Pitamber Kaushik

A socio-cultural history of Purple

What’s unique to the national flags of Dominica and Nicaragua? It might not be obvious at the first glance, but both feature the colour purple. No other national flag does so. Red and Blue have been the symbols of power and aristocracy for as long as civilisation can recall. While Red is psychologically proven to influence and intimidate others, blue is a natural rarity. The colour red has been evolutionarily hardwired in our psyches to represent blood and in the primeval times the redder one, whether it be because of its adeptness at killing animals or due to his tart pink-healthiness, made for a more suitable mate, and a formidable, fearsome foe. This instinct has been exploited in red being the ideal colour for danger signs, besides the fact that it scatters less, and is thus visible further. The evolutionary paradigm of superiority in health and hunting, and courting better mating prospects has been used to justify why the colour is daunting and coercing – it evokes strong feelings of reverence, while in suitable contexts, that of sexual attraction and provocation. In fact, the psychological effect is so profound, that it has been linked to the choice of ties for the Presidential nominees and other electoral-hopefuls.

The colour blue rarely occurs in nature, and even when it does, it is actually not a blue pigment but rather colourlessness giving an illusion of Blue through the phenomenon of scattering. Blue’s association with the aristocracy runs more than skin deep, so much so that it crept in our parlance – “Blue Blood” is a classic idiom for nobility, featuring alongside the likes of “To be born with a silver spoon in mouth”. Its origin is said to owe to the fact that the fair-skinned plutocratic elite, had their blood-vessels visible underneath the complexion-free skin. As veins, that carry deoxygenated blood are superficial, they gave an appearance of a dark bluish-green tinge. It is thus no wonder that the combination of these two imperial hues – the colour of might and valour, and that of nobility and eliteness – the colour purple would be a symbol of pride and clout. However, while red and blue are widespread and recurrent colours in national flags, purple is seldom encountered. The flags of the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, two tiny Central American nations, are the only ones in the world to feature this elusive, enigmatic colour. Now, why would nations forged in a world dominated by colonial rivalry, jingoism, megalomania and imperial assertion not feature this glorious supremacist hue on their insignia and emblems? To seek an answer, we will turn to chemistry, rather than vexillology, while bearing in mind the fact that the Nicaraguan and the Dominican flags were both first created in the 20th century. Even they bear purple in only minor traces. One plausible hypothesis propounds that, as most modern flags were created due to, or in wake of anti-monarchy reforms and revolutions, they lack the regal hue, marking a convicted paradigm shift from the established divine right to rule and heredity to a rule of the people.

However the likelier, more dominant assertion is, that purple was too exclusive a prerogative, beyond the access and affordability of the masses to be prevalent as a national colour. Queen Victoria I, for instance, in the Sumptuary Laws (regulations dictating the expenditure of the people) literally forbade anyone outside the royal family to don purple. Such was the rarity and exclusivity of the colour.

In the mid-19th century, an ignominious lab assistant was cleaning up in the after-hours. In the wake of a dismally-failed experiment, a beaker was encrusted with an indelible dark muck. Trying various solvents to get the stains to yield to little avail, he noticed that upon dilution with alcohol, the residue left stark purple impressions. Thenceforth, he devoted his endeavours to fastidiously refining this substance and obtaining a usable purple pigment called ‘mauvein’, a rarity in the era. This figment of chemistry revolutionised contemporary society. While the Orient and the occident had various purple natural dyes – for example, the tradition patachitrakars of Bengal in India used Jamuns (Java Plums) to paint vivid purple figments in the art, mass-production was infeasible. Perkin’s discovery overhauled sartorial paradigms. It immediately overthrew the erstwhile-prevalent fashion norms and brought forth a watershed inflexion in the textile industry. A London dressed in various shades of grey and brown now flaunted shades of purple and its derivatives. Until Perkin’s innovation, which had him knighted and counts amongst the greatest serendipitous scientific discoveries alongside the microwave, X-Rays and penicillin, purple was the sole prerogative of the rich. It was a plutocratic entitlement, for those who could pay for this rarity. Perkin’s process made purple dye production inexpensive, and the fashionistas took to this readily-available hue. It took the nation by such storm that even Even Queen Victoria herself wore a mauveine-dyed gown to the Royal Exhibition of 1862! The discovery also ushered in a flurry of pursuits on the part of other researchers to come up with various aniline dyes, a comparatively commercially-conveniently producible class of chemical pigments.

Purple was the characteristic hue donned by Roman magistrates; it became the imperial colour worn by the Byzantine emperors and that of Holy Roman Imperial regalia, consequently being adopted by Roman Catholic Bishops. Likewise, the colour is traditionally associated with the Japanese Emperor and the feudal aristocracy.

