A Titanic Love Affair, Horse Chestnut Husk Dye and Mordanting with Moses the Chemist

Photo: Jonathan Billinger

My titanic love affair has little to do with those 12 sprogs/pre-Olympian gods of Uranus, less still the ill-fated ship of that name. I’m in love with the oxalate of a mineral element,  Titanium Oxalate (C4O8Ti) which is a new kid on the block in the mordanting (fixing) of natural dyes. And a very dynamic love affair it is going to be.

I’d not found any UK suppliers for it, didn’t want to risk importing it from the US (given that it comes as a white powder in little packets); then was excited to find it listed on Wild Colours.

Titanium(Ti), a mineral element, was discovered in 1791 in Cornwall by William Gregor, clergyman and amateur mineralogist. He discovered the mineral after he moved to the rectory of Creed in Cornwall and began an analysis of the minerals of Cornwall. The first image here is of St Crida’s church, Creed, where Gregor preached when he wasn’t mineral-hunting.

King Mark of Cornwall: ill. Howard Pyle

St Crida’s  today is active in the Celtic Christianity tradition. Crida is said to have been the youngest daughter of King Mark, who ruled middle Cornwall from 515 to 560 AD. During his reign, Britain was invaded from the east by the Saxons. The Brits fled west, some to Wales, others to France by boat. Crida built a nunnery – by the river Fal – for the welfare of refugees while they awaited boats to take them across the Channel.

King Mark is famous in Arthurian Legend as the uncle of Tristan, whom he sent as his proxy to Ireland to fetch back his young bride, Iseult. Tristan and Iseult fell in love on the way back, with tragic consequences. The Wagnerian opera Tristan und Isolde ends with my most favourite Wagnerian aria Liebestod (the Love-Death Song) and I have not been afraid to tackle this aria myself. I should have been. But then it doesn’t matter because nobody will ever hear me singing it.

The opera had to overcome so many difficulties before it premiered, that it gained the reputation of being unperformable. Here’s my favourite rendition of Liebestod:

I like the legend which tells how Mark’s daughter Crida required her nuns to pray in different places each day, the reason being that when they prayed Jesus would come and stand beside them and wherever Jesus’ feet touched, the ground was made Holy. Praying in this way would effect, eventually, the sanctification of the whole land.

Titanium is very strong, which is why it was named in 1795, by Martin Heinrich Klaproth,  for The Titans, those first (very strong) gods of the cosmos. Klaproth was a German chemist who discovered uranium, cerium and zirconium. In 1787, he was appointed lecturer in chemistry to the Prussian Royal Artillery. It looks like he was on the way to nuclear fission long before Otto Hahn in 1938.

Trying to sanctify the earth by prayer has got to be a better way of passing your day.

My titanium arrived just as I was about to try and extract dye from green horse chestnut husks. There’s a massive horse chestnut tree in the garden and it hurls down bucketfuls of the green spiky things at this time of the year. Some of the husks were so big they contained three chestnuts, each in its individual nest within the husk.

I chopped the green husks into smaller pieces. It’s important to use fresh, green husks and the husks go brown quickly once they’ve left the tree, so you have to be quick about the harvesting.

WARNING:  HORSE chestnuts, as opposed to SWEET chestnuts are POISONOUS to humans, ingested, in case you didn’t know, so don’t eat them.

I simmered the husks in rainwater for a couple of hours to release the dye. I then added some sample pieces of a variety of cottons and silks and continued simmering for about another two hours.

I left the fabrics in the dye to cool down overnight – in the end about 24 hours – then rinsed them and dried them. I then washed them with organic vegan soap, dried and ironed them.

Next I added a teaspoonful of the titanium oxalate to the dye pot and – wait for it – the dye and husks turned blood red right in front of my eyes.

Moses Striking the Rock: Bible Boskovicka

I felt like an alchemist.  I felt like Moses. When he used staff or rod to turn the Nile into blood in front of the pharaoh’s eyes. And killed all the fish. It made me wonder about a scientific explanation as to how Moses and the pharaoh’s magicians might have turned river water into blood. Was it really blood? Did he use Titanium oxalate? And how?

Research soon taught me that Titanium oxalate isn’t such a new kid on the mordanting block and mordanting (fixing) dyes dates to Ancient China and Ancient Egypt. Pharaoh’s magicians were early chemists? Moses was brought up in the courts of two pharaohs. We don’t know their names as they weren’t named in The Bible, so are known as The Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites and The Pharaoh of The Exodus. Did Moses’ schooling include instruction in the chemistry of magic? Even though Titanium oxalate wasn’t discovered until the 1700s, that was in the West. It may very well have been in use in Ancient Egypt. It was still a candidate for the water-to-blood trick.

