One of our writing assignments for June 2015 at the Golden Pen Writers Guild was to write about…purple. So here’s what I came up with:

Murex brandaris.

You’ve likely never heard of this sea snail, but it held a treasure worth more than gold in ancient times. The seacoasts of the ancient city of Tyre emitted a constant stench from millions of these crushed and rotting shells for centuries. One tiny gland from 12,000 of the animals produced a mere 1.4 grams of this treasure—Tyrian Purple dye.

Known to Greeks as πορφύρα (porphyra) and to the Romans by its latin name purpura, such a rarity was inevitably reserved for the powerful. In ancient Rome it was the color of magistrates, senators and later on the emperors, and sumptuary laws continued to restrict its use for centuries. Until the fall and sack of Constantinople during the calamitous Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD, tight controls and lavish subsidies ensured its provision to the Byzantine court to dye their silks; a child born to a reigning Byzantine emperor was given the soubriquet porphyrogenitos—“born in the purple.” Always the mark of eastern royalty, it was virtually unobtainable in the West which turned instead to vermillion dyes for their royal crimson colors.

Ancient writings by no less illustrious authors than Aristotle and Pliny the Elder gave varying accounts of how this magical color was produced. Unlike most other natural dyes, purple actually became brighter and more beautiful as it aged, adding even more to its value and allure. Ancient mythographers even attributed its discovery to none other than the great hero Heracles himself; actually, his dog whose mouth had been stained purple by chewing on snail shells along the seashore.

As with many things from antiquity, the actual process for producing and dyeing was lost. In 1903, the chemical which creates Tyrian Purple—dibromoindigo, an organobromine compound—was discovered but never successfully synthesized for commercial production. It took until 1998 before a British scientist was finally able to reconstruct the dyeing process successfully after years of trial and error.

But also over the centuries, many different cultures used a wide range of materials to create the color purple in pigments and dyes, though none as rich and beautiful as the original by many accounts. Experiments, discoveries and technological advances in chemistry over the past century-and-a-half have provided us with cobalt and quinacridone pigments allowing purple to be available everywhere and to everyone.

Yet the color itself still holds a mystique born from an illustrious pedigree even today—the royal purple.


© MMXV Douglas P. Kendrick, all rights reserved

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