In the Prado Museum, in Madrid, there is a painting by the famous Rubens, entitled The discovery of purple. In it it is "related" how the Phoenician god Melkart discovered purple in the injured snout of his dog.
But what the heck is purple?
Well, at present we only have the name of the color, exotic ... or not even now. But centuries ago, when dyeing things was a sight worthy of admiration, this Phoenician dye revolutionized the commerce and customs of almost all mankind.
Of course, you have to understand that the dyes were discovered little by little and each color was a novelty and revolution. More or less like when we went from black and white to color television. The color revolution is now difficult to understand, in a world where it is so easy to print a color sheet; But it was not always so easy to have a painting or something tinted on hand. The "artificial" color was novel, admirable, contemplable.
So famous was the tint of purple and the Phoenicians who discovered it, that the very word "Phoenicians" is derived from the Greek word "phoiniks," which means purple. Relators of yesteryear, like Homer himself, wrote of these wonderful dyed fabrics in their works.
This dye was extracted from a snail that lived among the rocks of the Phoenician coasts. That is why the allegory of Rubens, where the dog accidentally dyes its muzzle when biting some snails on the beach. These snails belonged to the species Murex trunculus Y Murex brandaris… And I say “they belonged” because the colors they secreted were so coveted that they were exploited to extinction and we did not get to see their beauty but to learn of their celebrity through writings, old paintings or empty broken shells. Some say that it was more like a fiery red than the current purple, but it is not known, the tissues that we have left have degraded over time.
It is speculated that thousands of snails were needed to extract just enough to dye a dress. Its center of exploitation was the city of Tire, on the current coast of Lebanon, which is why it was also called Tire Purple. This color became a status symbol. The aristocracy of some empires such as Greek or Roman, showed beautiful dresses dyed in the famous color. A law was even promulgated to prohibit any Roman citizen of "lower" social class from wearing purple-dyed garments.
So was this color revolution, which died out along with the snail back between the 5th and 10th centuries.
It is in this extinct snail context that the Spanish arrived in America at the end of the 15th century. Purple was a story of the past already in those times. There was still talk of its mythical fame, but there were already other new colors and tints that distracted humanity's incomprehensible search for this color. And do not think that I say it like that lightly, I will write another article where I will tell you why I say that we are obsessed with purple, but for now I will focus on the years after the conquest.
The purple of the Native Americans
Long after the "discovery" of America, some European adventurers observed in surprise how Native Americans in the things of what is now Ecuador, dyed their garments "milking" a small snail. The analogy with the ancient purple of Tire was obvious. Surprised, they recounted their findings. One of them was the Spanish Antonio de Ulloa, another the English Thomas Astley, who wrote in his travel chronicle, in the seventeenth century, the following (I show the image, a version translated into Spanish).
… And it is to produce in a snail shell, entirely similar to that of ordinary snails, the small animal that contains the ancient purple, and whose species some modern people have judged to be entirely lost, because no knowledge remained of it. This species of snail is about the thickness of a walnut. Its production is attributed to the cliffs of the coast, because there are only those in which the sea bathes. It contains a liquor that is the true purple of the ancients, and that appears to be nothing other than their blood.Book General History of Travel, by Thomas Astley
Without a doubt a very interesting story. What Thomas Astley did not know is that it was a different species from the one previously mentioned Murex trunculus or Murex brandaris, but the similarity with the Phoenician purple is surprising. In addition, the similarity of the extraction method and its use is surprising.
This snail still exists in America and in fact there are a couple of places where the method is still used as a tourist attraction more than anything else, as it is not a profitable method by itself today. The point is that we will never know if this color is exactly the same as the famous Tyrian Purple.
Be that as it may, we can say that the purple of America is the last purple on the planet.