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The River Styx (from

The River Styx (from

We have previously addressed the chimerical nature of magenta—a color which does not actually exist, but strongly seems to because of the way that humans perceive light.   In the intervening years, you have probably been wondering if there are other colors like this: hues which are not there except for tricks of the brain.  Today we bring you an amazing & impossible color from the underworld.  “Stygian blue” is a supersaturated blue/violet which is also as dark as the darkest black! It would be the coolest color in the rainbow except for the fact that it isn’t real…but you can still see it.  In fact, if you keep reading, I’ll show it to you right here!


Before you call in the men with big white nets (who, like the bill collectors, are always creeping nearer anyway) allow me to explain.   Stygian blue appears to exist because of the opponent color theory (explained below in an utterly unhelpful and incomprehensible diagram) a theory of color pioneered by the dramatist, poet, and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe!

“Oh! THOSE opponent colors…yes, of course!”

Opponent color theory deals with how the eye (and the mind) process information received from the three types of color-receptive cones commonly found in the human retina.  Setting the biological details to the side, the theory essentially posits that certain colors reciprocally evoke fundamental opposite colors: blue and orange are opposites; red and green are opposites; yellow and purple are opposites; and so forth.  This blog has come near to this territory before (with a pumpkin-colored Chevy Chase?) and we will return to component colors again, since they lie at a nexus between physics, aesthetics, neural science, and the unknown. But right now we only need to recognize that the opposite of dark blue is pale orange (at least to the human eye).

Flags (Jasper Johns, ca. 1967-1968,color lithograph)

Flags (Jasper Johns, ca. 1967-1968,color lithograph)

In order to see stygian blue we must utilize a trick of physiology. If you stare long enough at a strong hue: you will see an afterimage of its component opposite—the negative reflection of the image you have looked at.  A famous example is hack artist Jasper John’s bizarro American flag in orange, black, and green.  If you stare at it for a few minutes, and then look at a white wall, you will see old glory proudly waving in your eyes…but there is no actual flag.

Likewise if you stare long enough at an orange/yellow blob, and then look at a black field, you will perceive a glistening phantasmagoric shade of ultra-blue which is as dark as the black, but is not black—stygian blue!  Here is the swath I stole from Wikipedia which allows to do this while staring at your own monitor in the comfort of whatever cubical farm/battlefield/hyper-space sarcophagus where you are reading this.

Please note you have to stare with unflagging diligence at

Please note you have to stare with unflagging diligence at “x” for quite a while!

As a bonus the image includes some two other chimerical colors, hyperbolic orange and self-luminous red (which I did not think were sufficiently interesting to lead this essay, but which “exist” based on the same basic principles).  Of course this does not actually involve any ghosts, supernatural entities, or Lovecraft colors which drive you insane (more so than usual anyway).  Stygian blue is merely a trick of the brain…but so are a lot of things we spend our lives striving for and working on.  I for one find the color quite pretty and I would wear it or use it in my paintings if such a thing were at all possible.

For example it would be a great color for a screaming Gorgon chariot!

For example it would be a great color for a screaming Gorgon chariot!

Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity.  Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar.  Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.

Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants.  Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane.  Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy.  In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.

While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe).  Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society.  I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2020