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BYSSUS (βύσσος). It has been a subject of some dispute whether the byssus of the ancients was cotton or linen. Herodotus (2.86) says that the mummies were wrapped up in bandages of this material (σινδόνος βυσσίνης τελαμῶσι; cf. 7.181), and an examination of mummy cloth with the microscope has shown it to be linen and not cotton cloth. Byssus in Herodotus therefore signified linen made from flax, and not cotton, which he calls tree-wool (εἴριον [Att. ἔριον] ἀπὸ ξύλου, 3.47, 106, 7.65). The robes of byssus mentioned by Aeschylus (Sept. c. Theb. 1039; Pers. 125) and Euripides (Eur. Ba. 821) we may take to have been linen. In the same way linen is meant when we are told that the limbs of Osiris were wrapped in byssina (Diod. 1.85), that the image of Isis was covered with a black linen garment (Plut. Is. et Osir. 39), and that the great ship of Ptolemy Philopator had a sail of byssus (Athen. 5.206 c). But in some writers byssus is erroneously used to signify cotton (τὴν δὲ βύσσον φύεσθαι δένδρον φασι, Philostr. Vit. Apoll. 20), and Strabo even gives the name to silk, which he supposed to be a kind of cotton (τὰ Σηρικά, ἔκ τινων φλοιῶν ξαινομένης βύσσου, Strab. xv. p.693). It seems in later writers to have signified a fine and costly texture, made generally of linen, but perhaps in some cases of very fine cotton. Simaetha in Theocr. 2.73 goes sightseeing in a dress of byssus (βύσσοιο καλὸν σύροισα χιτῶνα) ; it is mentioned by Apuleius as a thin dress ( “bysso tenui pertexta,” Met. 11.100.3); and it is spoken of in the Gospel of St. Luke (16.19) as part of the dress of a rich man (cf. Rev. 18.12). Pliny (19.21) speaks of it as a species of flax (linum), which served mulierum maxime deliciis, and was very expensive.

The word comes from the Hebrew bûtz, and the Greeks probably got it through the Phoenicians. Pausanias (6.26.4) distinguishes byssus from hemp (καννάβις) and flax (λίνον), and in another passage (5.5.9) says that it was grown in Elis, being not inferior to that of the Hebrews in fineness, but not so yellow (ξανθή) ; and that the women in Patrae gained their livelihood by making headdresses (κεκρύφαλοι) and weaving cloth from it (7.21.7). Mr. Yates thinks that λίνον was the common flax, and that βύσσος was a finer variety, but the byssus in Elis may have been a species of cotton. (Yates, Textrinum Antiq., p. 267.)


hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Euripides, Bacchae, 821
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.86
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.26.4
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 19.21
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.85
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