Spring 2009

Colors / Porphyry

Catherine Hansen

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

An etymological descent into porphyry begins with no more than a casual wade. Barely ankle-deep, one already discovers its kinship with purple: Latin, like one of the gods of myth, made two amorous raids upon the Greek word porphuro, which then bore the lexical twins porphyrites and purpura. A few steps deeper in, and this original Greek word pulls up a netful of Tyrian murex shellfish which, slit along their feeble bellies, weep purple blood used to dye royal cloth for more than 3,600 years. This was, however, a purple quite distinct from the royal blue of crushed hexaplex snails, or the violet purple of poison aconite (first seeded by the spittle of Cerberus), or the lighter mauve of chaste-tree flowers, or, to be sure, from the scarlet produced by mashed planthoppers—the color of blood first shed. The color porphuro—what would later become known as the color of porphyry—was the darker, earthier red-purple of blood already clotted. We are now swimming in waters somewhat over our heads, but no deeper than the length of rope used to lower a bucket of murex bait, and still quite littoral.

Whenever it was that the Greeks first encountered that Phoenician shellfish (perhaps around the eighth or ninth century BC, when they adopted the Phoenician alphabet), they adapted an existing word—porphuro—to designate them and the color they produced. But what exactly was this word, deemed worthy of naming the new color? What did it designate before?

In the Odyssey a certain fixed expression appears several times, translated by Richmond Lattimore as “my heart was a storm in me as I went.” Here, the storm translates a grammatical form of porphuro. In the Iliad, this porphyry is the color of death, particularly when it falls down over the eyes like a veil: porphureos thanatos. As for its precise shade, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (7th edition) has nothing more definite than the color of the sea, “as when the great sea heaveth darkly with a soundless swell”—the dark, swollen gliscence of a wave that does not break. Cunliffe’s Homeric Lexicon, upon encountering porphyry, yields the following near-poem:

of disturbed water, gleaming, glancing
of the disturbed sea, to heave
to the sinister gleam that plays on the mist of death
to the lurid gleam of the rainbow set against a storm cloud
to the warm hue of blood
of the heart, to be troubled, moved, stirred

We have now left the sunny waters where the murex live; the bottom now lies many fathoms below our feet, and a storm threatens.

• • •

In some places, one reads that the Romans were the first to quarry extensively from the mountain known as the Father of Smoke (Gebel Dokhan) in Egypt’s eastern desert, which was and still is the only place in the world to find imperial porphyry. A Roman field geologist discovered the site in 18 AD, a decade before Rome’s official transition from republic to empire. The rich and the regal alike were delighted to discover that this geologically unique rock resembled in color the murex blood used to dye their robes, and began to import it for use. Caligula, for one, could now be tickled by the sight of his image sculpted in purple blood. Convicts and Christians were sent to the desert to heave blocks of imperial porphyry over the sand, wasting their flesh to build purple sarcophagi for emperors, and dying so that Byzantine scions could be born in purple chambers. It wasn’t until the fall of the Roman Empire that the porphyry quarry was abandoned, and soon afterward the road from the city of Qena to Gebel Dokhan was lost altogether.

In other places, one reads that, well before the Roman excavation period, the Egyptians made extensive use of imperial porphyry. This contradiction becomes more interesting when one considers the huge lost labyrinth of Egypt, near the City of Crocodiles, said by some to be Daedalus’s model and inspiration, and of which no archaeologist has yet discovered the unequivocal ruins. This labyrinth, which Madame Blavatsky reports to be about five million years old, was—any quibbles about dates notwithstanding—once visited by Pliny. Inside, in the dark, among statues of monstrous beings, he found columns made of imperial porphyry. Blavatsky mentions this fact in The Secret Doctrine but refuses to elaborate, saying that certain kinds of knowledge are only for the highest initiates. She adds that on Gebel Dokhan, there are also quarries of black porphyry, of incalculable value and great hidden power compared even to the purple; in the eighth-century Fleury Gospels, images of the evangelists are framed by imperial porphyry columns, but the hand of God, representing his Word, emerges ablaze from a column of black porphyry.

• • •

Porphyry, the coveted igneous rock.

