Black was one of the first colors used by artists in neolithic cave paintings. In the 14th century, it began to be worn by royalty, the clergy, judges and government officials in much of Europe. It became the color worn by English romantic poets, businessmen and statesmen in the 19th century, and a high fashion color in the 20th century.
In the Roman Empire, it became the color of mourning, and over the centuries it was frequently associated with death, evil, witches and magic. According to surveys in Europe and North America, it is the color most commonly associated with mourning, the end, secrets, magic, force, violence, evil, and elegance.
The word black comes from Old English blc ("black, dark", also, "ink"), from Proto-Germanic *blakkaz ("burned"), from Proto-Indo-European *bhleg- ("to burn, gleam, shine, flash"), from base *bhel- ("to shine"), related to Old Saxon blak ("ink"), Old High German blach ("black"), Old Norse blakkr ("dark"), Dutch blaken ("to burn"), and Swedish blck ("ink"). More distant cognates include Latin flagrare ("to blaze, glow, burn"), and Ancient Greek phlegein ("to burn, scorch").
The Ancient Greeks sometimes used the same word to name different colors, if they had the same intensity. Kuanos' could mean both dark blue and black.
The Ancient Romans had two words for black: ater was a flat, dull black, while niger was a brilliant, saturated black. Ater has vanished from the vocabulary, but niger was the source of the country name Nigeria the English word Negro and the word for "black" in most modern Romance languages (French: noir; Spanish and Portuguese: negro; Italian: nero ).
Old High German also had two words for black: swartz for dull black and blach for a luminous black. These are parallelled in Middle English by the terms swart for dull black and blaek for luminous black. Swart still survives as the word swarthy, while blaek became the modern English black.
In heraldry, the word used for the black color is sable, named for the black fur of the sable, an animal.
Black was one of the first colors used in art. The Lascaux Cave in France contains drawings of bulls and other animals drawn by paleolithic artists between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago. They began by using charcoal, and then made more vivid black pigments by burning bones or grinding a powder of manganese oxide.
For the ancient Egyptians, black had positive associations; being the color of fertility and the rich black soil flooded by the Nile. It was the color of Anubis, the god of the underworld, who took the form of a black jackal, and offered protection against evil to the dead.
For the ancient Greeks, black was also the color of the underworld, separated from the world of the living by the river Acheron, whose water was black. Those who had committed the worst sins were sent to Tartarus, the deepest and darkest level. In the center was the palace of Hades, the king of the underworld, where he was seated upon a black ebony throne.
Black was one of the most important colors used by ancient Greek artists. In the 6th century BC, they began making black-figure pottery and later red figure pottery, using a highly original technique. In black-figure pottery, the artist would paint figures with a glossy clay slip on a red clay pot. When the pot was fired, the figures painted with the slip would turn black, against a red background. Later they reversed the process, painting the spaces between the figures with slip. This created magnificent red figures against a glossy black background.
In the social hierarchy of ancient Rome, purple was the color reserved for the Emperor; red was the color worn by soldiers (red cloaks for the officers, red tunics for the soldiers); white the color worn by the priests, and black was worn by craftsmen and artisans. The black they wore was not deep and rich; the vegetable dyes used to make black were not solid or lasting, so the blacks often turned out faded gray or brown.
In Latin, the word for black, ater and to darken, atere, were associated with cruelty, brutality and evil. They were the root of the English words "atrocious" and "atrocity".
Black was also the Roman color of death and mourning. In the 2nd century BC Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Later, under the Empire, the family of the deceased also wore dark colors for a long period; then, after a banquet to mark the end of mourning, exchanged the black for a white toga. In Roman poetry, death was called the hora nigra, the black hour.
The German and Scandinavian peoples worshipped their own goddess of the night, Ntt, who crossed the sky in a chariot drawn by a black horse. They also feared Hel, the goddess of the kingdom of the dead, whose skin was black on one side and red on the other. They also held sacred the raven. They believed that Odin, the king of the Nordic pantheon, had two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who served as his agents, traveling the world for him, watching and listening.