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  • Writer's pictureHolly Ann Scoggins

A color for the gods

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

In Art and Design, purple is a color used to show creativity, rarity, and royalty. It is a color often associated with the branding of either high-end products or philanthropic causes. Purple is spiritual, temperamental, and is reserved for the elite. This pungent paradoxical purple demands respect and enlightens our soul.

"Seek to be the purple thread in a long white gown" -Epictetus

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Purple dye from Murex snails

In 2021 a new Roman temple was discovered in the city of Tyre located in Lebanon off the coast of the mediterranean sea. Tyre was a major trade center in the ancient mediterranean world and Tyrians (Phoenicians) were known for one important thing: the color purple. This purple was made from local sea snails found along the coast. The local Phoenicians were named Phoinikes for Tyrian Purple. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Greeks first bestowed the name Phoenicians or "Purple people" because their skin was always stained by the dye. It is also well documented that the Phoenicians smelled terribly unpleasant because of their work in the purple dye industry. How interesting that something so unappealling and stinky would produce something so beautiful. Not only was it stinky, but extracting the dyestuff was gross work. Kelly Grovier writes "purple was, for many millennia, chiefly distilled from a dehydrated mucous gland of molluscs that lies just behind the rectum: the bottom of the bottom-feeders." Snail butt lovely.

According to ancient mythology Hercules' dog ran home to him one day with a purple mouth. Curious about this, Hercules followed his dog back to the shore and discovered he was eating snails (murex mollusc). This story credits Hercules with the discovery of the dye and emphasizes its rarity and importance. This dye oxidizes and turns purple over time and with exposure to the elements. It can actually dye a variety of colors such as blue and green depending on how long it oxidized. Modern research has concluded it took 10,000 snails to make one royal cloak or 250,000 sea snails to make 1 ounce of purple dye. Some say it was worth it's weight in silver, others say it was worth 20 times its weight in gold. Either way, the Kardashians of the ancient world would do anything to get this precious dye. The sea snail species that produce the dye (Hexaplex trunculus, Bolinus brandaris & Stramonita haemostoma ) and the tone each one gives (Βεροπουλίδου 2011, fig. 2.13).
The sea snail color variety (Βεροπουλίδου 2011, fig. 2.13).

The process of extracting purple from snails has been done as early at 1700's BCE by the Minoans, or even earlier in parts of Italy. However, we know the Phoenicians used it by the 1500's BCE, labeling it "Tyrian Purple" around 1570 BCE. Over time this pigment was so heavily harvested it nearly endangered the snail population. Grovier describes the process as " It took tens of thousands of desiccated hypobranchial glands, wrenched from the calcified coils of spiny murex sea snails before being dried and boiled, to colour even a single small swatch of fabric, whose fibres, long after staining, retained the stench of the invertebrate’s marine excretions." These snails were found in many places in the world and provide a variety of colors, but the Tyre variety was one of the best known on the market. The varieties of Trunculus murex snail were special because they provided a larger range of purple and blue dyes. According to researchers once the dye was extracted from the rump of the snail it took a matter of minutes for it to change from yellow to purple in the light of the sun.

Imperial Purple charlemagne
Imperial Purple on the shroud of Charlemagne buried in 814

Zvi Koren, an expert on the chemistry of ancient fabrics "believes that the reddish-purple dye found on the fabric is the long-lost “argaman,” one of the colors used for the priestly vestments and textile coverings for the Holy Tabernacle." His research provides proof that King Herod and other elite figures wore this color throughout the Mediterranean coast. Because the purple was so shockingly gorgeous, lightfast, and vibrant, many other people including the Romans and the Persians adopted purple as branding for spiritual and political privilege. Throughout ancient times purple was reserved for only the elite. Apparently Cleopatra was so wealthy she had purple couches, purple clothes, and Caesar did the same. In imperial Rome, there were sumptuary laws making it illegal to wear purple unless you were Emperor. Wearing purple as a commoner could get you killed...but what a color to die for.

Purple propaganda was prevalent in ancient times and continues to be associated with those of political and/or religious favor. Images of Christ show him cloaked in purple garbs symbolizing his perfection as the resurrected king, but in reality he was dressed in purple as mockery of his celestial claims. Cardinals were historically clothed in Tyrian purple robes until 1464 when Pope Paul II changed the color to red. At that time the snails were harder to get, and the dye from Byzantium not as readily available. From 1464 on Cardinals wore red made from kermes (dried insects) and alum. Bishops were demoted to a less expensive and less vibrant purple made from the layering of Indigo and kermes. This rare hue has also been symbolic at prestigious universities where Theology students wear purple caps and robes. A color of divinity, praise be.

Blue can also be made from snail mucous, but this hue was mostly used in the Jewish community. The historical documentation of the process of making the Israeli blue dye was lost by 700's and researchers accidentally discovered its process again in the late 20th century. They learned that the murex snail produced the tekhelet blue by allowing the dye to oxidize longer than needed to produce purple. This blue can be seen on the Tzitzit ceremonial tassels, traditional Jewish prayer cloths, and ancient israeli fabrics.

Ancient murex dyed blue fabric
Ancient murex-dyed Indigo fabrics from Israel. (Image credit: Israeli Antiquities Authority )
ancient murex dyed fabric
Ancient murex-dyed purple fabric. (Image credit: Israeli Antiquities Authority )

Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, Romano-Egyptian, ca. AD 130–140. Encaustic on linden wood, 35.3 x 22.5 cm (13 7/8 x 8 7/8 in.). Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums / Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1923.60. Image: President and Fellows of Harvard College
A less colorful purple-Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, Romano-Egyptian, ca. AD 130–140. Encaustic on wood

Unfortunately this purple does not function as a pigment for painting, but only as a dye for fabric. When Tyrian purple is mixed with a paint medium, it becomes somewhat useless. Before the 1800’s the only way to make purple was to mix or layer a red and blue pigment such as vermillion red or lapis lazuli blue. These mixed purples were very muted when compared to the vibrancy seen in murex dyes. Ryan Demaree, an artist and researcher in Ohio experimented with painting with the rare extracted pigment. He learned that the pigment was not lightfast or permanent, meaning it faded incredibly quickly and changed colors on its own. You can see examples of this in Mummy paintings pulled from Ancient Egyptian tombs. The ancient purples were less vibrant, grey and lifeless. These artworks have likely only retained their chromacy because they were hidden underground from the elements, and have since been protected in climate controlled museums.

In the movie The Color Purple Alice Walker exclaims “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” We should take time to notice glimmers of purple in a sunset, or in a flower, its rarity should charm and captivate us. Next time you dress in this luxurious hue think about all of the stinky work ancient fashionistas went through to acquire it. We are spoiled today by the endless amounts of mass produced fashion and purple products. We should also be thankful to the scientist William Perkins who discovered alternative ways to dye things purple. His research in the mid 1800's eliminated the need for natural dyes and opened up a door of purple progress. All hail, the beloved Mauve!

In conclusion, start paying attention to where you see the color purple and how it is used in art, culture, and commerce. Purple is used to sell us luxurious products ( I see you skin care industry), promote creativity and uniqueness, and help us get in touch with our spiritual side ( hello 7th chakra). Next time you wear something purple... remember the city of Tyre and Tyrian Purple....thank God for snails.

Want to know more about how this dye was created? Read about the process here:

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