late 20th century.

“High Contrast Green Eyes” by RTimages

When it comes to emotion, green has long been associated with envy, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The idea of being “green with envy” dates back as far as Shakespeare, who dubbed jealousy the “green-eyed monster” in Othello. In fact, some argue the concept goes back much further, to the time of the ancient Greeks.

“Ramadan Kareem Vector” by PinnacleAnimates

Beyond the Western world, green holds a very important place in Islam. Although the religion prohibits the use of actual symbols, green has been historically tied to Islam all the way back to the times of the Quran. The color is mentioned numerous times in the holy book, and is featured in numerous flags from Islamic nations. Additionally, green bracelets or threads are often worn on the wrist of those identifying as Muslim, and Al-Khidr, a figure from the Quran, is also known as “The Green One.”

“Green Man” by Radka1

The Green Man
While not necessarily actually green in color, the “Green Man” is another ancient concept that has appeared in numerous cultures throughout history. With ties to pagan cultures, these icons represent growth, nature, and rebirth, and have been found in many different forms over the centuries. Today, we can see them reflected in myth-oriented tales like Game of Thrones and Swamp Thing, while many preserved examples of the Green Man remain in protected architecture and sites.

“Man Wearing Green Hat” by MergePhotographic

If you’re traveling to China, you might want to leave your green hat at home. The Chinese phrase for “wearing a green hat” sounds a lot like the term for “cuckold,” or one who has cheated on their significant other. In ancient times, those related to prostitutes were even required to sport such headwear. Donning such a cap is therefore associated with infidelity, and while no one will actually assume a foreigner in a green hat is an adulterer, they’ll most likely still chuckle at the mistake. Hey, it even got Luigi in trouble!

“Chakra Symbol Mandala” by Mauritania

If you’re into yoga, you’re probably familiar with the seven chakras, the spiritual forces said to act on various parts of the body. In this system, green is symbolic of the heart chakra (Anahata), the opening of which provides a path to greater love and compassion.

Kermit the Frog. Photo: Harmony Gerber /

Kermit the Frog
He may have sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” but it certainly hasn’t hurt Kermit’s success. The leader of the Muppets has had an illustrious career that includes a very well-received recent big-screen revival, and is loved by many names across the globe. If there’s a contemporary representative of literally being green, this is the guy. (Sorry, Hulk.)

“Colorful Candies” by DenisNata

Another connotation of green throughout time has been one of sexuality, most likely due to its symbolism of nature and fecundity. A popular modern myth is that green M&Ms are a form of aphrodisiac, tied to apocryphal tales of rock stars requesting bowls of only green M&Ms. While this was denied by the candy’s maker (and rightfully so), in more recent times, it has gone on to embrace the levity of the idea by creating a “sexy” green mascot.

“Green Awareness Ribbon” by bonchan

Green has also been used as a symbol of awareness for numerous diseases and causes, including Cerebral Palsy and organ donation. The wearing of a green ribbon can represent support for any one of these issues, most likely based on current campaigns. It’s probably a good idea to see what it means elsewhere if you’re on the road, just in case you don’t want your empathy for those suffering from depression to be mistaken for a gung-ho attitude for pornography or medical marijuana.

For more green inspiration, check out our Emerald City “Lightbox” »

Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list of everything green has ever represented. From Osiris to the Green Knight, it has showed up time and time again throughout the ages, and as the color with the most shades in the visible spectrum, it’s little wonder. Plus, with Pantone naming Emerald as its color of the year for 2013 and the Wizard himself making a cinematic return to the Emerald City, green is more popular now than ever. So, just remember, if you’re donning green this Sunday, there’s a whole lot more to it than just getting drunk and looking for kisses.