In spite of its symbolisms, iconography and motifs, the abject disparity of actual purple owes to a lack of viable natural sources. Just like its parent colour blue, purple is quite rare in nature. An odd melange of peculiar sources was used to obtain it in antiquity. In fact, the very word ‘purple’ is derived from the Old English word purpul which derives from Latin purpura, in turn from porphura, the Greek nominal for the Tyrian Purple Dye produced from mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail, a predatory sea-snail. From being a liturgical colour representing piety to being the colour of the ticket for the coronation of the British Queen, purple is an optimum of aggression and elite-exclusivity.

Delving into the intricacies and subtleties of the crucial distinction between purple and violet would distract us from the cultural themes, while addition terms as mauve, fuchsia, and lavender will add to the already-sizeable confusion. However, as a fleeting, grossly unnuanced note to the reader, violet occurs on the spectrum with a definitive wavelength while purple is a mixture of red and blue. The colours are definitively distinguishable by a phenomenon called the Bezold-Brucke Shift, whereby violet upon being brightened gradually tends towards blueness, while purples do not exhibit any such biased approach.

The earliest encounter of purple is in Neolithic cave paintings dating back to about 16000 to 25000 BC, coloured using manganese sticks and hematite powder. Thereafter, we encounter the rich Tyrian purple in numerous Greek accounts. Everyone from characters in Greek Classics as The Iliad to Alexander the Great wore purple. It was used for decorative purposes and upholstery embellishments in grandiose ceremonious and celebratory events galore. Two cities on the Mediterranean coast were said to have thriving, flourishing purple dye production trade, a fact practically corroborated by contemporary shell-mounds of the murex snail. At the ancient sites of Sidon and Tyre in present-day Lebanon, mountains of discarded snail shell remains were found.

The production was a tedious and tantalising process.The snails were soaked for long; then, a minuscule gland was excised. The excision was followed by juice extraction and subsequent exposure to sunlight. In the sunlight the juice went through a series of colour transformations, turning, in order – white, then yellow-green, then green, then violet, then a red which intensified in darkness with the advance of time. The process had to be ceased at precisely the right time to obtain the desired colour, i.e. the reaction progress had to be abruptly halted at violet, by removing the vat/basin from the sunlight and placing it in the dark, lest it disintegrates to scarlet or further maroon. In spite of such meticulous endeavouring, the exact shade varied between crimson and violet, but it was always vibrant, bright and lasting. When the German chemist, Paul Friedander, tried to recreate Tyrian purple in 2008, he required 12,000 of those molluscs to produce 1.4 ounces of dye, enough to solidly colour a pocket-handkerchief or napkin. In the year 2000, a single gram of Tyrian purple made from 10,000 snails in accordance with the original formula, cost two-thousand euros.

For long Tyre remained the sole source of purple and prospered in leaps and bounds. The flourishing town was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar II and Alexander the Great, and visited by Jesus Christ and Saint Paul. Although the city was quite affluent and teeming since as far as the 12th century BC and persisted in its thriving status as far as the 7th Century CE, under the Phoenicians it was the hub of overseas trade buzz, thanks to its exclusive chromatic entitlement. In fact, the dye has been immortalised in the Greek name for the civilisation – Phoenicia is derived from Phoinikes which literally means ‘the Tyrian-Purple’. Such was the significance ascribed to the dye, that it single-handedly came to define its civilisation and region, as a whole.

The tekhelet was a dye of manifold ritual and imperial significance to the early Israelites – adorning the tapestries of the Tabernacle, and the garments, accessories, and upholstery of the royalty, the High Priest, the nobility and the affluent. Its usage as a regal dignifier was echoed by contemporary non-Jewish cultures alike. Although the exact source of the dye is never specified in the scriptures, modern analyses have attributed it to a variety of murex snail. Its significance can be gauged from its frequency of incidence in the Tanakh – it occurs 49 times. In the Judaic context though, purple fringes (pun-intended) into azure. Bolinus brandaris is the species of Murex used to produce Tyrian purple. However, in Israel it is likelier that its cousin (sharing the same Family but a different Genus) Hexaplex trunculus was used for the extraction. Exposure time to air, Exposure to Sunlight and timing of setting yielded through their interplay a variety of so-accessible shades. Careful pre-maturation extraction after Sunlight exposure with some post-processing, and perhaps additives, could have, over-time yielded a colour resembling a bright sky – a pointer towards the Heaven. The Torah prescribes its employment to colour the tassels of one’s prayer shawl.

Turkey was an important dye-fabric hub. Lydia of Thyatira, the first documented European convert to Christianity, was commonly referred to as “The Woman of Purple” (Purpuraria) . The New Testament describes her as a businesswomen dealing in Purple. This soundly reaffirms the high value ascribed to purple in the erstwhile trade systems. She is oft depicted donning a purple shawl. The Catholic Church named her “The Patroness of dyers”.

