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p216 Byssus

Unsigned article on p216 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

BYSSUS (βύσσος). It has been a subject of some dispute whether the byssus of the ancients was cotton or linen. Herodotus (II.86) says that the mummies were wrapped up in byssine sindon (σινδόνος βυσσίνης τεάμῶσι), which Rosellini and many modern writers maintain to be cotton. The only decisive test, however, as to the material of mummy cloth is the microscope; and from the numerous examinations which have been made, it is quite certain that the mummy cloth was made of flax and not of cotton, and therefore whenever the ancient writers apply the term byssus to the mummy cloth, we must understand it to mean linen.

The word byssus appears to come from the Hebrew butz, and the Greeks probably got it through the Phoenicians (See Gesenius's Thesaurus). Pausanias (VI.26 §4) says that the district of Elis was well adapted for growing byssus, and remarks that all the people, whose land is adapted for it, sew hemp, flax, and byssus. In another passage (V.5 §2) he says that Elis is the only place in Greece in which byssus grows, and remarks that the byssus of Elis is not inferior to that of the Hebrews in fineness, but not so yellow (ξανθή). The women in Patrae gained their living by making head-dresses (κεκρύφαλοι), and weaving cloth from the byssus grown in Elis (Paus. VII.21 §7).

Among later writers, the word byssus may perhaps be used to indicate either cotton or linen cloth. Böttiger (Sabina, vol. II p105) supposes that the byssus was a kind of muslin, which was employed in making the celebrated Coan garments. It is mentioned in the Gospel of St. Luke (xvi.19)º as part of the dress of a rich man (compare Rev. xviii.12). It was sometimes dyed of a purple or crimson colour (βύσσινον· πορφυροῦν, Hesych.). Pliny (XIX.4) speaks of it as a species of flax (linum), and says that it served mulierum maxime deliciis (Yates, Textrinum Antiquorum, p267, &c.).


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