Readers are always asking me how I get the ideas for my books, and I’m usually at a loss for answers. So with Cat Born to the Purple, I tried to notice right along how the ideas developed. Now I offer you a small window into the earliest beginnings of Purple.
When I introduced Purple’s main character, Eliana, in The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, I hadn’t planned on writing anything else about her, much less a continuing series of Yeshua’s Cats books! But I did write more books, and Eliana turned out to be one of those characters who set up shop in the back of my mind, insistently hammering at my dreams and thoughts until I allowed her to tell her story: Cat Born to the Purple is her tale.
But before I could tell her story, I had to figure out what her family history might have been, and what circumstances could possibly have left her, a young woman barely more than a child, stoned and near death in the hills of Galilee near Sepphoris. I knew that she was going to be an exceptionally fine weaver and embroiderer, which meant that she probably came from a family that worked with textiles, most likely from one of the semi-professional family workshops found in sizeable towns like Sepphoris.
But her wrongful stoning suggested that she’d had no real family to protect her. How could that have happened? Jewish women of merchant status always had male relatives from their birth-families hovering in the background somewhere, prepared to protect them from abuse. I started reading everything I could find about the area around Sepphoris during the time of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, since Eliana would have been born around 12 CE.
Scholars have been wrangling for years over whether the Sepphoris of Yeshua’s youth and adult years was primarily Jewish, Greco-Roman, or a mixture of the two. The dust is finally beginning to settle in that argument, leaving what seems to be a clear picture of Sepphoris—along with most of the rest of the Galilee—as predominantly Jewish in population and culture during the early-to-middle 1st C CE. The recently discovered Greco-Roman palaces of Sepphoris came considerably later.
Almost nothing remains of the mid-1st C city, which would have been almost entirely Jewish. During Yeshua’s lifetime Sepphoris was a regional market and civic center—Herod Antipas’ Galilean capital until he built a new capital at Tiberius around 20 CE. Sepphoris was a large Jewish town for its time and place, but neither Roman in culture, nor heavily gentile.
The most dramatic event in Sepphoris’ history during that early period came soon after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, when a band of Jewish dissidents and townspeople overwhelmed the city guard and raided the treasury. Rome’s reprisal was swift and cruel. The rebels were crucified along the highways, and most of Sepphoris’ citizens were sold into slavery at Acco. Herod Antipas rebuilt and fortified the city to some extent before moving on to Tiberius, but he didn’t create the wealthy Greco-Roman Sepphoris whose ruins have been excavated in recent years.
So with this regional history in mind, Eliana’s own family history began to fall into place for me. The timing of Eliana’s birth could easily have placed her grandparents in Sepphoris as weavers and merchants when the city’s residents were sold into slavery by the Romans in 4 BCE. Only their young daughter Sarah—Eliana’s mother—perhaps eight years old at the time, managed to escape. Terrified and confused, the homeless child was taken in by a kindly woman from Shikhin, a neighboring village of about 500 people. Archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of Shikhin only a mile northwest of Sepphoris, just off the main highway connecting Acco and Sepphoris. The Via Maris, the major Roman road that followed Israel’s coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, intersected the Acco-Sepphoris road nearby, placing both Sepphoris and Shikhin at a major crossroads.
Archaeologists had long searched for the location of Shikhin, known by reputation as a village that manufactured everyday pottery found in archaeological sites all across Israel. Rabbis of the early Roman period even used Shikhin storage jars as their standard for liquid measure. Shikhin’s period of greatest productivity probably began sometime in the late 1st C BCE and increased through the early Roman period. They were known for strong, fire resistant pottery made from black clay: particularly amphorae (storage jars) and small clay lamps, but also jugs, kraters, cooking pots, and bowls. Archaeologists guess that Shikhin’s potters may have made common cause with wine and oil merchants and sold their pots already filled.
Recent excavations at Shikhin have uncovered cisterns, pits, potters’ wheels, kilns, and large numbers of discarded pieces of pottery damaged in firing, indicating a significant manufacturing area. The site was abandoned around the time of the great earthquake of 363 CE.
Now the story was beginning to take shape in my mind. As a refugee child in a time of chaos, Sarah’s unofficial adoption by a family working at a craft totally unlike her family’s own guaranteed her separation from any extended family who might have survived the upheavals at Sepphoris. She was simply a child working beside her adopted family making pots. Sarah eventually married the potters’ only son and taught her daughter Eliana the skills of a potter. But even though Sarah had lost her parents at a young age, I imagined that she would never have forgotten the weaving and embroidery skills she must have learned at her mother’s knee–which would probably have been valued by her adopted family. These skills she passed on to Eliana as well, along with an innate gift for working with textiles.
