A. Legend of Hercules and His Dog

The discovery of purple dyeing is generally attributed to the Phoenicians. Well known is the legend of Hercules and His Dog, and how the hero was led to the discovery of the purple dyeing in consequence of his dog’s mouth having become stained with a beautiful red dye on crushing with his teeth some purple-giving sea-snail.

A variant version ascribes the discovery to a shepherd. Professor Paul Friedlaender, referring to the fable, remarks: 


“This is quite practically impossible to someone who has held a purple snail in their hand only once.” 77 “Die praktische Unmöglichkeit leuchtet jedem ein, der nur einmal eine Purpurschnecke in der Hand gehalten hat.”1

We may well believe the eminent chemist, seeing that he has manipulated thousands of purple snails in the course of his world-famed researches. He is not, however, the first to have drawn attention in this direction. Others before him had very nearly done so, but “in their reluctance to part with the pet story altogether” have contrived somehow to save a portion through a re-statement of it.

An anonymous writer in an article dealing with purple, advances the view that it is probably to Aplysia rather than to a genuine purple mollusc that the old tale refers. The same writer also puts forth the suggestion that in the earliest times the species employed in purple dyeing may have been the Aplysia and also the Janthina.


“In the production of the lower quantities, the Phoenicians probably did not use the mollusca from the Buccincida family, but took the substance from those from other families, which also provide a coloring liquid. The Janthina is common on the Syrian coast, and Caillardet is found at the rocks near Saida, often covered with aplysia in the spring; they had been played by the waves and exuded a large amount of already violet liquid. Perhaps the use of this has led to the discovery of the true purple. The colored liquid of the aplysia separates itself as soon as you have removed the shell from the Thiere, and still does not require any precautions, while that of the Murex requires all kinds of operations until you get the desired color nuance. As it is well known, the ancient writers say that the discovery of purple is one! Shepherd dogs, and it is quite believable and easy to understand, that when enjoying an Aplysia, the muzzle and hair have dyed violet; but that can’t happen on a Murex: the dog had to bite through the shell and even then, the mollusk wouldn’t have given him a colored liquid.”  “Bei der Herstellung der geringeren Quantitäten verwandten die Phönizier die Mollusca aus der Familie der Buccincida wohl nicht, sondern nahmen den Stoff von solchen aus anderen Familien, die gleichfalls eine färbende Flüssigkeit liefern. Die Janthina kommt an der Syrischen Küste häufig vor, und Caillardet hat am Frühjahre die Felsen bei Saida häufig mit Aplysien bedeckt gefunden; sie waren durch die Wellen angespielt worden und Hessen eine grosse Menge schon violetter Flüssigkeit aus. Vielleicht hat die Verwendung gerade dieser auf die Entdeckung des wahren Purpurs geführt. Die farbige Flüssigkeit der Aplysien sondert sich von selber, sobald man dem Thiere die Muschel abgenommen hat, und bedarf weiter keiner Vorkehrungen, während jene von dem Murex allerlei Operationen verlangt, bis man die gewünschte Farbennuance erhalt. Bekanntlich erzählen die alten Schriftsteller, dass man die Entdeckung des Purpurs einen! Schäferhunde verdanke, und es ist ganz glaublich und leicht begreiflich, dass beim Geniessen einer Aplysia sich Schnauze und Haar violett gefärbt habe; aber auf eine Murex kann das nicht passieren: der Hund musste die Schale durchgebissen und das Mollusk hätte ihn auch dann keine farbige Flüssigkeit gegeben.”

(77a – Globus, 26 ( 1874); Braunschweig, pp. 237-238. The author of this article, it may be remarked, appears to have had no profound knowledge of conchology; the Aplysia, as Dr. Dedekind already observes (Beitrag IV, p. 313), is really a shell-less mollusc. Nor is the last objection of any force. To colour the purple juice requires no manipulation whatever, but simply exposure to light wherever on cloth or on a dog’s snout.)

An earlier writer, Martin Ziegler, had likewise put forth a claim for Aplysia or, to be more precise, Aplysia depilans: 

“Cuvier believes that this coloring matter is the true crimson of the ancients. Indeed, the history of the shepherd’s dog is better explained with a large known mollusk, containing a ready-made color, than with a shell in which the color is not yet developed. “78 “Cuvier croit que cette matière colorante est la véritable pourpre des anciens. En effet, l’histoire du chien du berger s’explique mieux avec un grand mollusque connu, renfermant une couleur toute faite, qu’avec un coquillage dans lequel la couleur n’est pas encore développée.”2


George Tryon, a noted American conchologist, gives a similar interpretation: 

“Pliny states that in his time the purple dye was obtained from the buccinum and the Purpura. The mollusk now known as Murex trunculus is generally supposed to have been that principally used by the ancients in obtaining the Tyrian purple. It is related that the discovery of the dye is due to the dog of a Tyrian nymph which crushing some of these shells in its teeth its mouth became stained with purple. It is possible that the fragile Janthina may have been thus crushed.”3

But however uncritical a procedure it would doubtless be to accept this story of the dog as genuine tradition, to ignore it completely in a study of the origin of purple dyeing would perhaps savour of the hypercritical. Pullex ascribes it to the Phoenicians. Like everything else, the legend must have had its beginning, taking rise at a definite time, in a definite circle of humanity. Where, indeed, would it be more likely to originate than among the Phoenician dyers who, excelling all others in their technical skill, would easily come to regard themselves and be regarded by others as the creators of purple dyeing, and who would, naturally, be pressed by foreign visitors and admirers of the art for an explanation of its origin. If there existed no tradition really dating from the earliest times, one would automatically spring up sooner or later.

