According to Jeremy Taylor (Dream Work, p. 29), when people report they dream only in black and white, and then they start dreaming in color, the first color they usually dream is red. This is generally because colors are often associated with emotions, and the strongest emotion is often anger. In our society, boys usually get the message that anger is the only socially acceptable emotion for them to display, while for girls, anger is often the least acceptable emotion. So anger stands in, especially in men’s dreams, for all the other emotions. Red and anger go together in our lexicon, when we say someone is “seeing red.” The bullfighter’s cape is designed to excite a bull to anger, and even though the motion of the cloth probably matters more to the bull than the color, we humans have an archetypal association that gets played out there.
Red can also represent blood. One of the first associations that always arises is of bloodlines, family connections, ancestors and descendants. For women this association is perhaps even more embodied than for men, since women get monthly reminders of how closely blood is connected to reproduction.
Besides anger, red can connote passion and love (again associated with blood) or even intoxication (red, red wine). Depending on the dreamer’s experience, red might evoke feelings of guilt and shame. It can also symbolize guilt (The Scarlet Letter) because of the blood spilled in murder. We blush when embarrassed, and so are “red-faced” or we can be caught “red-handed.” Red ink or pencil is frequently used to correct written work, and being “in the red” means being in debt.
Red gets our attention, and so we make stop signs and stop lights red. In many cities, fire trucks are red. So red in a dream could suggest the need to stop, or the emergent need for action. Many nations use red on their flags, evoking the courage and sacrifice of soldiers who shed their blood for their country. Lately I’ve also been trying to cut my way through government red tape. These ways that we use red for the safety of the community, or to symbolize our patriotic spirit, or to talk about our experience of labyrinthine government procedures, all lead back to a sense of being part of a greater tribe.
What do you think of when you think of red?