But for Eliana to be without family when Yeshua found her, both her parents must have been dead already. After learning what I could about the manufacture of ancient Palestinian pottery, I decided that her parents might have died together in a fire caused by a collapsing kiln during a minor earthquake (more on that in another post). So Eliana was indeed left alone in the world, a young bride without anyone but treacherous and greedy in-laws to care for her. The complex system of Jewish kin relationships protecting vulnerable women had failed her. Yeshua’s assumption of just such a situation led him to place Eliana with his friend Eli in Cana—which is where Cat Born to the Purple truly begins.
In the end, the unique possibilities presented by 1st C Israel’s culture came together to create the backstory of Eliana’s life, thus laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. Research can be a wonderful thing!
Before discussing the Murex dye, I’m delighted to announce the 3rd of the 3 reviews received for Cat Born to the Purple: another 5 stars ★★★★★ — this time from Self-Publishing Review! Go here to read the entire review.
The term “royal purple” originated in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East, particularly during the days of the Roman Empire, when the wearing of a specific color–royal purple–was a privilege restricted to the aristocracy, if not the emperor alone. Royal purple was not the color we think of today when we speak of purple. Apparently it was an almost black violet-red color, said to resemble the color of heart’s blood/clots of heart’s blood. The word “purple” in Greco-Roman times, however, was used to refer to a whole range of colors, from pale blue to red to violet to the true royal purple. Deciding which of these many colors was intended in a given passage can be difficult.
But historians agree that the priceless near-black “royal purple” dye was made only from a gland of the Murex trunculus (more recently called Hexaplex trunculus) sea snail. Depending on the strength of the dye, the time submerged, the dye process, and the type of fabric dyed, the Murex dye could also yield colors ranging from pale shades of blue, green, pink, and violet, as well as the deeper tones. Other varieties of the Murex, particularly brandaris, were also used for dyes, but were considered inferior.
At present a whole separate debate is ongoing among Jewish traditionalists about whether the blue (tekhelet) tassels required by the Torah on the corners of Jewish garments should be dyed using Murex trunculus. Recent archaeological discoveries of fabric remnants from Israel’s biblical period indicate that the original tekhelet dye was probably made from one of the Murex family, if not the trunculus, but since the source of the original tekhelet has been uncertain for so long, white has become the preferred color for these tassels. Ruscillo’s research (see below) found that immersing wool very briefly in a fresh, unheated Murex dye bath resulted in very attractive blues of varying intensity.
The Murex trunculus sea snail lives in the sublittoral waters of most of the Mediterranean’s coastal areas. The sublittoral zone refers to the area of relatively shallow water permanently covered by seawater that is immediately beyond the intertidal zone (the area between the high and low tidal marks, where the shore is above water at some point in the tidal cycle). The Murex must be constantly submerged to survive, but it prefers shallow water, usually no more than 20 meters deep, in sheltered coves or lagoons. Where the water is calm and protected from waves the Murex may be found at slightly greater depths. It prefers mixed sand and rocky bottoms.
The Murex feeds in two different ways: scavenging and predation. When there isn’t enough dead material in the water, it preys on other sea snails, mussels, barnacles, hermit crabs, etc., by drilling holes and/or chipping their shells and feeding on the living flesh through the holes. Not an appealing creature, as predators go.
The ancients didn’t dive for the purple snails during the months between early spring and the beginning of July, because that was (and is) the Murex spawning season. Murex trunculus was harvested from the Dog Star’s first rising in the dawn sky (early July) through the winter months.
Since the only records we have describing the collecting and processing of “purples” are the writings of Roman essayists like Pliny and Vitruvius (whose reports were often more imaginative than accurate), archaeologists have had difficulty piecing together the details of the royal purple industry. Additionally, the Phoenicians–whose Murex dyes were most highly valued in early Roman times–guarded their dyeing secrets carefully. Only in the early 20th century did scientists begin to experiment with Hexaplex trunculus to try to reproduce the ancient dyeing techniques.
Deborah Ruscillo’s experiment, “Reconstructing Murex Royal Purple and Biblical Blue in the Aegean,” is by far the cleverest, and most innovative approach to this problem that I could find. By grossly simplifying her methodology, I might summarize it like this: locate an ancient Murex dyeing site where the Hexaplex trunculus is still thriving, and duplicate the processes suggested by archeological evidence and ancient texts, using tools as close to the originals as possible; where ancient wisdom fails, experiment with reasonable alternatives.
