We have three sets of cones (or colour sensors) in our retinas, each of which is sensitive to a different part of the colour spectrum; the brain then constructs the rest of the spectrum by extrapolating from the relative strength of these three. In the case of purple, which occurs when the red and blue sensors but not the green ones are triggered, the brain creates a colour to fill the gap. If your brain were more objective, rather than showing you purple, it would display a patch of flickering grey with the words “system error” on it. — Rory Sutherland in Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense (2019), section 6.2
« La couleur est mon obsession quotidienne, ma joie et mon torment. » — Claude Monet (1840-1926)
“Color is my day-long obsession, my joy and my torment.” — Claude Monet
Ghìrkýthi mhlóSphálákhtthi mhlóDwèlrthi / The Swans of Queen Sphalaghd1
(Translated and edited by Simon Whitechapel)
In the black mirroring surface of the canal, these things: a sky very high and clear, the blue infinite interior of the skull of a god2 brooding beauty and pain into the world; the walls that line the canal, white marble, sharp-edged; the vivid mosaics of precious stone with which the walls are set: oval belladonnic eyes of emerald and obsidian in faces of sculpted mammoth ivory; the mouths of jade3-lipped bayadères leaking ruby threads of wine; the topaz fingers and wrists of rhodolite4-crowned lutanists; quartz-glistered sinews in the arms of capon5-plump eunuchs fanning the dances of turquoise6-skinned odalisques who prance and beck in frozen heated showers of opal-drop sweat.
But all, in the mirroring water, is grey.7
In the black mirroring surface of the canal, these things: a broad slab of basalt to which is bound a naked man8, white against the stone’s darkness, black-haired and bound with soft unbreakable bonds of purple silk; on his belly have been painted the red strokes and hooks and curls of the ideogram for death, like the roaring fist-talon and shank of a stooping hawk9 or the opening hungry maw of a leopard10, a splash of red tissues ringed and spiked and shaped by white barbs of teeth.
But all, in the mirroring water, is grey.
In the black mirroring surface of the canal, these things: five swans; their bright, forward-sweeping eyes are set in white, oval-skulled heads that are enwedged with yellow, black-rooted beaks; their white, smooth-feathered, twice-curved necks, slender as stems, are shivered on the ripples of the passage of bodies that are white seed-pods curling to smooth, hooked tails. Five swans, silent white swans. Their beaks are small and regular as the hardened gold heads of the ritual axes of the Temple of the Thanatocrator11, which sound tchlunk tchlunk tchlunk in the skulls of the sacrifices, opening slotted, red-welling ways for the prosempyreal passage of the soul.
But all, in the mirroring water, is grey.
In the black, mirroring surface of the canal, this: the white swans clustered on the white body of the sacrifice. Their necks dart and sway, sowing moist red blooms into the fertile milk of his skin. He strains against his bonds, but the necks fall, the heads hammer with steady, unconscious grace, opening the blooms to full flower. In the mirroring water they are beautiful, like strewn blossoms12 for the feet of the Thanatocrator, who dances his hatred into the waking dreams of the world. The sacrifice is dead and the swans are streaked and smirched and spotted with gore, like heavy white flowers in a garden of torture.
Their necks bend and sway, and their beaks open and close, but in the mirroring water their voices are silent, and how may we tell what they say?
1. Trained swans were the favored form of execution under the insane and semi-legendary nymphomane Queen Sphalaghd (1-143 Anno Dominæ; 1137-1279 Anno Secundi Imperii), whose extravagances came nigh to ruining the kingdom before, after many hesitations on and retreats from the threshold, she converted fully to the austere and life-denying doctrines of the Thorn-God in the final lustrum of her nigromantically prolonged life.13 She was canonized by the Temple thirteen years after her death.
2. An obvious reference to the Thorn-God, and in another context the Yihhian (mhló)Kiùlthi might be translated “(of) the god”, but the use of the non-hieratic noun marker gives the flavor of the indefinite article in English and contributes to the sense of brooding anonymity in the story.
3. This is believed to be a satirical reference to Yokh-Tsiolphë’s own religion (see note 8 below), that of the Moon-Deity, whose abstemious priestesses wore strongly colored make-up while performing their ritual dances under the full moon.
4. From its use in other texts retrieved oneirically from the Temple, the hieroglyph appears to refer to some rose-colored semi-precious mineral, and I have chosen to translate the word as “rhodolite”: coronemus nos rosis antequam marcescant (“let us crown us with roses before they be withered”, Sapientia Solomonis 2:8) was a sentiment accepted in its widest possible sense at the week-long feasts held during the long years of Queen Sphalagdh’s dissipation.
5. Possibly a castrated form not of the domestic hen (Gallus domesticus) but of the peacock (Pavo cristatus).
6. Again a possible satirical reference to the priestesses of the Moon-Deity.
7. Mirrors in the Temple were only of dark minerals, principally basalt, haematite, and black coral (Gorgonia spp), for the priests taught that color was one of the snares of sensuality by which the world entrapped men’s souls. Accordingly, possession of a fully reflecting mirror was an excommunicable offence for members of the Thorn-God’s congregation.
8. The story is believed to refer to the execution of a nobleman called Yokh-Tsiolphë (Yugg-Siurphë in some texts), who had offended the Queen either by refusing to sacrifice his eldest son and daughter to the Thorn-God or (as most scholars now believe) by falling under suspicion of having composed an anonymous pasquinade against the Thorn-God which was briefly circulated at the royal court in 38 A.D./1174 A.S.I. The execution would have been one of the earliest signs of the Queen’s growing regard for the Thorn-God.
9. The Yihhian here is a little unclear and the reference is perhaps to the Osprey (Pandion haliætus), which was second only to the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) in the ornithomancy of the Temple.
10. The Yihhian kiuthi literally means “spotted one” and can refer to several species of animal; “leopard” seems the most appropriate translation in this context.
11. Niédýthithlà (mhló)Nhriúlr, literally “deathly lord(’s)”, was a title of the Thorn-God, but the foreign derivation of the words in Yihhian means it is perhaps best translated into English as “thanatocrator”.
12. Blossoms of gorse (Ulex spp) and other spinose plants were thrown beneath the feet of dancing priests during rituals at the Temple, and many of the Temple’s hymns refer to osmomancy, or divination by the scents released from the crushed petals.
13. She is said to have been planning another round of the puerile and puellar sacrifices with which she purchased her unnatural youth at the time of her death, occasioned when she slipped on trampled petals in the Temple of the Thorn-God whilst approaching the altar for blessing and was impaled on the silver thorns topping a newly erected altar-rail. Some contemporary commentators hinted at numerological significance in her death, saying that the priests of the Thorn-God had persuaded her that by laying down her life at that age she would regain it at the beginning of the next cosmic cycle. It is possible, therefore, that the encephalotomy and cardiotomy of her ritual mummification were feigned.