A Brief History of Purple


“As for you, O son of man, raise up concerning Tyre a dirge . . . Linen in various colors from Egypt your cloth expanse happened to be, in order for it to serve as your sail. Blue thread and wool dyed reddish purple from the islands of Elishah are what your deck covering proved to be. . . . They were your traders in gorgeous garments.”​—Ezekiel 27:2, 7, 24.

TYRE was the principal seaport of ancient Phoenicia, in the territory now known as Lebanon. That defiant city had a prosperous trade in purple fabric. In fact, it was because of Tyre that this vivid color was known in the Roman Empire as Tyrian purple.

Because of its high cost, the color purple came to be associated with royalty, honor, and riches. * In fact, by imperial decrees in ancient Rome, a “common” individual who presumed to wear a complete robe dyed with the finest kind of this color was considered guilty of high treason.

This particular dye, back then and today, is obtained in small amounts from sea snails​—a drop from each one. The Tyrians used murex snails, particularly the brandaris and the trunculus, which are found in various areas along the Mediterranean Coast. Different shades of the dye could be obtained depending on the exact site where the snails were collected.

 Tracing Its History in Mexico

Centuries ago when first introduced to fabrics dyed purple, Spanish conquerors in South America expressed admiration for the permanency of this color. They noted that when such fabrics were washed, the color seemed to improve. Archaeological evidence suggests that the indigenous inhabitants wore a variety of garments dyed purple.

The native peoples of Mexico, especially the Mixtec, dyed their fabrics with an excretion from a snail called Purpura patula pansa, which was related to a snail used by the Tyrians. Both kinds of snails produce a substance that looks pale at first but becomes purple when exposed to air and light. The dye colors the textile fiber without the need of a mordant, or fixative​—a unique property among dyes.

Mixtec people obtained their Purpura snails from the waters of the Pacific Ocean. While the Tyrians and Romans killed the mollusk​—indeed, a hill of empty shells survives from those times—​the Mixtec only “milked” the snails. Blowing on the mollusk induced it to release its precious liquid, which was dripped directly onto the fibers; then the creature was returned to the sea. Indigenous people did not “milk” the snails during the reproductive season. That practice has, in fact, preserved the snail population to this day.

According to the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, until the early 1980’s, Mixtec dyers traveled 100 miles [200 km] to the bays of Huatulco, from October to March, in order to obtain purple. The balance maintained by this nonaggressive practice, though, was upset from 1981 to 1985, when a foreign firm exploited this resource. As a result, the Purpura population dropped. That prompted the creation of an official agreement forbidding the killing of this snail and allowing its use, in the traditional way, only by indigenous communities.

The Purpura snail still faces the threat of a growing tourist industry in the bays where it lives. Nonetheless, many hope that this fascinating creature will be preserved and continue to provide its beautiful color.


^ par. 5 The color purple​—basically a combination of blue and red—​includes several hues, from violet to a dark red. In ancient times the term “purple” was also used for crimson.

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The “Purpura” snail

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The snail is “milked” and then returned to the sea

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Purple yarn ready to be woven

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Weaving a “posahuanco” (skirt)