Most of Cat Born to the Purple‘s technical details of Murex dyeing came from Ruscillo’s work. For instance:
Neither divers nor baited baskets/pots alone could have caught enough purples to supply a dyeing workshop of any size; they must have both been used together.
Adding urine makes the color more vibrant, although the Murex dye is permanent without additives
Boiling the dye mixture ruins the dye
Three days is the ideal amount of time for steeping fabric in the dye
The stench of the Murex, swarming wasps, biting flies, and hatching larvae make the dyers’ lives a misery
Dye on hands and nails takes roughly 6 weeks to disappear
Wool is the only fiber that absorbs the dye to create a deep, dark color
Neither the stink nor the color is reduced by washing; perfume would have been necessary to disguise the smell, even after washing and long periods of airing.
Perhaps her most amusing and understated remark was, “Pliny never made dye himself.”
The dye comes from the hypobranchial gland of the Hexaplex trunculus, which secretes mucus for its mantle. The gland itself is pale, and must be cut out of a living snail (left), since the gland shrivels and dries shortly after death.
When the live gland is pierced and exposed to air, the mucus rapidly changes from clear to yellow to yellowish green, green, and violet. The photos to the right show a fresh live trunculus gland removed. The gland itself is yellowish, but the liquid is clear.
The photos below show a sequence from Pourpre filmed by pygmeejones. The timing and color may not be exact, since the snail in the sequence appears to be recently dead or the gland already ruptured in opening the shell, based on the green color of the mucus when the gland is first pierced.
Archaeologists have discovered what appear to be holding tanks for snails along the Phoenician coast, where Murex could have been kept alive in seawater until enough snails had accumulated to brew the dye. Since thousands of Murex trunculus would have been needed to dye just one cloak to the deep blackish color of the royal purple–and twice as many if Murex brandaris snails were used–there would have been a definite need for such tanks.
Like most Mediterranean cultures, Phoenicians trafficked in slaves, and may have made a habit of kidnapping unwary women and children in their ports of call. The citizens of Sepphoris rounded up by the Romans after the brief rebellion following Herod the Great’s death were sold to Phoenician slavers in Acco. No doubt because of the extreme unpleasantness of the tasks involved, slaves provided most of the labor in the Phoenician Murex dye industry.
The stench of the opened snails permeated the area of the dye workshops and beyond. Contemporary accounts described Tyre and Sidon as attractive cities, but stinking of the Murex dye. In almost every case where archaeologists have found the huge piles of broken Murex shells that identify a likely dye site, the piles have been well outside the cities.
Finally, Ruscillo asks one question that I never saw raised anywhere else: was ancient fleece stained with Murex dye before before it was woven (dyed in the wool), or was the whole cloth dyed after the fabric was completed? Her experiment showed that dying the unwoven fleece left a powdery residue of purple dye in the wool that filtered out and left stains on workers and work areas. The residue made an extra post-dye washing essential before the wool could be spun and woven, which would have required extra time and labor. Dyeing already woven fabric left no such residue, and also eliminated the problem of different dye lots of thread creating an unevenly-colored weaving.
For more details, imaginative and historical, read Cat Born to the Purple!
I knew absolutely nothing about the roots of the phrase “born to the purple” when I began writing Purple. Neither had I ever heard of the Murex trunculus, a predatory sea snail found along many Mediterranean coasts, from which the royal purple dye was extracted. Even more humbling was my discovery that I understood nothing whatever about how cloth is spun and woven–now, or in the 1st Century CE. Oh, I knew the words and how to use them in sentences: warp and weft, loom and shuttle, spindle and bobbin . . . but I soon realized that I didn’t have a clue what any of those objects actually did in the process of transforming raw material–wool in particular–into cloth.
Textile manufacture was one of a very few areas where a women might succeed in business in New Testament times. The reference in Acts 16:14, to “Lydia, a dealer in purple fabric,” was one obvious instance. And if I did decide to write about a woman skilled in weaving, I needed to understand what was involved in that skill. So I checked out every book I could find in local public libraries about weaving wool, from raising the sheep to selling the finished textiles–and I hardly understood a word. Every book, no matter how simple, either assumed I already knew what weaving terms meant, or explained the meanings so superficially that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language–which is what the specialist terms of any discipline are to outsiders.
