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Lady Violette

The Romantic Lifestyle

The Color Purple

April 21st, 2024 by violette

Legend has it that Hercule’s dog discovered purple dye when he and his dog were walking on the beach on their way to court a nymph named Tyro.

Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye

The dog bit into a sea snail and the snail’s blood dyed the dog’s mouth Tyrian purple. Seeing this, the nymph demanded a gown of the same color, and the result was the origin of purple dye.

Rubens’s painting of this story depicts Hercules and the dog on the beach, with the dog’s mouth stained purple. Although the snail in the story should be a spiny murex, the kind of snail from which Tyrian purple was made, Rubens instead depicts a large smooth shell that resembles a nautilus.

The  clever nymph Tyro would not capitulate until Hercules presented her with a glorious long gown of brilliant purple silk produced by expert ancient dyers extracting the juices of 250,000 murex sea snails through a long and laborious secret process. The resulting garment was so rare and lovely in color that it created an insatiable desire for robes in that hue which became known as Tyrian purple in the hearts of all who saw it. 

The nymph Tyro not only desired beauty, she also craved celebrity. And, knowing that other nymphs and human women would envy her gown and men and gods would admire and desire her when wearing it she demanded Hercules name the color after her. Thus the color was known as Tyrian purple and the Phoenician city in which it was made became known and is still known today as Tyre, now in modern day Lebanon. 

The creation of the color required so many snails and so much time, labor, and expertise that is was very expensive to produce. But, no matter, emperors and their wives had to have it at any cost. Not only was it beautiful, but the fact that is was so costly set those who wore it on a pedestal above their peers thus creating even more desire for garments of the color. Much like a celebrity wearing an expensive and recognizable desirable designer Chanel or Hermes bag does today.

As the pigment was so costly and time-consuming to produce, items created with it became associated with power and wealth. The details of its production were kept secret by its manufacturers. 

The dye was greatly prized in antiquity because the color did not easily fade, instead it became richer and more vivid with time and exposure to sunlight! 

Because it was extremely tedious to make. Tyrian purple was very expensive and purple textiles became status symbols. The production secrets of the color Tyrian Purple were tightly controlled in the Byzantine Empire and subsidized by the imperial courts. 

Tyro was delighted with all this notoriety and excitement as it made her a noted celebrity and guaranteed she would become famous and remembered for centuries to come – after all she had stories and colors and cities named after her. 

Tyrian Dye was manufactured from mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. The dye was made in the Phoenician trading city of Tyre, above the beach where Hercule’s dog had discovered the snail. 

An incredible amount of mucus was needed to yield a tiny amount of dye and sate the cravings of emperors and kings. This rare hue has been one of the most coveted and expensive colors throughout history – a consistent indication of wealth and power. 

In the Byzantine Empire, empresses gave birth in the purple chamber and honorable emperors were born to the purple as a way to separate them from those who won or seized their title. 

Laws were passed to protect the use of the color. Kings and emperors allowed senators to wear togas with a stripe of purple. But that was it. They could wear no further purple beyond that. 

In 1547, when Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was tried for high treason against Henry VIII, the evidence against him included that he had been seen wearing purple, which only the king was allowed to wear. 

This exclusivity extended into the Elizabethan era, during which people in England were to abide by Queen Elizabeth’s sumptuary laws that strictly regulated what colors, fabrics and clothes were allowed to be worn by people within different classes of society. These laws forbade anyone but close relatives of the royal family to wear purple. 

Over time, the color became less costly and complex to produce, and consequently more accessible to lower classes of society. 

In 1856 an 18 year old English chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally created a synthetic purple compound while attempting to synthesize quinine, an anti-malaria drug. He recognized that the compound could be used to dye fabrics and patented the dye and manufactured it under the names aniline purple and Tyrian purple. The color’s name was later changed to mauve based on the French name for the purple mallow flower.                  

Tyro, of course, prefers that we continue to refer to it as Tyrian Purple in her memory! Tyro was quite the woman – She was intelligent, clever, charming and beautiful and sought out by many Gods – many Gods! She was a Thessalian princess who became the mother and grandmother to many Ancient Greek Heroes as a result. Her story and her legacy is far more interesting and complex than todays influencers. She was famous in her day and has remained so into the present times.


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