The earliest European civilization was all about purple yarn


I love history and I waste plenty of time chasing down threads and vague references and tantalizing hints that I come across in my reading. But I’m only a buff; I have no formal training in history at all. But then nearly all “professional” history is dedicated to old wars and weapons and death and conquerors and speculation as to which long dead person was secretly boinking that other long dead person. Frankly I don’t much care who the rich and powerful boink and war, even distant war, is a horrible thing.

When I waste my hours chasing down historical tidbits they are nearly always related to textiles and food. Those are not very popular topics of study for the pro historians. There isn’t much written in those subjects… which is just really freaking dumb if you ask me. What we eat and what we wear is pretty important to us today, right? Right. And it was important to people 2000 years ago too. Maybe even more important since food and clothes were not quite so plentiful. What people ate, what they wore says a lot about them and their culture and I think had a much bigger impact than the sex life of Emperor Charlemagne.

In fact, textiles played a pivotal role in the development of the very first European civilization. That civilization began where it began because that was the place that had all the stuff one needed to dye fiber purple. Purple yarn, purple thread, purple fabrics… this is what European culture is built on.

I’m talking about the Minoan civilization, which dates back at least 4,500 years. The Minoan civilization was on the island we call Crete. Now Crete had been supporting humans for at least 100,000 years but the first city, with laws and streets and sewage problems, didn’t get going until 2500 BC. That city was the first in Europe. And later on the Minoans became the Mycenaeans and then there were Phoenicians and Greeks and Etruscans and Romans and yada yada yada. But the Minoans were the first.

They were the first in Europe. Just want to be clear about that. Civilization in all its messy glory was already underway in the Middle East. And soon after the Minoans got themselves conquered by the Mycenaeans, there was a city in the Indus Valley too. From these three centers civilization spread like a plague throughout the world.

But it was the Minoan city that gave birth to the European culture and I feel pretty sentimental about it. When I read a passing mention that the Minoans had the only decent source for purple dye in the ancient world I said “Ah ha!”. I really did say that… out loud… while pointing an accusing finger at my computer screen. It just confirmed my belief that yarn (aka textiles) is what shapes human history. So I wasted a few hours running that down and now I’m burning to share it with all of you.

The island of Crete, you see, is a pretty strange place to put a city. It doesn’t have any ore resources. There are no mines, so there is no metal production. If you don’t have metal you can’t have much of a civilization. For one its hard to farm and fish up enough food to feed all your people if you use stone tools. For another, you have to have soldiers, armed with decent weapons, to defend your city or those barbarians over there on the mainland will come and steal all your food, burn your city, and either kill you or drag you off into slavery. The Minoans had to have metal and to get it they imported it. They traded with people on the mainland for metal and probably extra food and anything else they needed.

What did they give in trade for all of these absolutely vital goods? Purple yarn. Purple, widely known for centuries as the color of royalty, was a very difficult color to create in the ancient world… unless you lived in Crete! The best natural source for purple dye is a predatory sea snail called Bolinus brandarisor more commonly called purple dye murex. Guess where it lives? Yep, off the coast of Crete.

When these snails want to stun their prey, or when a human pokes them with a stick, they excrete a purple organic compound. That compound is a very strong, color-fast dye. The Minoans had five purple dye “production” centers going to try and meet the world’s demand for purple fabrics. Everyone wanted purple clothes and that made Minoans the wealthiest people in Europe. So they built themselves a city, poked a lot of sea snails with sticks, and dyed a lot of yarn purple.

Later on the Greeks took credit for this achievement (of course). According to them, the fabulous purple squirting snails were discovered by Hercules’ dog. Yes, his dog. In that tale, Hercules is strolling along a beach in Crete flirting with Tyrus, a smoking hot nymph, while his dog was ran around eating sea snails. Hercules noticed, in between flexing all his manly muscles at the nymph, that his dog’s mouth was turning purple from all the snails. How interesting! And that’s when the nymph promised to marry Hercules if he made her a cloak that shade of purple. The rest of the tale is about Hercules gathering up a huge pile of snails from the sea and poking them with sticks until he had enough purple snail goo to dye a cloak. I’m not sure if Tyrus actually married him but the prized color is sometimes called Tyrian purple. So I guess she got her cloak at least.

Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple, circa 1638 by Peter Paul Rubens

Purple yarn kicked off European civilization. On a side note, later on when the Phoenicians were in procession of Crete they added to their textile empire by mastering indigo dying. So for millennia really pretty yarn/thread supported the greatest civilizations in the Western world.

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29 Comments on "The earliest European civilization was all about purple yarn"

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Social history is actually a lot of fun and the only meaningful history for the average person/general public. Really enjoyed this piece on purple yarn.


Love your post today-especially since purple is a very favorite color of mine!! Happy Holidays to you and your family and friends.


Cool! I learned something new today, not only about the history of yarn, but about civilization!


Wonderful storyteller. Enjoyed it very much. Thank you


I love the chatty tone of this post — it makes the history understandable and memorable!