Block of the Week: Purpur

Uncover the colour of kings and snails!

What’s the most regal colour? The most magnificent colour, the one that makes you want to doff your cap and grovel like a peasant. Gold? Pah! Gold is a gaudy distraction, a shallow display of mere wealth! I’d argue that it is in fact purple that’s the colour of true power and luxury. If I was going to build a city, I would make it entirely purple, just like the purpur blocks of those mysterious, majestic cities of the End.

Purpur is one of the strangest and most otherworldly materials in Minecraft, found in a fittingly strange and otherworldy dimension: the End. The blocks themselves can be crafted from popped chorus fruits, which have been harvested from the angular cacti-like chorus trees, and then gently smelted. But these are no ordinary fruits - when eaten they can teleport the player a short distance. Even weirder, purpur blocks make the perfect camouflage for the mollusc-like shulkers, emerging from their purpurish shells to launch homing missiles at the player.

It’s an elaborate and peculiar process to obtain a nice block of purpur - and it’s that which makes all the more precious. The exact same can be said of the colour purple in general: a colour that’s hard to harvest in nature, making it most prized by powerful people. And, in another odd similarity, its story also involves molluscs.

Tyrian purple has been a much-prized dye for millennia - here manufactured by Kremer Pigmente.

For thousands of years, the colour purple has been linked to the ruling classes. Alexander the Great wore it when he gave audiences to his people, and in Homer’s Illiad, that rip-roaring tale about the siege of Troy, the Greek hero Ajax’s belt is described as being purple, and the tails of Trojan horses (not the Trojan horse, but the horses ridden by the Trojan soldiers) were dipped in the colour. That’s some flashy equestrian couture!

Later, in the Roman era, it became the colour of the togas worn by magistrates, generals and consuls: the VIPs who held the reins of power. They even passed laws that banned anyone unworthy from wearing the colour. And it went on, into the Byzantine era with Justinian I smashing it with some splendid purple robes in the 6th century, right up into the Catholic Church, in which today the high station of bishops is marked by wearing purple.

BUT WHY? Well, that would be because of a snail.

How many millions of these hapless molluscs have died to give Roman magistrates cool threads? Thanks to M.Violante for taking a picture and not brutally extracting the poor things' goo.

A sea snail, to be exact, called the spiny dye-murex. This little fella, only 6 to 9 cm long, lives on rocks in shallow parts of the central and western part of the Mediterranean Sea. And it’s a predator, using a milky goo to sedate its prey.

Now, some bright spark thousands of years ago found that this goo, which is initially colourless, turns purple when exposed to sunlight. And what’s more, when this goo gets on clothes it’s colour-fast, making it an excellent dye. It became known to ancient Greeks as πορφύρα (porphura), to the Romans as purpura, and to us now as Tyrian purple.

Around 1500 BC an industry in this stuff started. The snails would be gathered and their shells would be cracked so their goo gland could be removed. The goo would then be extracted and left in the sun until it reached the right colour. A single spiny dye-murex yields very little dye: 12,000 of them only produce enough to colour just the trim of robe. So that’s a lot of dead snails. Ancient authors said that since the snails were left to rot after their glands were removed, the places Tyrian purple was made absolutely REEKED.

Some Romans kicking it fine style in the 1st century BC, wearing togas with reddish-purple hems.

A 6th century mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, noted fan of crushing snails for fashion.

All that work made the stuff super expensive, too, so only the richest could afford to wear it as a symbol of their status. And that’s why purple has been historically considered so regal and stately.

The deaths of so many snails do not go unavenged in Minecraft though: the shulker - perhaps spiny dye-murex’s distant cousin - lies in wait for those who covet the purplish charms of purpur!

So hunters of regal finery beware - purple power comes at a price! Stay frosty, Block of the Week fans!