Day 12: The Secret of Purple

Day 12

The Secret of Purple


After the storms, snails began to creep out of nearby farms and slither across sidewalks and roads.

As I was jogging, I jumped over them like Jack Nicholson’s obsessive compulsive character avoiding sidewalk cracks in As Good as It Gets.

It was around then I began to wonder, did the Ancient Greeks have any myths or theories about snails?

After a bit of research, I discovered a brief reference from Greek poet Hesiod. He believed observing a snail climbing up a stalk signified it was time to harvest.

Snails were also used in Ancient Greek medicine to treat skin inflammation and made into a form of syrup to soothe a cough and even treat ulcers.

But what I found most fascinating was the ancient obsession with the color purple, and all thanks to a sea snail.

The Secerte of Purple

 Hercules and the Secret of Purple

It all began with Heracles:

Heracles was the guardian deity of the Phoenician city of Tyre. One day he was strolling the shores of the eastern Mediterranean with the beautiful nymph, Tyrus.

His dog found and chomped into a murex shell which turned its mouth a brilliant purple.

Tyrus immediately fell in love with this color. She declared to Heracles that she would sleep with him – but only if he made her a garment in this new color.

Heracles obliged and Tyrian purple dye was born.

Tyrian purple became so famous throughout the ancient world  that Greeks began to refer to Tyre as the “Land of the Purple”.

Obsession with this color swiftly spread to Rome. Much later, Pliny the Elder wrote that Tyrian purple was the “color of clotted blood” and  “brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph”.

It was said that Tyrian purple was worth more than gold. And understandingly so. Producing the dye was no easy task. It required hundreds of thousands of snails to yield just one ounce of purple dye.


Today, I suppose we take colors for granted. But how I wish I could travel back in time to the agora and witness  the reaction of the average Ancient Greek glimpsing purple fabric for the first time.


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