I tried websites, and YouTube, and eventually went to the library at Bard College where I finally discovered THE reigning expert in ancient textile studies–who understood the necessity of defining every single term before starting to use it, no matter how obvious it might seem to her. Her name is Elizabeth Wayland Barber, and she is the author of a highly entertaining and groundbreaking scholarly survey called Prehistoric Textiles (1991), and a more popular adaptation, entitled Women’s Work: The first 20,000 years (1994). I could never have written the book without her!
So, as a gesture of appreciation to her for her blessed clarity and thoroughness, I will try to explain the basics of early 1st C wool manufacture in Israel. I speak of wool particularly, because Murex dye only stains animal fiber successfully, and only wool absorbs the color thoroughly enough to create the deep blackish red-violet hue that royalty prized.
Sheep were raised in hilly and mountainous areas throughout the Ancient Near East. In most instances they were sheared and the wool cleaned and processed wherever the sheep were raised. Often a cottage industry grew up among local women for the spinning of the thread, so that urban weavers never worked with the fleece at all. But I’ve already begun to use words without defining them, so I’ll pause and look more closely at this first stage.
Preparing the fleece
By the 1st C, sheep had been selectively bred for thick, long fleece of various colors. Each spring the sheep were sheared with large iron shears. In the eastern Mediterranean, the first task after shearing was removing the larger problem areas from the fleece: dung tags, short, poor quality wool, matted wool, hardened grease. The fleece was then laid out on a rack and beaten with flexible rods to remove dust and seeds.
Then the fleece was washed with some sort of solvent, in order to remove the grease–otherwise dye would not take. Roughly twenty gallons of hot liquid was needed to wash two whole fleeces. In Israel, typically 3 parts hot water and 1 part urine were combined for the wash. The wool pelts were carefully teased apart and gently submerged in the washing vat, where they remained overnight. The washers took extreme care not to stir the wool in the bath, especially when the water was still hot, since that could cause it to “felt”, or stick together in a mat that couldn’t be spun or woven, although lesser quality wool was often “felted” intentionally. After soaking, the wool was carefully and thoroughly rinsed. In Israel the washed wool was either spread over bushes or put into light bags, swung around in circles, and then spread out to dry.
Once the fleece dried, it was gently pulled apart into separate strands, and shaken to remove any remaining seeds. By the 1st C, the different lengths of wool fibers weren’t separated unless the women doing the spinning intended to make the hard strong thread called worsted, which required long fibers laid out straight alongside each other. “Carding” was the most common method of preparing fleece for spinning by the 1st C. It involved lightly brushing or fluffing the wool fibers between two “cards” with protruding teeth–a bit like teasing hair. It resulted in a mass of fluffy fiber, evenly combed and separated, that could be pulled out in a steady thin stream for spinning.
Ancient ingenuity gradually produced simple tools to make the intensely frustrating process of early spinning relatively easy. Barber put it something like this. Hand-spinning involved 3 processes–thinning and lengthening, twisting, and winding the thread onto a holder. But to do this, a woman really needed 4 hands:
1 hand to hold the prepared fluff of wool fibers
1 hand to pull thinned fibers out of the fluff and attach them to the emerging thread
1 hand to keep twisting the thread
and 1 hand to hold finished thread, lest it ball up like angry rubber band
The distaff (“fuzz-stick”) was developed to hold a large mass of prepared fuzzy fleece; often it was no more than a forked stick held by the weaver. She pulled a steady stream of fuzz off the distaff, attaching it to the emerging thread. The “spindle” solved two problems at one time: how to twist the emerging length of fluff, and how to anchor the spun thread so that it wouldn’t recoil on itself. A spindle is basically a smooth stick of wood about a foot long, with a hook or groove for attaching thread, and a “whorl,” a roughly cylindrical object with a centered hole, attached to the shaft of the spindle, to reduce wobble. The thread is attached to the spindle, the spindle is set spinning, dropped, and spins the thread on its own like a top as the spinner uses her 2nd hand to pull and secure the fibers. When the spindle slows and stops, the spinner winds the accumulated thread around the spindle and sets it spinning again. Skilled spinners hardly pause at all between one spin and the next, and maneuver the spindle to wind the finished thread almost without guidance.
The last step in spinning is “plying.” When the twisted thread is removed from the spindle if it is not “plied,” it will simply unravel. So 2 threads are twisted together in the opposite direction to their original spin (plied), resulting in a length of thread that is not only twice as thick, but doesn’t unravel, either.
