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A Purple Passage: Meta-interpretation and the Discovery of Tyrian Dye in Achilles Tatius

Theodore Joseph MacDonald

Washington University in Saint Louis

This paper examines the digression on the discovery of Tyrian purple in Leukippe and Kleitophon as an analogue for interpreting Achilles Tatius’ novel. In this “most self-reflexive of novels” (Ní Mheallaigh 2014), stories, songs, and paintings pose interpretive challenges for the novel’s characters and its readers alike (Bartsch 1989). The apprehension of hidden meaning in such media is a recurrent feature of the novel (e.g. 1.17.1, 2.21.5), and the aetiological account of Tyrian purple stages this interpretive process. At 2.11.4-8, Kleitophon relates how a shepherd discovers the dye after his dog bites into a murex shell. The shepherd initially perceives splotches on his dog to be wounds but, after his own hands turn purple while treating his dog, eventually deduces the cause of the discoloration by breaking open the shell. The description of the murex shell and its contents acts as a storehouse of the primary images of the novel. The shepherd’s probing the shell’s mysteries (μυστήρια, 2.11.7), discovering its treasure (θησαυρόν, 2.11.8), and learning the unspeakable (ἀπόρρητος, 2.11.4), I argue, enacts the process of decoding Achilles Tatius’ text. An analysis of the meta-interpretive dimensions of this passage not only further elucidates the place of such excursuses in this highly digressive novel but also enriches understanding of the various models of interpretation presented in the text.

The description of the murex shell and its contents acts as a mise-en-abyme of both the imagery and structure of the novel. The metaphorical designation of the dye as the ‘blood of the flower’ (τοῦ ἄνθους τὸ αἷμα, 2.11.5) associates the murex with a central motif of the text, floral metaphors (e.g. 1.4, 1.19, 3.25). The crimson hue of Tyrian purple is representative of Achilles Tatius’ principal color palette (e.g. 1.1, 2.15, 3.7). To access the purple, the shepherd must break through the wall and open an impenetrable space (τὸ τεῖχος…τὸ ἄδυτον, 2.11.8). Protected interior space is the primary spatial model in the text, and the structure of the novel as an embedded narrative reflects this organization (Whitmarsh 2020).

As the shepherd’s stained hands show (2.11.6), interpretation is a messy business. The imagery of protected interior space in this digression links the reader’s act of interpretation with the novel’s predominant use of this organizational schema: men breaking into enclosed spaces to abduct women (e.g. 1.1, 2.23, 5.3; cf. Reeves 2007). Thus, when readers try to pierce through the layers of narrative to extract hidden meaning, they become associated with these rapacious men. This association is especially problematic in analyzing the experiences of abducted women. Although male ego-narrators’ descriptions of these women’s bodies often hint at their consent (cf. Bartsch 1989), the novel never represents a woman’s account in her own voice. Ironically, when readers, drawing on the interpretive framework presented in the Tyrian myth, endeavor to break through the levels of ego-narration to uncover women’s suppressed voices, they reenact the very processes of women’s abductions. The novel revels in such ironies, and this play between narrative levels is a hallmark of Achilles Tatius.

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Second Century CE Prose

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