The mood. The hue of things Hellenic, Jewish, and Marian. Of Krishna and the Buddha’s peace of mind. Color code of health and health care, the United Nations.
Blues. The music. The “beyond the seas” ultramarine of lapis lazuli and the blue-black indigo of cultivated woad and wilderness weed. Ice, Wedgewood, sapphire, royal, navy, and Prussian—rainbow blues of superstition and awe.
Blue is for sky and water. It describes blue cats, blue sheep, and blue whales. It tints blue spruce and graces blue gardens. In blueberries, bluebirds, and bluebonnets, blue is true. Chicory is blue, too.
It’s the “azure” of Persian that Arabic brought from Afghanistan to France, then Europe, through Andalusia in Spain. In English, there are well-born blue bloods and hardworking blue-collar workers. Once in a blue moon, blue-nosed moralists turn blue in the face when their friends curse a blue streak of blue language.
And once upon a time, a creamy-bright ultramarine pigment came from crushed lapis lazuli. Lapis is a rock (an aggregate of minerals), not a gem. It still hails mostly from nearly inaccessible mines in mountainous Badakhshan, Afghanistan. For centuries, traders shipped deep blue nili, azure asmani, and turquoise sabzi lapis loads down the Indus River by dhow to Egypt, where Cleopatra shadowed her eyes royal blue. Some of the haul travelled along the western Silk Road through Aleppo, Syria, to Venice and the palates of Michelangelo and the younger Titian.
Between lighter shades of blue and violet lay indigo—according to Issac Newton, who placed it on his spectrum of seven colors. Indigo comes from many species of Indigofera, which grow in Latin American and Asian tropics. Indian indigo, after much political drama, displaced European woad (Isatis tinctoria) in the seventeenth century. Indigos and woad are magic. They produce a yellow that turns blue only when it hits the air. They can make blacks blacker and whites whiter, until they turn blue. Anglo-Saxons, Aztecs, Germans, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Yoruba have died cloth, even themselves, shades of indigo to ward off evil from infancy to death.
Some years ago, on a warm winter day in a soup kitchen, I tested the power of blue. Steaming more than the cooking pots, I took off an indigo-dyed Touareg scarf. My neck was perfectly blue, alarmingly so. A beyond the seas, beyond the world—blue.