How much do you miss dinosaurs? Would your life be richer if those giant prehistoric flying lizards occasionally settled on your front lawn?” —Ronald Reagan.
I read yesterday that a mollusk species, which was one of the main sources for the imperial purple of the ancient world, has disappeared in Mediterranean waters as part of the multi-species collapse due to rising ocean temperatures. Now, that is sad news indeed.
You have heard of Tyrian purple, right?
Perhaps made most famous in that scene from The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, the purple dye of the ancient world was so precious that it became synonymous with royalty itself--and this was a point not lost to the audience in attendance at Aeschylus' plays.
In Agamemnon, what should have been one of the greatest homecomings in ancient times, instead ended in cold-blooded murder when the King's wife stabbed him to death that evening in the bath.
How did it come to that? You ask.
Even Odysseus-- the reluctant hero-- finally in the end made it safely home to his loving wife and son, didn't he?
And, hadn't the Greeks led by the King Agamemnon won the war after their rightful sack of Troy?
Why did she do it?
The chorus, too, demands an answer.
And, so in a series of stunning speeches, which would be the envy of any Washington speech writer, the queen lays out her case. Her husband-- the King-- has killed their beloved daughter, and for that he must die. That he had brought a concubine home with him from Troy and that she and her lover were already happily ruling the Kingdom ensconced in the castle were reasons as well. But Clytemnestra-- make no doubt about it-- is clear about her reasons: he killed their daughter and for that he must die.
So, she sets him up.
In what is one of the most famous homecoming scenes in all history-- Clytemnestra gives her husband Agamemnon the "red carpet treatment."
Laying out the family's priceless pinkish-purple color tapestries, she urges him:
"Walk across, my Lord."
He tells her he will not. For that is the kind of arrogance that Persian Kings show-- believing themselves to be as all-mighty as the gods.
"We are democrats," he responds.
And when she continues urging him to glide across the sea of blood-red tapestries, he retorts:
"These are heirlooms, how can we soil our family heirlooms?"
In the end, exhausted perhaps from the trip, he allows himself to be persuaded and across he walks-- to his death. For this show of arrogance is the all-important piece of evidence that Clytemnestra will need as her "reason" to get rid of him; for most Athenians would have agreed that an all-powerful monarch in the style seen in Persia was something to be avoided at all costs.
In Richmond Lattimore's introduction to the play, he states that "puffed up with ego, Agamemnon walks across the tapestries."
My guru, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, though, is upset-- and it's worse than Heidegger's translator.
"Is Lattimore totally oblivious?" Asks Dreyfus, "Where did Agamemnon show any indication of being puffed up? Didn't he try in vain to argue with his wife till he just became exhausted and walked across to please her?"
Dreyfus has a point.
Judge for yourself:
Daughter of Leda, guardian of my home,
your speech was, like my absence, far too long.
Praise that's due to us should come from others.
Then it's worthwhile. All those things you said—
don't puff me up with such female honours,
or grovel there before me babbling tributes,
like some barbarian. Don't invite envy
to cross my path by strewing it with cloth.
That's how we honour gods, not human beings.
For a mortal man to place his foot like this
on rich embroidery is, in my view,
not without some risk. So I'm telling you
honour me as a man, not as a god.
My fame proclaims itself. It doesn't need
foot mats made out of such embroideries.
Not even to think of doing something bad
is god's greatest gift. When a man's life ends
in great prosperity, only then can we declare
that he's a happy man. Thus, if I act,
in every circumstance, as I ought to now,
there's nothing I need fear.
The two in fact debated back and forth. In the end, though, the King gave up and treaded upon the "sea of blood." Scholars continue to argue about exactly why he did finally acquiesce and walk across the tapestries.
But what of "these red tapestries dyed in the sea?"
In the translation above, the English word "cloth" is used, and that is probably a safe translation. I think Lattimore uses the word "carpet" but that doesn't quite seem right, does it? For carpets are made to be walked across. Even the heirloom rugs which one finds hanging in a millionaire's yurt could also probably be walked on without causing too much damage. Dreyfus, I think, prefers calling them tapestries, and that works, I think.
