The Snail: The Purple Donned, Still

Four thousand years ago in Crete ancient fisherman left huge crushed shell middens of a particular kind of sea snail in massive piles in spots in their old cities. We aren’t completely sure what those middens were a sign of but there is a very good guess.

Three thousand years ago in ancient Phoenicia, those ancient seafaring people, who lived in the place that is now known as Lebanon, especially in the city of Tyre, produced what was known as “The Tyrian Hue”; a remarkable red purple dye that allegedly grew more beautiful and deeper with age and exposure to light. The tint was expensive, hard to make, and was the color associated with royalty in Phoenicia due to the cost, which by some etymologies means “The Land of Purple” or “The Realm of Purpled Ones”. That regality and purpleness connection continued until the Middle Ages in Europe. Romans took control of the Phoenician manufacture and trade eventually and elevated the status of it even higher. Senators and Emperors upon ascending to their seats were said to have “donned the purple” because their clothing would have had a Tyrian Hue border. The deepest and darkest red/purple was saved for the cloak of the emperor.
Just down the coast from Tyre at just about the same time in what would now be called Israel, the ancient ones from that part of the world on the coast made a dazzling saturated blue that, to them, indicated a kind of spiritual depth that they valued so much that they made their prayer cloths imbued with the color. That same color is the basis for the blue in the flag of Israel today.

These people from the Eastern Mediterranean used sea snails as the source of these colors that embodied the pinnacle of their cultural understanding; earthly terrestrial power and spiritual power. The Phoenicians used the Murex snail and Canaanites and Judeans used the Hexaplex trunculus snail for each effect.

Now how do you find out that such a dye is possible? There are stories, of course. But clearly these people knew their place well enough to discover such things and master them. Though the exact methods aren’t known despite Aristotle’s account is pretty good, the general approach is – collect a tremendous amount of snails, pluck them from the shells, grind the snails into a paste, add salt and then make a liquid slurry, wait until a particular kind of stench opened up, and then dye the fabric. It is said that it took 12,000 snails to make enough dye to tint the hem on one garment.

At the exact same time on the other side of the world, about 3000 years ago, the Mixtec people of southern Mexico, especially around the area now called Huatulco had their very own tradition of using sea snails as a stunning dye.

In 2017 there was a massive earthquake in Oaxaca and the locals who live in Hualtulco swear that the ocean got lower because of the quake. It would be more accurate to say that the seabed near the coast and the first few hundred feet of the coastline got raised a few feet. This exposed the coral (which you never want to suddenly die off) almost entirely out of the water and there was nothing to be done as the sun and air started to do their work. But with the dying coral and the raised seabed the snails of Huatulco, the Plicopurpura pansa, were now dying as well because they live in those first few feet of the water in the coral and in the rock crevices. And this snail is incredibly slow growing so the ones that died off never got chances to reproduce in any great number.
For the ancient Mixtec their approach to the dying was different than what was found in Tyre. The Mixtec and their modern ancestors carrying on the tradition milk the snails in situ right onto the skeins of wool or cotton while the tintoreros stand in the bays and lagoons giving the threads a truly unique dye pattern. Then the snails are placed right back where they were in the water. With large tanks of color like you’d get in the eastern Mediterranean the colors would be more uniform but not so in Huatulco, there is this immediacy of the making which makes the dye even more unique and one-of-a-kind in its dappling. But besides the snails being kept alive they were only gathered and milked at certain moon cycles which associated the color with a certain kind of divine feminine among the Mixtec but also kept the craft not only sustainable but not commercial. While there have always been some of the textiles with this purple available for purchase here and there, it was always rare and expensive. The color has always been more of a cultural mandate rather than a commercial one. A way to carry on the work of the ancestors, to be friends with the sea, and to make the rebosos with these threads. Which was what was so punishing about a Japanese textile company in the 80’s that nearly wiped out the purpura snail population with their over-harvesting of the snail and ignorance of the moon cycles which exhausted the snails and killed many along the way. So the Mixtec and their snail-born colors have a had a rough go of it the last 40 years or so. But the consequences of this earthquake are harsh for this ancient practice. The raised sea beds leave the slow growing snails dying quickly. In years past a hundred or so tintoreros could dye a few hundred skeins in a year. But now the number of tintoreros is so few because there are so few snails. In the last few years less than a dozen skeins have even been dyed at all in a year.
If you are a regular reader of this newsletter you know that making culture is tightly bound to understanding something of limits and something of the land, the placeness, that feeds a capacity for making beauty in the world. The Mixtec, despite all the troubles they have endured over the last 500 years, and the last 40, are trying to carry on. But there is no guarantee they will be able to. There may be limits to this art too. There is nothing you can buy, nothing you can support that will make the snails come back to Hualtuco or drop the seabed deeper into the sea. There are scientists and conservationists like Marta Turok who are trying hard to keep them alive. But you can admire the wonder of such a thing in the world. Wonder at how culture and the lives of animals are so bound up together and how Primal Derma in a small and echoing way is trying to walk a similar path. Maybe there is similar path to walk in your corner of the world.

So watch this shorter video of the tintoreros in action. The second video is longer, about 18 minutes, and shows the current state of affairs. Worth knowing about such things.

Thanks so much for your steady support. If these newsletters bring up any questions or responses they will be happily received.

Leave a Comment