Milking of the Murex snail
By Susie Atkinson y Ellen Hoel
The art of milking of the Murex snail has its origins in the 4th century B.C.
Cleopatra used that procedure to dye in purple the sails of her boat with the intent of flattering Caesar. The gathering of those fluids is a practice that has passed from generation to generation. The Murex snail discharges a milky-white secretion that changes colors once it is exposed to air and light. This transformation starts with a shade of yellow, followed by a pastel green, and finally, under the direct exposure to the sun, it turns into a lovely shade of purple, also called imperial purple.
The women of Boruca use this unique extract to dye the cotton yarn they will use in their weaving. During the waning moon, the Borucans make a special trip to the rockiest of Ventanas beach in Costa Ballena in the months of January and February, knowing that they will find the Murex snails hiding and mating along the rocks.
It is a dangerous and treacherous work to find and “milk” the snails. Doña Marina and others, pull the snails off the slippery rocks at Ventanas beach, they proceed to blow on them very carefully to cause the snails to release the fluid, letting it drip over the yarn they are holding. This fluid cannot be stored; therefore, the yarn has to be dyed on site.
The Borucans are one of two indigenous groups left in the world using this process. They preserve the life of these snails by returning them back to the rocks after taking the fluid.
Doña Marina goes to the Farmers´ Market in Uvita almost every Saturday morning. Her weavings and carved masks are also available at Pacific Edge Cabins in Dominicalito.