Yet the utter disregard for reality which the dog-story betrays – quite apart from its association with a mythical hero (witness Professor Friedlaender’s remark) argues strongly against it having arisen in quarters where the manipulation of the Purpura and the murex formed a daily occupation. The explanation is probably to be sought in the direction pointed out by the above authors. It may be that this account of the origination of purple-dyeing was simply suggested by the frequent sight of dogs with violet stained mouths in consequence of their having fed upon Aplysia or Janthina cast ashore by storms. On this hypothesis though, the tradition would not warrant the inference that the Aplysia and Janthina preceded the Murex and the Purpura in the purple manufacture. It would, I suppose, carry with it the corollary that species belonging to these genera were employed, at least to some extent, at a certain state, in the development of the industry. For otherwise the story would owe its origin to circles totally uninitiated in the art. It would hardly have so fully satisfied the adepts as to rid them from the necessity of inventing a rival one, and would have scarcely gained such wide-spread currency.

The following passage in Dr. Dedekind may well be quoted as tending to afford support to the view expressed here: 


“As with all other disciplines that arise in a very specific historical spirit, the broad context must never be disregarded when explaining the history of the purple being. For example, the relevant reports by Aristoteteles and Pliny must definitely not be based on an insulating stool but must also be considered in connection with the purple beings of the Semites and with many other moments. Anyone who is only reasonably familiar with the doctrine of marine dyes en bloc reads clearly between the lines of the relevant digressions of Aristotle and Pliny that Aristotle, where he implicitly speaks of boys who are put into the world by alleged purple snails ‘on which one meets the boys’, alludes to Helix janthina (with which one wants to compare all the relevant reports of the unforgettable Forskal:  ‘Post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr, etc., Hauniae, 1775’), while Pliny speaks of Aplysia (sea hare) where he speaks of the animal algae as an alleged purple snail. Likewise, Pliny 80 meant the dye, the deep purple one, of Aplysia in the passage: ‘Buccinum per se damnatur quoniam ‘focum remittit’. This has never been clearly recognized until now, but it must finally be stabilized.” 81 “Wie bei allen sonstigen, in ganz spezifisch historischem Geiste sich anlassenden Disziplinen darf auch bei der Darlegung der Geschichte des Purpurwesens nie der grosse Zusammenhang ausser acht gelassen werden. Denn, zum Beispiel, die einschlägigen Berichte von Aristoteteles und Plinius dürfen entschieden nicht auf einem Isolierschemel gestellt, sondern müssen im Zusammenhänge auch mit den Purpurwesen der Semiten und mit zahllosen sonstigen Momenten betrachtet werden. Wer nur einigermassen mit der Lehre von den marinen Farbstoffen en bloc bekannt ist, der liest ja doch zwischen den Zeilen der betreffenden Exkurse von Aristoteles und Plinius deutlich heraus, dass Aristoteles dort, wo er implicite von Jungen spricht, welche von angeblichen Purpurschnecken ‘an welchem man die Jungen antrifft,’ in die Welt gesetzt werden, auf Helix janthina anspielt (womit man alle einschlägigen Berichte des unvergesslichen Forskal vergleichen wolle: ‘Post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr, etc., Hauniae, 1775’), während Plinius dort wo er von dem animal algense als einer angeblichen Purpurschnecke spricht, von Aplysia (Meerhase) redet. Ebenso hat Plinius 4 bei dem Passus: ‘Buccinum per se damnatur quoniam “focum remittit” den Farbstoff, den tiefvioletten, von Aplysia gemeint. Dies war bis jetzt noch niemals klar erkannt worden, muss aber endlich stabilisiert werden.”5

I would add that to say, for instance, that Aristotle included among the porphyra species not really answering to his description of the type of these sea snails involves no disparagement of his scientific exactness. The great naturalist may well have been misled by statements occurring in earlier authors no longer extant, with whom the term “Porphyra” stood for all dye-yielding molluscs of whatever genus. The fact that among the porphyra known to him at first hand he found no corroboration of such data would not weigh much with Aristotle,seeing that he was only acquainted with the genera of Mediterranean molluscs and hardly with all of these either.



  1. Idem, p. 4​
  2. Ziegler, Martin (cf. the above remark), Bulletin delà Société Industrielle de Mulhouse( Juilliet, 1867).
  3. Tyron, Geoge W., J R Manual of Conchology, Philadelphia (1880), v.ll, p. 43.
  4. Pliny, ibid., Book 9, chap. 38.
  5. Dedekind, ibid., v. IV, p. 85.