In the Old Testament, God demanded Moses to devote him purple, blue and scarlet clothing amongst other offerings, while King Solomon is said to have solicited artisans from Tyre to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem in purple adornments. Roman bureaucracy and royalty donned purple bordered togas. Purple sashes were common in Europe as regalia. In ancient China, the purple gromwell plants were the prized-dye’s source. The abstraction did not readily adhere to fabrics, making thus-dyed fabrics quite expensive. Byzantine empresses gave birth in the Purple Chamber, and the emperors born thus were entitled “born to the purple,” to distinguish them from their counterparts who won or seized the imperial title through political manipulation or military force. Kings were often depicted in purple robes in popular culture, a characterisation as salient as the symbolic orb and sceptre. Akin to an elusive shade of its parent colour – ultramarine Blue, which is named so, as for centuries its sole source was pulverised lapis lazuli sourced from mines in Afghanistan (located beyond the seas with respect to Europe, hence the name ultra-marine), purple was expensive, elusive and the subject of intrigue. Its longstanding virtue pervaded all spheres of life. Linguistically, they lent idioms as “purple patch” and “purple passage” meaning a stroke of good fortune. The purple amethyst gem became synonymous with luxury. It was highlighted as part of their crowns, sceptres and finger-rings. Amethyst rings adorned Bishops. Is colour testified royalty and sworn allegiance to Christ. Catholic clergymen donned amethyst keystones in their crosses because it implied ecclesiastical piousness, chasteness and celibacy. A firm believer in Christian mysticism, alchemical and occult practises and rhythms, until the very end, Isaac Newton could have been influenced by its myriad associations too. Besides belief is mystical patterns and spiritual subjectivism of musical octave notes corresponding to the number of spectral colours, it might have motivated him to forge and force into the spectrum the superfluous colour Indigo, which then stood for our current conception and perception of “blue-purple or blue-violet”.

Deep, stark and impressive, the indelible nature of purple, that seems to etch itself in one’s mind, hard and fast, is associated with history, perseverance, and prominence and persistence of memory. In Armenia, the purple forget-me-not was recently chosen as the apt symbol for commemorating one of the most terrible mass-massacres in recent history – The Armenian Genocide. In perspective of international neglect, frequent casual trivialisation and unabashed and indiscriminate denial by Turkey, the erstwhile perpetrator, a flower with a name of “forget-me-not” and the colour purple is an eclectic combination of three well-suited icon templates. Flowers have been symbols of war for long, most prominently white poppies of France during and in wake of the Great War. But unlike the white poppy which stands for peace, shared regret, and solace, the purple blossom reminds us that what transpired in the 1910s was no war, it was a unilateral slaughter. Purple is persistent, just as the will of the Armenians, yet its non-invasive and non-inciteful. It serves to prick the conscience and pang the mind. Purple is that resolution which transcends and outlives the violence and might of red, and the supremacy of blue. It outlasts the extremism of its parent hues, and makes a different extremum of its own.

Forget-me-not blossoms, were picked to be the commemorative symbols of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide – in colours said to be “symbolizing the past, the present and the future, the light and the eternity.” The logo comprises – the flower’s black centre stands for the land’s past, in turn circumscribed by yellow symbolising the illumination, and eternity, 12 pillars erected in a circular fashion depicting the memorial of Tsitsernakaberd. Light purple is the present and the prevailing purple – the future. The five petals represent the five parts of the world where Armenians were dispersed in the aftermath of the purge and constituted the Armenian diaspora.

Today purple has come to be the muse of psychedelic artists, while the early 20th century saw it become a symbol of social change, perhaps owing to its peculiar unnaturalness as well as the eclectic intersectionality of blue and red, colours often assigned to contrarian viewpoints and competing factions. Purple became the colour of gender equality – first associated with the Women’s Rights movement, then the LGBT Rights activism. Blue-and-Red themes are used to frequently depict conflicting ideologies or irreconcilable warring sides in pop culture. Hence purple stood for feminism’s viewpoint of integration, mutualism, cooperation and harmonisation pitted against patriarchal and innately masculine tendencies of cut-throat competition, monopolism, maximisation and a desire to dominate. Besides the white of peace and the green of prosperity and environmentalism, it symbolised the female Suffrage movement – which in turn came to be paid a tribute by being adopted as the colour of the feminist movement in the United States. The hermeneutic journey of purple constitutes a long lineage of cultural themes and subconscious motifs, capturing the essence of social symbology and civilisation’s ascription of value. The story of a single colour acknowledges the dynamism of culture and testifies its proneness to singular vagaries of human society, from Perkin to Pankhurst.

About the Author
The author is a columnist, journalist, writer and independent researcher, having previously written in over 120 newspapers and outlets in 45+ countries, across all six continents of the world.