Mystery Monday: Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

Book XXXVII

Book XXXVII of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, text completed in 1476 and illuminations completed c1480 in Venice. Printed on vellum, 414 x 280 mm. This is a translation by Cristoforo Landino of the original text into lingua fiorentina. Copyright Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In Natural History, first published around 77-80 CE, Pliny the Elder identifies the origin of sericulture as the strange and distant Land of the Seres. Pliny is only one of many western writers who held this opinion:

“Virgil’s Georgics reports enigmatically that the Seres ‘comb off’ a fine down from the leaves of Ethiopian trees, while Pliny attributes the same process in his Natural History to a remote, wild, and savage people known as the Seres who reside vaguely beyond the distant desert lands of the Scythians. Ovid ascribes to these distant people a swarthy complexion (colorati), and the Greek geographer Pausanias writing in the second century reiterates prior claims that the Seres are an Ethiopian race while also noting that they have been called Scythians crossed with Indians…. Ptolemy locates the region of the Seres imprecisely above ‘Sinae,’ claiming that both the Seres and the Sinae constitute the easternmost people of the inhabited world, and further detailing the Seres as occupying unknown lands at the edge of the earth” (7-8).

Approximate extent of Scythia and the Scythian languages (orange) in the 1st century BC. Found online at thefreedictionary.com

Approximate extent of Scythia and the Scythian languages (orange) in the 1st century BC. Found online at thefreedictionary.com

Pliny believed that silk had a corrupting influence on society; he believed that it introduced a wild, unrestrained element into Roman culture. “Trade with this unknown land of the Seres located on the eastern edge of the world generated for Pliny the image of textile production through which Roman women might clothe other Roman women in flimsy fabric as dangerous to ‘civilization’ as wild animals might be. ‘The Seres,’ though ‘mild in character,’ Pliny avers, ‘resemble wild animals, since they shun the remainder of mankind, and wait for trade to come to them'” (9).

So, what did the Chinese believe about this mythical land of the Seres? Legend holds that it was an equally wild place – a land ruled by women who practiced human sacrifice, a land devoid of the knowledge of silk production.

“From the other side of the Chinese border, a counter myth proliferates concerning an equally strange and unknown region, located somewhere south of the capital of neighboring Khotan and south of the Pamir Mountains, seemingly on the route westward from the ‘Land of the Seres.’ Recorded in a seventh-century Chinese dynastic history known as the Beishi, this odd region is not a land of silk but a kingdom governed by women in which the men, devoted solely to military affairs, are ruled by a principal queen and a surrogate queen. Characterized as practicing human sacrifice to forest divinities, the long-hair inhabitants of the ‘land of women’ wear leather shoes and enjoy hunting…. The category of the ‘unknown,’ associated in early Greco-Roman accounts with distant foreigners who make mysterious silk, shifts the Chinese account to an equally mysterious province of women” (8).

The beautiful silk thread and textiles held great mystery for ancient writers. Their lack of understanding of sericulture led to curious legends of a wild, exotic locale, a degraded place at the very edge of the known world. It is curious that these ancient historians believed that fine quality silk fabrics could be produced in such a primitive culture.

How I would love to ask the Scythian Chieftain about this legendary Land of the Seres!

All quotes from the following text:
Burns, E. Jane. Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women’s Work in Medieval French
Literature. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
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