Porphyria’s Lover


The best of dyes was once considered to be Tyrian purple. You get it by ‘milking’ a sea snail: agitating it to induce the secretion that can be boiled into dye. Of course, you can also crush the snails and their shells and boil that, but it takes thousands of snails to make the least amount of pure dye, so milking is generally the safest bet. You want the source of your luxury to be secured. Either way, the production of this dye was ludicrously labor intensive. It was worth its weight in silver at times, worth its weight in gold in others. It was the color of emperors. The color of power.

There’s a disease called ‘porphyria.’ It effects porphyrins, a class of molecules that show the rich, red-purple color of the ancient dye. The most important of the porphyrins is heme: the vital pigment that gives hemoglobin its red color and enables oxygen fixation. You truly breathe only by virtue of this protein. But porphyria causes heme production to slow. Not the production of its components, no, just the end product, and as the components pile up, they clog up various processes. Porphyria can be absolutely debilitating, depending on severity and processes affected.

What’s really funny about porphyria, in an extremely bleak sort of way, is its effect on urine during an attack. Take a sample and expose it to the sun for a number of days, and it begins taking on a purple color. The urine’s color is because of the build up of porphyrins; as they decompose, they release the pigment into the urine. Tyrian red was valued because exposure to the sun was said to improve the intensity of the color, unlike other dyes that faded.

Hippocrates noticed this in patients with porphyria, and so gave it the name in honor of the much-admired dye. It was a better symptom to focus on that, say, the seizures, the blisters, the madness.

They say King George III may have had porphyria. Most likely, he was bipolar and the stress of his failing government, his failing health, and his failing personal life exacerbated it. But it does have a bit of a poetry to it, doesn’t it? The Mad King, poisoned with porphyrins, so named for the royal color purple. And people always like poetry better than cold fact. So nowadays, it’s easy to forget that the porphyria theory is just that: a theory, unproven and unprovable.

With the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Byzantine Empire abruptly lost its ability to produce and purchase the dye. The people which we associate most–the people who lent their name to one of the many alternate names of the color, the people for whom a royal child was said to be ‘born in the purple’–with the color, unable to ever have it again. The western world that loved it so well turned instead to crimson dyes, the color of blood replacing purple as the color of royalty. It’s probably more fitting than snail snot, to be honest.

Legend holds that Heracles’s dog is the one who discovered the secret of Tyrian purple and so is the common ancestors of all these ideas. It was chewing on the snails, eating them right out of their shells, when its master called it back. Heracles saw that his dog’s mouth had been stained purple, and, I’m assuming, went and told someone else. I can hardly imagine Heracles sitting around, poking snails and boiling amphorae and carding wool. Perhaps smashing the shells, but being as no myths point to purple fists, I’ll have to dismiss that.

There’s a link here I’m trying to build between Tyrian purple and brutality. Brutality and luxury always go hand in hand. For something to be truly luxurious, it must be built not only upon the hard labor of others but on their honest suffering. And people did suffer for this dye, make no mistake.

The Jewish people of antiquity, normally not ones to break the covenant of marriage, allowed women to request divorce from any man who became a dyer after the time of their marriage. This was because the stink of the dye is so overpowering and revolting that choosing the profession all but constitutes an assault on the wife’s person. Inferior dyes from other species of snail lend that fishy odor to the cloth.

True Tyrian purple imparts nothing of the sort. The product is entirely separated from the ugly reality of its production. And that’s true luxury, isn’t it? Something beautiful, so perfect that you never have to think about the ignominy of its birth.

via Daily Prompt: Purple

6 thoughts on “Porphyria’s Lover

  1. Though a quick search didn’t turn up anything linking them, it’s interesting that the word tyrian, if taking the I and adding a T, is tyrant. And I’m sure the dye was made many a time for someones who are the definition of that word. Fact is essential, but poetry is what stirs the heart to remember.

    …I totally see nobles standing around on an ancient street corner dissing each other’s clothes by pretending to smell a stench in the air and accusing each other of having ‘bootleg’ tyrian purple clothes the way people dis off brand shoes, jeans, pocketbooks etc today. Some things just don’t change.


    1. “Septimus is a dumb bitch, doesn’t respect the mos maiorum, ignores the augurs, and his cloak smells like the bottom of a fish barrel.”

      If there isn’t a real etymological link between ‘tyrian’ and ‘tyrant,’ then the poetic link it has in today’s language is just one of those little blessings. It’s shockingly appropriate…


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