March 11, 2015
I painted my office last Saturday. I combed over every paint swatch I could find to get something as close to Tyrian purple as I could. I love Tyrian purple, not just for its beauty, but for its role in history. In this colorful, often digital, world in which we live, it is easy to forget how lucky we are to have easy access to color. Tyrian purple walls in my office would have been a crime punishable by death, not to mention impossible, in antiquity. Why was this reddish-purple color so important?
Legend has it, that the color was discovered by Hercules’ dog. The dog found a snail during a walk on the shores of Phoenicia and after biting into it, his mouth was stained reddish-purple. Hercules’s lover, Tyrus admired the color so much, that she told Hercules she would only marry him if he gave her a robe in that color.
But the archaeological record shows that this reddish-purple color, called Tyrian purple, was first produced by the Ancient Phoenicians in the city of Tyre using the mucous secretion of small sea snails called Murex Trunculus and Purpura Haemastoma. It took at least 60,000 snails to make only one pound of Tyrian purple. When the Horites of Mesopotamia reached the Mediterranean, they described the shore as "knaggi" meaning, "belonging to (the land) of purple." This word became "kena" in Phoenician, "kena'an" in Hebrew and finally "Canaan," an Old Testament term for Palestine. It was the Greeks who applied to the Canaanites (with whom they first traded) the term Phoenicia, from the Greek "phoinix," meaning purple-red.
Its rarity made it very expensive in classical antiquity, costing its weight in silver. It was also the official royal color of the Ancient Roman Empire. Wearing Tyrian purple was reserved for royalty. During the 5th century, only the emperor could wear purple. Violators of this law were punished with death.
The color was a symbol of royalty, power, and privilege, not just because it was rare or expensive, but because it resembled blood. Scholars have been baffled at how ancient historians have described bloody battle scenes as being this particular purple, or how Homeric writings have also referred to blood as purple, rather than red.
After taking samples of the dye, the late Dr. William Harris, Prof. Emeritus at Middlebury College, studied the substance in comparison to human blood. What he found was striking. After viewing a film record of heart surgery, he noticed that the blood pulsing out of a cut artery was identical to Tyrian purple. Freshly spilled arterial blood has a bright shining, almost iridescent quality, different than when it begins to coagulate, resembling purple in sunlight. The royal accounts of blood spill being Tyrian purple were explained. Thus, the emperor’s robes were valued not only for their extravagance, but also their representation of the freshly spilled blood of enemies of the state; a symbol of power through the fear of death.
How amazing it is that in modernity, I can simply walk into a Home Depot and pay $43.00 for a can of Tyrian purple (or close enough to Tyrian) paint. There are so many things we take for granted. Throughout the majority of human history, the notion of cheap reddish-purple pigment synthesized trough artificial means and available to the masses, would have been crazy talk. Now, it is just another weekend project and pic to share online.