The walls of medieval castles were covered in tapestries of fantastic quality-- in fact, I think I read somewhere that tapestries were among the most costly heirlooms of Medieval Europe.
I have also seen the Greek word translated as robes-- which is perhaps my personal favorite translation. One of my dear friends in Japan had an enormous collection of beautiful kimono. Once while we had tea, she had taken several out to air them in the dry autumn weather. Silk brocades with golden threads were only to be out done by the most exquisite embroidery on the thinnest, most delicate silk I have ever seen. It was a splendid fortune in textiles, amassed by a woman who in her youth had been very successful in Osaka's water trade.
Dreyfus says, "It would have been like as if Clytemnestra had taken a dozen Monet paintings down from the walls, and laying them down, had said: Walk across my Lord." Textiles more costly than the finest oil paintings....
My tea teacher as well had warned me to never waste money on jewelry if you can buy textiles.
In the ancient world-- almost no matter where you look-- people who could, spent vast amounts of money on such textiles. And, before the invention of money, cloth formed a large bulk of things which were traded across borders. Indeed, it was the silk trade which was to give its name to the most legendary overland trade routes in history!
Agamemnon's robes were most probably woven from wool. The Persians were known for their exquisite dyed cloth in this material. Still, textile scholars remind us that the silk trade, while it took off in Han or Roman Empire times, actually goes back much further. In 1983 the New York Times ran an article about strips of woven silk found on an Egyptian mummy from 1000BC. Scientific studies showed this silk to be Chinese. Silk was also found in 7th century BC graves in Germany and 5th century BC graves in Greece. This latter date corresponding to Aeschylus' play.
It is not outside the realm of possibility that Agememnon's robes or tapestries were made of woven silk.
But more than the material, it is their color which demands attention here. Many will know that these robes, "the blood red color of the sea," were dyed from the pigments gotten from mollusks-- thousands upon thousands of sea creatures. This was the "purple" dyed linen of the Arc of the Covenant that was later to be the color of the robes of the greatest Roman emperors and the color of Cleopatra's "fragrant sails." Indeed, Cleopatra was said to have dwelled within a world of fragrant incense and a cloud of costly purple.
The color purple has long been associated with emperors and queens. While we say "purple" the term actually encompassed a large spectrum of colors from light pink to very dark fuchsia-- with the most sought after color being a shimmering dark red (sometimes referred to as the color of blood). The most refined-- and therefore the most sought after-- shade was this precise shimmering shade of blood.
The Phoenicians built their fortunes on trade in the dye-- and indeed, the color is known to us today as Tyrian purple. Based on the coast of Lebanon, the ancient mariners of the Mediterranean delivered cloth dyed in this purple of the sea throughout the ancient world. They say it would take 10,000 dead mollusks to dye one robe the coveted color.
It was smelly business too-- as dying inevitably is. But so lucrative was it that many peoples gave it a shot. No one, however, achieved as beautiful a shade of purple as the Phoenicians (who are believed to have used two species of mollusks: —the Purpura pelagia or Murex trunculus, and the Purfura lapillus or Buccinum lapillus).
Victoria Finlay tries to track down the color in her 2003 book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette , but by then the species have been hunted to the point of extinction. And while she did get a glimpse of the huge ancient vats that were once used to make the luxerious dyes (wisely located downwind of the ancient city of Tyre), in her book she is unable to find much else.
And now today, I read the mollusk is extinct. Forever gone. "We kid ourselves, says Elizabeth Kolbert, into believing that everything will be okay and that this is not actually happening. It's because we find it impossible to believe that we could destroy our planet. In her book the Sixth extinction, she writes that our coral systems might go extinct during our very lifetimes." ( That is, it is happening now. And what about giraffes? If that doesn't make a person sad, I don't know what will.
Kolbert delivers a compelling call to action. “Right now,” she writes, “we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”
Do you miss dinosaurs? Well that was before our time. But we are walking (trampling) on the multicolored rug of creation now, imperious and ignorant------- and Clytemnestra is waiting in the wings to show us our fate.
(My 3Quarks essay on Global warming Monday)