Moses: The Burning Bush: St Isaac’s Cathedral: St Petersburg

Moses would have needed a lot of it. Or would he? I used a teaspoonful in a reasonably large pan of water. I may have got away with using much less. A few grains perhaps. Moses used a rod or staff to turn water to blood. The Rod or Staff of Moses is first mentioned in The Bible when Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush, when God seems to have endowed the staff with special powers. “And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs”. Moses, like most magicians, had an assistant in his water-to-blood trick: his brother Aaron, who too had a magic rod. 

Moses’ Staff is of great fame and legend, mentioned both in The Bible and The Quran. Likewise the Rod of Aaron. According to Jewish tradition, Moses’ rod and Aaron’s were one and the same and handed down through the ages from Adam onwards. It is even said that it still exists, in Turkey, the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Many paths lead from the crossroad marked magic rods. I’ll enjoy these walks. I find I am brought back full circle to the drawings I’ve begun of the pond. What have magic rods to do with these? The pond (water) has been populated this summer by blue, green and black, and orange dragonflies. They are rod-like. And very magical. Rods with wings.

And if it wasn’t Titanium oxalate that turned the Nile into blood, there’s a chemical experiment that appears to turn water into wine or blood, using sodium carbonate and a few drops of phenolphthalein.  And you can turn the bloody liquid back to clear water again by blowing on it. How wonderfully magical is that? How wonderfully chemical is that? And maybe Moses’ rod was just simply, miracle-bringing.

As far as my dyeing experiment is concerned, horse chestnut dye without mordant produced lovely soft pinky shades. The image on the right doesn’t bring out the pink. Trust me.

The addition of Titanium oxalate culminated in  these stunning saffron and gold-yellow colours on the left.

Both sets of colours are pertinent to my subject matter. The horse chestnuts are from a tree in my garden close to the pond. Yellows and golds abound in the garden. During this first year of occupancy I’ve noticed the garden has a purple and gold theme. It will be magnificent fully restored. (I hope).

When I am more settled in my new home, and able to find time to think for longer periods, I will be developing some work that pulls together all these different walks off of crossroads. I will be following Moses the alchemist across the desert, searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, aka freedom from (spiritual) slavery and oppression, aka eternal life.

I’m not going to fling Titanium oxalate into the pond to see if it turns red. It won’t free anybody from slavery. I don’t want to kill my fish. Or my cat Keeks who prefers to steal water than drink the legit (natural spring) water provided for her daily in her posh water bowl indoors.

I’m thinking more along these lines of The Metaphysical Bible Dictionary:

“Moses means drawing out, extracting, i. e., from the water. The birth of Moses represents man’s development in consciousness of the law of his being, from the negative side. Water represents universal negation; but water also represents the great possibility. Out of seemingly negative conditions comes the new growth.”

About AnnIsikArts

Artist/Writer/Chess Enthusiast/Musician (Singer)/Gardener
This entry was posted in Art, Christian writing, Eco/Natural Dyeing and Printing, Opera, Science, Singing, spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Titanic Love Affair, Horse Chestnut Husk Dye and Mordanting with Moses the Chemist

  1. Lovely post Ann! Even if I’m rather astounded to hear water represents universal negation? I’ll have to look it up!


    • AnnIsikArts says:

      I’m astounded you READ that far! Yes, I agree on the ‘universal negation’ thing and when I get time to ‘ponder and wonder’ (and this year has not let me have much time for that – a ‘setting up’ year it has been largely) I will be delving into that myself. It is written in the context of the metaphysical meaning of Moses, however and off the top of my head, he drew water from a rock instead of doing something else he was told to do and he was ‘punished’ by God by not being allowed to enter the ‘promised land’. Taken literally, aka ‘fundamentally’, that’s not a ‘God’ I could respect. That’s another story.


      • Wow! Reminds me why I’m wary of the (male) Christian God, or what man (gendered) has made of him. I believe Moses had a set of horns. Michaelangelo sculpted him like that. Apparently it’s written in the Bible somewhere?


      • AnnIsikArts says:

        Yes, a mistranslation! Moses is described as having – rays of the skin of his face – translated as – horns. It does make you wonder sometimes if Von Daniken was maybe right! (Chariots of the Gods).


      • Oh! Didn’t know it was a mistranslation. Never tead Chariots of the Gods. Perhaps I should.


      • AnnIsikArts says:

        One wonders why known mistranslations are allowed to remain as ‘gospel’. Von Daniken’s books were ridiculed of course by the orthodoxy, given there was no real evidence. They are entertaining reading, though.

        Liked by 1 person

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