Myth & Mind: A worm by many other names

Nov 30, 18 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

“The Hampden Portrait,” c. 1563, by Steven van der Meulen. Public domain via WikiMedia.

By Reva Sherrard

On the limbs of a shrubby oak tree native to the Mediterranean and Aegean shores, a scale insect called Kermes vermilio nourishes itself with sap. In prehistoric times people discovered that the dried bodies of the female kermes rendered up a red dye so rich, so eye-ravishing, that its saturated intensity was matched only by the famous Tyrian purple.

This was the livid wineish dye expressed drop by drop from murex rock snails to color the ceremonial garments of Roman emperors, a dye so costly — it took 12 thousand snails to ennoble the trim of a single garment — and so fabled that in the ancient world it was the emblem of all things exotic and prized. The maritime civilization that traded murex purple, old when Classical Greece was in its infancy, is known to history as Phoenicia from the Ancient Greek φοῖνιξ (phoînix), “murex dye,” from φοινός (phoinós) “purple-red.” Phoînix could refer to any of the dye’s characteristic shades, from grapey crimson through heather to what Homer called “purple blood.” Pliny the Elder reports in his “Natural History” that murex dye was “considered of the best quality when it [had] exactly the colour of clotted blood,” a deeply saturated, “shining” hue attained through a process involving two murex species, one of which yielded an indigo color.

Unlike other dyes which fade with wear, Tyrian purple (from Tyre, a dye production center in modern-day Lebanon) actually deepened with age. Not surprisingly, its smell was just as extraordinary. Dye vats brimming with decomposing mollusks imbued the dyers’ skin with a reek so heinous and enduring that by the laws of the Talmud, if a man became a dyer after marriage his wife had the right to divorce him. The legendary phoenix shares its name with the Phoenicians and their dye, but whether the extension indicates the bird’s rare and wondrous nature, or hearkens to an ancient Egyptian-Mesopotamian solar bird myth, is unknown.

Murex dye, its fabulous prestige, its secrets, and its stench were lost to the Western world with the decline of the Byzantine Empire, heir to the Roman, in the thirteenth century. Into its place rose kermes crimson. Not quite as impossibly labor-intensive and costly but every bit as full a color, crimson had long been favored by the elites of Europe and the Near East. As silk production spread through Western Europe and import of Chinese luxury fabrics waned — even as the murex industry was breathing its last — kermes came into its own as the dye of monarchs, a radiant symbol of status and luxury.

Crimson, derived from Persian kermest (kermes), entered English via Old Spanish and Arabic as the name of this brilliant aristocratic color, a deep red with bluish undertones. Behind kermest is *kwrmi-, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “worm,” i.e. the little Kermes vermilio. Vermilio, vermilion, literally means “little worm” but spread from Latin into the Romance languages as a descriptor of the “worm-red” color. Vermilion pigment is made of powdered cinnabar, and like the crimson and murex dyes was tremendously expensive and prized to the extent of becoming itself so iconic that vermilio underwent yet another semantic shift to mean its own bright orange-red hue … and eventually came full circle to name the insect it was named for!

Scarlet is another gift of kermes. As a color it is as vivid as crimson but with orangeish rather than blue tendencies, warmer and brighter. The word’s convoluted etymology winds back through medieval Romance languages to a Latin term for fine cloth embroidered or woven with patterns and images (sigillatus, marked, as with a seal) by way of Persian and Arabic. Arab merchants traded Far Eastern silk to Romans, absorbed their term for it, and returned that word to their descendants during the Umayyad Caliphate’s occupation of the Iberian peninsula as denoting luxury silken fabric dyed with kermes. In Medieval Europe, throughout most of which the climate demands thicker fabrics than silk, scarlet came to mean fine kermes-dyed woolen cloth. As the color name we’re familiar with today it dates from around the late 14th century.

Carmine is the link that doubly connects the words for kermes-red. It descends from Medieval Latin carminium, derived from Persian kermest (kermes) but influenced in form by minium cinnabar, the source of vermilion pigment. Roman cinnabar mines near the Iberian river Minius gave the ore its Latin name while also dealing death by mercury poisoning to the convicts and slaves forced to work in them. Cinnabar itself may like crimson and carmine have Persian origins. But carmine in English never referred to kermes dye at all. It instead meant the product of kermes’ New World supplanter, cochineal.

This is the dye made from the secretions of a scale insect native to the Americas, where it was harvested from the lobes of the prickly pear to make a brilliant red to tint the clothes of the Mayan and Aztec elites. Colonizing Europeans quickly discovered that cochineal was far cheaper to produce than kermes dye. By the 17th century Europeans were trading cochineal to Asia, and the age of worm-red was over.

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Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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