On Silk

One of my favorite older works, this piece of “fictional nonfiction” was originally written in August 2011 but lightly edited several times since. It’s definitely one of my favorite older pieces of writing.

On Silk

And the Culture, History, and Economics thereof in the Nibenean Heartland.

The stiff, hempen silk of the Velothi Blight Moth: too coarse to be anything but practical; the translucent, mirror-like silks of the Summurset: too costly and taking too long to sing into being; the weija of Valenwood (which, though not itself a proper silk, is often classed alongside them): too hard to obtain and bearing too much indigenous connotation — the beautiful and versatile silks of the Niben outclass them all. They are easy to produce and work with, yet fine enough for noble use. They bear an excellent capacity for enchantment — so much so, in fact, that for a long time they were used for nothing but.

The secret of Nibenean silk lies with the Ancestor Moths. Long-lived and omnivorous, these moths lay their eggs within dead flesh. Their larva hatch and dig their way out, forming a cocoon once they reach air. The cocoon is made of several miles of silk, typically blood red in color, which is processed and spun into cloth. Seinius, a late Merethic era Ayleid scholar, speaks of the moths as “profane scavengers,” who cover corpses “like a carpet of moss and rotting flowers.” The Ayleids looked down upon the creatures, but their Nedic slaves took advantage of the larva’s carnivorous nature, and devised secret rituals to transfer their souls into the moth upon death, thereby avoiding the eternal resurrection and torment that was the favored tool of their masters. The Nede’s name for their saviors was miith, which meant at once “moth,” “ancestor,” and “spirit.” From it derive the modern “moth” and “myth” (meaning a history of one’s ancestors). With the help of the Nede’s silent veneration, the populations of the Ancestor Moths increased, and by the time Alessia took the throne, the moths formed the spiritual heart of Cyrod.

Shortly after, the moth came to dominate its economic heart as well.

Though Alessia held the throne and the Ayleid hegemonies were subdued, the fledgling empire of men was weak and impoverished. The dead still littered the streets and forests, abandoned where they fell in zealous rebellion or futile resistance. Upon these hundred thousand corpses the Ancestor Moths laid their eggs. Although the actual discovery of the weaving of silk is not documented, an oral legend states that a young girl came upon the process while performing funerary rights on her dead father. The girl supposedly laid her hands, covered in tears, on the cocoon-laden corpse and the fibers stuck to her fingers. As she performed the many-stepped hand dance that honored the dead, the fibers wove together and formed the first span of cloth. Although this ritual does not match the modern production process, it is nevertheless an intriguing tale.

At first, silk — woven with the spirits and songs of the many dead — was restricted to the Nibenean faithful. Each cloth was a family, a link to a genealogical past with which the Cyrodil were obsessed because they had been denied it as slaves. News of this fabric quickly spread beyond the borders of the fledgling state, carried on the bodies of diplomats, priests, and farmers alike. A Camoran ambassador to Alessia’s court spoke thus of the queen’s dress in a letter to a relative in Falinesti:

…her manyfold skirts glisten as the bay at sunset, make the very same sound as the forest canopy in winter’s breeze. Today she received me clad in purple(!), but, before I could remark on the heresy, I noticed that it was not a single cloth but a dozen, the topmost a nearly translucent crimson moving gently with each motion of the air, the lowest a heavy, night-sky blue which refused to move even when she walked. Those between ranged in color and thickness, each a counterpoint, until it seemed that she was both floating in air and firmly anchored to ground.

Foreign dignitaries were impressed by the fabric’s beauty and versatility, and Alessia, in her wisdom, decided to export it to finance functions of state. Records indicate that many freedmen took up its harvest, weaving, and sale, and, within 20 years of the fall of Ayleidoon, Cyrod was famous throughout Tamriel for its silks. Only simpler, unsouled fabrics were sold, yet their quality was still beyond compare. Yet even as silks found their way abroad they became part of what it meant to be a Cyrodil.

