Definitions of the terms byssus and sea-silk

There is a big confusion and misunderstanding around the concept of byssus. Aristotle would have been the first to give the name byssus to the fibres of the Pinna, so is said. This false attribution is based on a translation error, or more precisely an accent error going back to the 15th century, a very momentous error - at least for the history of sea-silk.

In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a Historia animalium. In Book V 15 he described the fan shell Pinna: „Αἱ δὲ πίνναι ὀρθαὶ φύονται ἐκ τοῦ βυσσοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἀμμώδεσι καὶ βορβορώδεσιν”. In the 13th century, Willem van Moerbeke (approx. 1215-1286), a Flemish Dominican priest, translated the book into Latin: „Pinnae rectae nascuntur ex fundo in arenosis…“ („the Pinna-mussels grow upright out of the depth in sandy places…“). This is correct, as ό βυσσός is masculine, with accent on the last sillable – it means depth. So it is clear, that he did not use the term byssus for the filaments of the Pinna.
200 years later, in the second half of 15th century, Theodorus Gaza (approx. 1400-1475), a Byzantine humanist living in Italy, made another translation of Aristotle’s History of animals. He made major alterations, as he was convinced, that “a translator of Aristotle must first do his best to restore the text to the form the philosopher had originally given it, and to do so he will have to make substantial changes ad mentem Aristotelis“. Make a better Aristotle, but Gaza was not always lucky in that. He translated: „Pinnae erectae locis arenosis coenosisque ex bysso …“. As in the time of Aristotle Greek was not written with accents , he misunderstood the term “εκ του βυσσου” and translated „ex bysso”: „the Pinna-mussles grow upright from the byssus…“ – ή βύσσος, feminine, with accent on the first sillable, meaning fine linen.
That is how the term byssus for the fibre beard of the Pinna was born. Gaza’s version was much more successful. Printed 1476 in Venice, his book had by the end of the 16th century already more than 40 editions. „Gaza, in fact, had a ‘virtual monopoly’ on the biological works of Aristotle“, and more: „Immediately after its publication Gaza’s translation of De Animalibus achieved an authoritative status, totally eclipsing all previous translations” – although the incorrect translation of this cited phrase was contradicted later by many philologist and zoologist.
Nevertheless, the term byssus entered in zoology and was given later to all other bivalve filaments. So, from that moment on, to the already ambiguous term byssus known from the ancients – cotton? linen? silk? – was added one more: the zoological term byssus for the fibres of bivalves. But „…we must bear in mind, that not one author before Gaza, 1476, has ever used the word byssus in this sense [as fibre beard of the Pinna nobilis] and that all later use goes back to the quoted passage of Gaza” (van der Feen 1949).

The Greek term byssinon on the Rosetta Stone refers to the use of linen textiles called byssus in the 2st c. BC. On the basis of this stone, which was found in 1799 in Egypt, the first hieroglyphs could be deciphered.
The Greek term byssinon on the Rosetta Stone refers to the use of linen textiles called byssus in the 2st c. BC. On the basis of this stone, which was found in 1799 in Egypt, the first hieroglyphs could be deciphered.

Sea-silk is the cleaned and combed fibre beard of the noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis L.) used for textile work.

is the zoological term for this fibre beard. The naturalist Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) was the first to use the term byssus in this sense in his book Universae aquatilium historiae, published in 1555.

The Latin term byssus, however, has another, older meaning: it comes from the Greek βύσσος (bissos) and means fine linen. It goes back to the Hebrew word Bûz. Already in antiquity the term was extended and specified fine, precious fabrics of different materials. This is important especially for the interpretation of the term in the Bible.

Aristotle is often referred to as the 'father' of sea-silk. The reason for this is the translation or rather accent mistake, which dates back to the 15th century (van der Feen 1949). A mistake with consequences! In his history of animals Aristotle describes the noble pen shell growing from the depth (ὁ βυσσός, masculine, accent on the second syllable), but says nothing about the adhesive filaments, the byssus (ἡ βύσσος, feminine, accent on the first syllable). There is no evidence that he knew about sea silk. Rondelet (1555) mentions two kinds of byssus: one from the land, and one from the sea - «byssus terrenus est et marinus». Thus it is obvious that the term byssus for the tuft of the noble pen shell (and other bivalves) was given because of the similarity with the well known antique fabric of linen byssus, and not vice versa. So, the byssus of antiquity has nothing to do with sea-silk.

However, sea-silk is often simply called byssus - so the linguistic problems are predictable. The ambiguity of this term is one of the reasons for many misunderstandings and misinterpretations. In 1983 Gabriel Vial of CIETA Lyon analysed a fine fabric from the 8th century labelled byssus - it was mulberry silk - and explains: «… la confusion était totale entre le lin, la soie, le coton et ce que l’on appelle aujourd’hui du mot Byssus» (see also Maeder 2008, 2010).