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A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

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