Centre for Textile Research


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In Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD, ed. Salvatore Gaspa, Cécile Michel, & Marie-Louise Nosch (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2017), pp. 173-187.



Copyright © 2017 Salvatore Gaspa, Cécile Michel, & Marie-Louise Nosch. Photographs copyright as noted.


This paper looks at three terms denoting the colour ‘red’, viz. Armenian karmir, the obviously corresponding Sogdian word karmīr, and karmīl ‘scarlet’ found in the Hebrew Bible. It will first briefly discuss the etymology of these words (summarising an argument made elsewhere) and argue that the words in question represent a technical term for a red dye from Armenia produced by scale insects. We will then attempt to show that historical data and chemical analysis of extant historical textiles confirm the Armenian red as the relevant dye.

Late Biblical Hebrew karmīl occurs only three times. All three attestations are found in the book 2 Chronicles, and refer to the construction of the temple, as in the passage 2 Chron. 3.14: ‣ wayyaʿaś ʾet-happāroket tǝkēlet wǝʾargāmān wǝkarmīl ūbūṣ wayyaʿal ʿālāyw kǝrūbīm “And he [= Solomon] made the veil [of the temple] of blue, and purple and crimson, and fine linen, and wrought cherubims thereon.”

In the remaining parts of the Old Testament, the series of blue, purple and crimson or scarlet reoccurs repeatedly, but instead of karmīl there is the expression tōlaʿat šānī , containing the words tōleʿa / tōlaʿ ‘worm, maggot’ and šānī ‘crimson, scarlet’. This expression is reminiscent of French vermeil ‘scarlet’, which is derived from ver ‘worm’. Hebrew karmīl is thus likely a priori to be not a colour, but a technical term for a dye, made from certain scale insects or cochineals such as the one in Fig. 2. In fact, this has been suggested since long ago; and it has also generally been assumed that Hebrew karmīl is a loanword from an Indo-European language and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo- European *ku̯ṛ́mi- ‘worm, maggot’ (the protoform of, for instance, Lithuanian kirmìs, Sanskrit kṛ́mi-, etc.). Slavic words for ‘red’ such as Old Church Slavonic črŭmĭnĭ show the same line of derivation. More precisely, as established already by Delitzsch, the source of karmīl must be an Iranian word related to Persian kirm ‘worm’ and its derivative qirmiz ‘red’. karmīl would then be a member of the group of Iranian words that entered Hebrew via Aramaic, and which are comparatively frequent in the book 2 Chronicles.