In Barber’s words, “Weaving involves two sets of strings: a fixed set, the warp, and a second set, the weft, interlaced into the warp. But the flexibility of string makes interlacing terribly difficult without a way to hold some of the strings in place—a frame to provide tension. That frame is called a loom. Discovering how to provide tension made true weaving possible” (Prehistoric Textiles, p. 80).
From about the year 2000 BCE until the time of Christ, women in Palestine did most of their weaving on warp-weighted looms–vertical looms that leaned against walls. Women stood to weave and the finished cloth accumulated at the top. Warp-weighted looms were called by this name because the warp threads–the strong vertical threads through which the woof or weft threads were woven, were held in place by weights attached at the bottom. A famous Greek urn from around 600 BCE shows one such loom (below). Several threads secured on the top beam are weighed down together in straight lines by clay, stone or other types of weights at the bottom. The woman on the left is beating, or pushing, the most recent weft threads up tightly into the finished cloth rolled onto the top beam. The woman on the right is weaving the horizontal weft thread between the vertical warp threads.
The size of the loom depended partly on the type of fiber being woven. Estimates based on loom weights and surviving fragments of cloth suggest that the width of woven wool varied between 33-78 cm. Light fibers like linen and hemp were often wider.
Here are some basic weaving terms:
Loom = frame holding thread for weaving
Loom weights = stones, etc., attached to bottom of warp threads/groups of threads
Warp = the vertical weighted threads
Weft (old past tense of weave) = horizontal threads added in between warp threads
Plain weave = one thread of warp over/under one of weft, etc. This was the simplest weave, still seen today in sheets and pillowcases. Pattern was added by taking the weft over and under different numbers of warp threads
Starting border = a narrow woven band attached to upper beam to keep warp threads separate and spaced evenly
Heddle rod = movable rod that leans against front of loom, either resting against loom itself, or lifted up and away and resting on supports.
Heddles = small loops w/strings attached to the heddle rod, through which alternating warp threads pass (1 string/group of strings thru each heddle). Heddle loops are each tied to the heddle rod. When the heddle rod is lifted up onto its supports, it creates a gap (shed) between warp threads attached to it (and now raised) and the warp threads below not attached to heddles.
Shed rod = moveable rod at base of loom above loom weights over which the alternate warp threads not tied to heddles are hung. When heddle rod is lowered from its supports, the shed rod holds its threads above the others (the lower threads above the heddle threads), creating a second shed through which to pass a weft thread.
Shed = the gap between alternating layers of warp threads through which weft is pulled. The whole line of weft is passed through this passageway/gap with a shuttle
A drawing from Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles (below) may help these terms make sense. This drawing shows a simple kind of warp-weighted loom probably found in Palestinian homes in the early 1st C CE (I used her drawing as the model for the one in Purple):
So here’s the process, vastly simplified:
Tie the warp threads to top of loom, draping all warp threads over frame
Attach starting border to upper beam, woven of cord, to keep warp cords evenly spaced and not crowded
Thread alternate warp threads into consecutive heddle loops attached to heddle rod toward top of loom, letting ends hang down toward floor
The lower (unattached to heddles) warp threads remain over shed rod at bottom, so that they hang straight from woven fabric at top to rod at base
Attach weights to all warp threads/groups by small cords
Lift heddle rod up on to supports to create shed between lower warp and heddled warp threads
Send weft through the shed
Beat up toward top tightly
Lower heddle rod from supports to loom frame; the heddled warp threads will hang below loom frame from heddles, toward floor
Alternate warp threads draped over shed rod will now be higher, creating a shed between lower and upper warp threads
Send weft through 2nd shed, beat up, and repeat.
Finished cloth rolled up on top beam
Then sometime in the mid-to-late 1st C CE all this changed with the introduction of the upright two-beam loom, developed somewhere in the Levant and/or Syria and spread by the Romans throughout the rest of the empire. The weights were replaced by a second horizontal beam at the bottom, and the weaving went from top to bottom, which meant that the weaver could sit while weaving.
The main problem scholars have had in understanding early weaving techniques has been that neither wooden looms nor textiles often survive over time, although the clay, stone, and bone tools often do. The sudden disappearance of loom weights from archaeological sites dating to the beginning of the 2nd century CE was the most obvious indication of the change in weaving technology.
One last interesting observation on cloth made in the first century is the time involved. A simple garment of a plain weave used approximately 1.5 x 5 meters of cloth. The spinning of the thread alone took approximately 120 hours. Setting up the loom with the border and warp threads took about 50 hours, with another 50-60 hours for the weaving itself. By the time you added in the sewing and finishing, the total time invested in one simple garment would be over 250 hours!