In pursuit of PURPLE

Dear All,

The colour Purple is a mixture of the primary colours Red and Blue. Symbolically, purple brings together opposites. For instance, purple can stand for the red of passion balanced by the blue of reason, or the real balanced by the ideal, or love by wisdom, or earth by heaven, or psychologically, for the union of opposing energies within an individual. 

In Taosim, it is a transition between yang and yin, active and passive. Purple, or violet, (in which blue predominates slightly over red), is the last colour of the rainbow, and can be thought of as ‘the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown’, bringing it into connection with dying. The difference between violet and purple is that violet is displayed in the visible light spectrum, while purple is simply a mixture of red and blue. Violet vibrations are the highest in the visible spectrum. Although violet is not quite as intense as purple, their essence is the same and the names have become interchangeable.

In ancient times, the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon (in today’s Lebanon) were well-known producers of purple and possessed a thriving dyeing industry. However, the production of the “Tyrian purple” dye was a long and laborious task. The dye substance is a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several species of medium-sized predatory murex sea snails that are found in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Living in relatively deep water, these shellfish were caught in baited traps suspended from floats.

In nature, the snails use the secretion as part of their predatory behaviour in order to sedate prey and as an antimicrobial lining on egg masses. The snail also secretes this substance when it is attacked by predators, or physically antagonized by humans (e.g., poked). Therefore, the dye can be collected either by "milking" the snails, which is more labour-intensive but is a renewable resource, or by collecting and destructively crushing the snails. The dye extracted from the glands of thousands of putrefied crushed shellfish were left to bake in the sun. The resulting liquid was used to dye cloth fibres in manipulated variations of colours ranging from pink to violet. One can imagine that the smell from the process must have been overwhelming and perhaps explains why Sidon’s workshop was 14 kilometres south of the city and why "stinking like a Phoenician" became a popular insult in this era.  1.4 grams of the dye could be attributed to the killing of 12.000 molluscs, and this would only be enough to dye the trim of a garment. These numbers are supported by the quantity of discarded shells which, at Sidon for example, created a mountain 40 metres high. Such figures also explain why the dye was worth more than its weight in gold. A pound of pre-dyed wool would set you back one pound of gold. So through the ages, purple has always been associated with those who could afford it: royalty, nobility and dignitaries. Roman Emperors wore clothing coloured purple and purple togas were worn by high-ranking officials. Catholic Bishops have for many years worn clothing containing this colour.

Perhaps this Phoenician story of the colour Purple chimes with those very prevalent contemporary feelings of Not-Enougness or of Too-Muchness and can serve as a warning. Look what happened to the Phoenicians after coming close to annihilating the entire murex snail species! And all that blood, sweat and tears for what? Status! And greed (they go together)!
As we reach the end of the colour spectrum and hopefully the last throes of a decimating pandemic, let us heed purple’s metaphysical message of being both/and, uniting opposing energies and embracing ambiguity and nuance. Nothing can be as absolutely either/or as it used to be!