The importance of the Ancestor Moth and its silk in Cyrodiilic culture cannot be stressed enough. Even the poorest families hang genealogical scarves of silk above their hearths, the waving lines and geometries of which tell the story of each lineage. Traditionally these scarves are made from the silk of the moths that house their ancestor’s spirits, and would be let out and remade anew each time a progenitor passed to the grave. Now, with rising population and falling faith, most are made of simple unsouled silk and embroidered with threads taken from the favored garment of the dead. Yet even these are worth a fortune and fiercely guarded, as are the numerous silken fetishes which warriors weave onto their hair and armor prior to battle, or the silken souled lace in which a babe is placed in memory of the ancient Kothri custom of immersing newborns in coastal foam.

One particularly creative use of silk deserves a special mention: the armor known as Mithril. The term derives from the Nedic miith ii riil, which translates roughly to “storied strength of moth-carried ancestors.” Though the art to its manufacture has been lost to the ages, we know that it was made by interweaving song-strengthened silk with metal wire (initially copper, later silver) and binding the weave together with the spirit of an ancestor. One account replaces the metal with the hair of the one meant to wear the armor, and another claims that nothing but silk, spirit, and song is needed. Regardless of its manufacture, the strands were then bent into rings, which were linked in an intricate five-part pattern. The suits excelled at stopping the short sword and spear favored by foot soldiers, as well as the spells of magi. The making of the suits stopped sometime in the mid 1st era, perhaps prompted by the advent of heavier swords or sturdier metals. No full suits survived to modernity, though individual links or chains are found in the possession of many wealthy citizens. Many claim that the metal speaks to its carrier, and ensures that they win in battle.

Suffice it to say that the moth stands second only to the Amulet of Kings in the pantheon of cultural symbols. At times, the two have been in conflict: the priest-kings of the Alessian Order wore strands of silk weighed down with sorcerous words, proclaiming that they “need no gem but shining truth.” Similarly, Reman Cyrodiil is said to have worn the Amulet upon a single strand of Ancestor silk, eschewing the heavy chains and pendants of his Alessian forefathers in favor of spiritual wealth.

Modern Cyrodiil’s riches, both of the physical and spiritual variety, still depends on silk. The harvest, production, and export of fabrics, fibers, and garments are one of Cyrodiil’s biggest industries. Silk merchants and tailors comprise a special middle class, second only to caste nobles in wealth and prestige. The genealogical cloths of families help to determine their rank in society, the jobs they can hold, and whom they can marry. Most of the cult clergy devote their dead to their own moth farms, and feverishly guard the secrets to the particulars of methods.

Outside of secular enterprises, the biggest producers of silk remain the Priests of the Ancestor Moth. This ancient and venerable order – perhaps the oldest priesthood in Cyrodiil – is famed for its close relationship to the Ancestor Moths, and produces what is considered the highest class of souled silk in the Empire. The priesthood’s most senior members are said to live in vast subterranean tunnel networks, the floor plan of which mimics the swirling patterns found on moth’s wings. These patterns vary from moth to moth, and, when read, reveal the story of the soul it houses. As such, the tunnels are in truth a vast genealogy of the order, going back into the days of Alessia. Additionally, the labyrinthine spaces are covered from floor to ceiling in silks, layering histories and playing them against each other, telling not only the tales of peoples but of empires and ages. The monks live surrounded by moths, and chant mantras to them with every waking breath. There are stories of live monks letting the moths lay their eggs within their flesh, of ‘monks’ who are really just dense clouds of moth and silk, and of monks who erupt into a thousand moths upon the moment of death. According to the cult’s theurgists, the rituals for the creation of true, priest-blessed and souled Ancestor Silk have changed little since the first era. We have no way of ascertaining this, however, since the steps have not been revealed (cannot be revealed, according to those same theurgists, because they are less physical act than they are state of mind and temporal mytholocation.)

The production of unsouled silks is a much less guarded affair. Though most workshops have their own traditions and methodologies, the core remains the same. The moths are provided with still-warm dead flesh (human is best, though animal is most common); a mass of heated meat, blood, and bone; or a mixture of warm compost and bonemeal onto which they lay their eggs. The worms hatch and the cocoons are recovered (by hand in the case of whole bodies, by straining with everything else), boiled to release the strands, and spun into thread. The thread is then woven into pure silk or interwoven with other fibers (including gold, Nordic alpaca wool, and Tenmar cotton). The addition of these foreign fibers illustrate a new theme in the long history of Heartland silks: imperialism and adaptation. Cyrodiilic Silk is no longer the private language of the Niben, but rather the universal tongue of the world.