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Recalling things like snails, slime and kings.

Summary: How proud the little murex snails must have felt, content in the knowledge that their slime helped elevate one's status to regal heights

Kevin MartinSpecial to Gulf News

How many of us remember the spiny dye-murex, eh? That's what I thought: Not many. Not any, as a matter of fact. But relax. No one's going to be sent to the back of the class because, to quote Howard Jones, who I listened to a lot in the 1980s, 'No one is to blame'. (Although I doubt Howard sang that line to comfort those of us who couldn't remember a dashed thing about the spiny dye-murex, no matter how hard we scratched our heads. It simply rang no bell. Not that one hears bells when engaged in a bout of head-scratching.)

Anyhow, it turns out that the reason we are all in the dark about the spiny dye-murex (which has already got three mentions in this written piece; more than it's got in centuries, I imagine) is because although it is extant today, it rarely ever gets talked about. Perhaps because it has outlived its usefulness.

There was a time when this little creature (it's a snail) gave up its life in countless millions, so that man in his kingdom might be happy. 'In his kingdom' literally referring to kings (and queens, and royalty in general).

Now, one might well ask what on earth has a snail got to do with royalty? The answer (in a snail shell) is, it had something special that no other creature of that time (or perhaps even now) possessed. Mucus. Ah, but mucus is common to all snails, I hear some detractors say. We have all seen snail tracks in the garden - clear forensic evidence of a 'snail getaway' after a late-night feast. True, but the spiny dye-murex's mucus was more special than that of other snails (a first among equals, if you like).

A clear bowl

It carried this secret for thousands of years and then, one day, an idle citizen of ancient Tyre (a city in present-day Lebanon) made an important and startling discovery (important for the people of those times and startling for all future spiny dye-murexes).

It was found that if the snail shell was cracked and the snail's branchial gland removed, its juice when extracted and put in a clear bowl and placed in the sunlight caused something stunning to happen: The juice, which was white, turned greeny-yellow, then a definite green, then violet before finally turning red and darkening as the minutes ticked by. If the process was stopped at the right time, the desired shade could be obtained.

Many have it that this is how the colour purple came to be. The extract made a superb dye and from thenceforth man became the hapless spiny dye-murex's enemy number one. Because there were only so many snails and only so much royal purple could be extracted, this dye obviously sold for a king's ransom, which naturally only kings (and queens of that time could afford). It's one reason why purple is still associated with royalty although modern techniques have evolved to afford a truce between man and the spiny dye-murex. Back in the day, this was commonly known as Tyrian purple - an acknowledgement to its place of origin.

Alexander (the Great, to identify him properly from all the other Alexanders I have known, my ex-boss Lindsay among them), well he and the Roman emperors displayed a penchant for Tyrian purple. The Romans used Tyrian purple to prove that class distinction existed. Freeborn Romans could only wear the toga praetexta, which was ordinary white with a broad purple stripe along the border. Nothing more, nothing less. The toga picta, on the other hand, was pure purple embroidered with gold. It was worn by emperors, triumphant generals and magistrates at gladiatorial events. Even in mass death, how proud these little murex snails must have felt, content in the knowledge that their slime, far from causing man to trip up, helped elevate his status to regal heights. Patronising as it sounds, I thought they deserved a tribute that was at least one column long.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:May 10, 2017
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