The Emerald's Allure

Is green the color of heaven and the angels? Green has significant, spiritual meanings--in nature, in various faiths and cultures, and even in the Wizard of Oz.

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The ancient Egyptians (who mined emeralds at a spot called Cleopatra's Mines on the Red Sea) had the same associations with this color. They connected green specifically with the goddess Nephthys, sister of Isis and the queen of the underworld. In the Egyptian vision of the afterlife, the soul of the deceased traveled to the Western Lands, a rich, reedy landscape thick with lush vegetation—like the land of Egypt itself after the Nile's annual flood. In ancient Greece the Elysian Fields filled the same role.

Similar associations continued down through the centuries. The German poet Goethe, in his masterpiece Faust, wrote that the soul sought "to rise with mighty throes to those ancestral meadows whence it came." One doesn't have to guess what color those meadows were. Meanwhile Ireland, the Emerald Isle, has long been celebrated as the closest place to heaven on earth in part because of the almost supernatural greenness of the landscape there.

But the greens of the world's lore of otherworldly landscapes aren't made up of trees and grass alone. The mystical literature of ancient Iran describes a heavenly region called the Earth of the Emerald Cities. This earth above the earth is characterized by a luminous green light that radiates from the stones (emeralds, of course) of which the buildings there are made.

L. Frank Baum probably wasn't familiar with the writings of ancient Iran's mystical sages, but he was certainly in accord with them when he created the Emerald City—the capital of the Land of Oz. This city, wrote Baum, glowed with a green light so intense that its inhabitants (themselves also green) wore green eyeglasses to protect themselves from being blinded by it.

Some have claimed that Baum based his Emerald City on the White City of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which he did indeed visit when he was writing of Oz). Others think that by placing those green eyeglasses on Oz's inhabitants, Baum was making a jibe at the politicians of turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C., who by ignoring the country's financial hardships were seeing the world through green-tinted glasses.

But the most likely inspiration for Baum's Emerald City was neither Chicago nor Washington, but that most famous, and glorious, of all celestial cities: the one that an angel shows John of Patmos at the climax of the Book of Revelation. Like Oz, and like Iran's Earth of the Emerald Cities, the new Jerusalem is made up of jewels that give off their own light. The emerald is fourth in a series of 12 precious stones that garnish the foundations of the wall of this city.

Is green the only color in heaven? Of course not, any more than it is the only color on earth. But it is certainly no surprise to find those glowing emeralds appearing in the final pages of Revelation. For in the glassy, bottomless green of the emerald—a green that is at once completely of the earth and yet also completely above and beyond it—we get a particularly vivid hint of what heaven will be: a strange yet impossibly familiar place, where all our earthly homesickness will be remedied once and for all.

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