We are no longer concerned with moving back shoreward toward the littoral; adrift, we are far from any of those facts to which a straight expositio littoralis might lead. In the third century, a certain disciple of Plotinus—nicknamed Porphyry in his youth for his Tyrian parentage—wrote a commentary on a passage in the Odyssey which concerns a cavern where naiads weave webs of purple on beams of stone. As Homer describes it, the cavern has a double entrance, one for the ascent of gods, another for the descent of men. Within the neo-Platonic allegory that Porphyry sets forth in this commentary, a careful reading uncovers many of the insights that would eventually lead this disciple-exegete to the peak of the Father of Smoke, with its black and its imperial quarries. Although it was clear to him that the ancient inventor of the double cavern did not know of the actual Egyptian site, the pilgrim reader sensed the poet of poets had seen a truth, and had cunningly woven it into a fiction.

It is, as Porphyry knew, through a process akin to wine-drunkenness that every ethereal soul finds the body to which it is destined. As it first falls within the gravitational field of matter, the soul loses control and begins to spiral in tightening circles, with all of the potential elements and particles of its body in a storm and tumult about it, and, becoming more and more drunk with matter, it begins to forget its previous luciform being, and the elements harden about it into fragments cemented together in the humus of earthly substance. Homer had chosen to symbolize the soul’s acquisition of its vestment of matter by the weaving of purple garments on stone, just as flesh is woven over the bones and suffused with mortal blood.

Blood is what ties a soul to the earth, and it is also what produces and contains earthly memory. For this reason, at the end of that long drunkenness known as life, the matter that the soul acquired at the beginning, along with the blood that animated it, must be discarded. When it comes time for a soul to leave its body, the composite being passes through a set of gates and falls away into subterranean tunnels, the rocky walls of which rasp and scrape away any adhering particles of matter; but the blood, which has become nearly one in substance with the soul, remains. The soul must therefore undergo what is called diagenesis—a dissolution and recombination of its elements. This is accomplished when, at the end of its subterranean journey, the soul passes through a second set of gates, made of a stone that is said, in the sources that describe it, “to catch and contain the final rays of every setting sun”—which is to say, it catches and contains those last particles of blood and memory which the soul leaves behind as it is released into the panthalassa of the Milky Way.

Now, souls in this final, unencumbered state have no concern for earthly things, and are as dreams or shadows compared even to earthly dreams and shadows. But what Porphyry suspected, in fits and starts of insight, was this: just as these souls have left behind their memory along with the blood of their bodies, they can recover memory and return to earth if they can recover the blood, which is kept, frozen and archived forever, in the gates of stone.

Although the reasoning that led him finally to journey from Rome to Gebel Dokhan in the eastern desert would be difficult to reconstruct, it is clear enough that the problem that concerned this fastidious, erudite, and ambitious man was how to travel to the underworld, and then not to lose his terrene memory, but rather to recover it and return. As he stood by night at the entrance to the imperial quarry, all about him lay russet fragments of stone chipped from its walls, the scattered, addled memories of those thousands upon thousands who had failed to return, and did not care to. How to recover his blood, once it had been captured by the stones? Was it possible to carry it with him instead, and let it guide him home as a lodestone? And if not, how would he recognize his own, alloyed with the blood of all the others? One can only guess if he asked himself these particular questions. Neither can one do more than speculate as to whether, when he returned to his body, he returned with his own memory, or with the earthly memory of a Shasu nomad, or of a Kamboja of the Hindu Kush, or of one of the Carpians of the Carpathian mountains. We do know that, after he returned, he married and lived a quiet village life until his death.

• • •

Long after the road from Qena to Gebel Dokhan was lost, Napoleon went with his armies to hunt the purple quarry, but never tracked it down, and he had to be buried in red quartzite instead. When the mountain was discovered again later in the nineteenth century, the wife of an oil magnate secured a porphyry sarcophagus for her husband. It wasn’t much longer still until the all-terrain traffic from the Red Sea resort at Hurghada, only a few kilometers away, brought adventurers who began the long process of picking the place clean.

Catherine Hansen is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Princeton University. She is currently engaged in research on the French and Romanian literary avant-garde. She has published in L’Esprit Créateur (Winter 2006).