Silk, a luxurious and coveted textile, has a history that dates back over 4,000 years. Its origins can be traced to ancient China, where sericulture (silk farming) and the art of silk production were closely guarded secrets. Silk fabric became a symbol of wealth and prestige, and it played a crucial role in trade along the Silk Road, connecting East and West.
The Silk Road, a network of ancient trade routes, emerged around the 2nd century BCE, during the Han Dynasty of China. Its origins can be traced to Chinese diplomats and explorers seeking to establish connections with neighboring regions. This network of interconnected routes spanned thousands of miles, stretching from China through Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe. It facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, cultures, and technologies between East and West. Along the Silk Road, silk played a pivotal role, as it was among the most sought-after commodities, even though it was far from the only item traded.
Slavs and Silk
It is generally believed that the Slavic urheimat have been in Eastern Europe, covering parts of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia, and as such, it was not directly connected to the Silk Road. However, some modern Slavic territories, such as parts of Eastern Europe and especially the Balkans, were situated along the Silk Road trade routes.
According to the official history, the Slavic people migrated and established their presence in the Balkans during the 6th century AD. Prior to their arrival, this area had been inhabited by various other tribes, among them the Celts.
Recently, while browsing a Proto-Celtic dictionary (available here), I was surprised to see that one of the words for “beetle” was “swila”. This word sounds like a Serbian word for silk – svila. The etymology of the Slavic word is clear – it designates something that is folded, or curled, which is exactly what happens to the threads of silk, made by a silkworm.
But are the Proto-Celtic and Serbian word really connected?
The English word “silk” has a rich linguistic history. It ultimately traces its origins to the Chinese word for silk, which is “丝” (sī). The modern word originated from the Old English term “sioloc,” which was influenced by Latin “sericum” and Greek “σηρικός” (serikos). Both Latin and Greek terms were connected to the name of the Seres, an ancient Asian people known for their silk production.
But what is interesting is that the Slavic word for silk stems directly from the Slavic language – it is not a borrowing. Languages usually borrow words when they acquire new technology, but the Slavic word relates directly to the process of the silk manufacturing.
Origins of the Silk Production – Not Along the Silk Road
The oldest evidence of use of silk in China, comes from the ancient Sanxingdui civilisation. It is dated to the 1st millenium BC. See here. Sanxingdui is located in the province of Sichuan. It is commonly believed that the name Sichuan means “four rivers“. However, it might also be related to the silk production, as the modern Mandarin word for silk is – “丝绸” (sīchóu) – a compound word consisting of two characters:
- “丝” (sī): This character means “silk” or “thread.”
- “绸” (chóu): This character means “fabric” or “cloth.”
However, the earliest indications of silk utilization can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization, preceding the era of Sanxingdui by a minimum of 500 years. Some ancient Roman authors, including Ptolemy, placed Serica to the north of India in their geographical writings – which is precisly where the Indus Valley civilizastion once thrived. According to Pausanias (6.22.2) the Seres were a mixture of Scythians and Indians.
On the other hand, modern scolars usually place Serica to the east of China, in other words, near the Sichuan province.
However, the most interesting ancient account comes from Pliny:
“They also informed us … that beyond the Emodian Mountains (Himalayas) they look towards the Serve (Seres), whose acquaintance they had also made in the pursuits of commerce; that the father of Rachias (the ambassador) had frequently visited their country, and that the Serae always came to meet them on their arrival. These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts.”
Nowadays, it is believed that the ethnonym Seres – the silk people, never existed. Rather, it was a name that the silk merchants used for those nations that produced silk. However, what I find really interesting in Pliny’s account is the fact that he reffers to them as Serve – which is how some modern nations still call Serbs to this day. The ethnonym Serb was once a common ethnonym for all Slavs.
Mulberry Tree – Sanskrit and Slavic cognates
The mulberry tree (Morus spp.) plays a crucial role in silk production, as it is the primary food source for silkworms (Bombyx mori), which are the caterpillars responsible for spinning silk cocoons.
And once again, the Slavic word for this tree is tut/dud – a direct cognate to the Sanskrit tUta, with similar parallel existing only in some Turkic languages.
In contemporary talk about the Silk Road, our attention often centers on the trade route that linked ancient China to ancient Rome (passing through the Balkans). Initially, this trade route exclusively dealt with the finished silk products. This was primarily due to the strict Chinese prohibition against exporting silkworms, punishable by the death penalty. The situation only shifted during the Byzantine era when the technology for silkworm rearing became more accessible.
By this time, the Celts were long gone from the Balkans, and therefore any Slavic influence on the Proto-Celtic would have been impossible. If there was really a connection between the words swila (beetle) and svila (silk), that is.
Nevertheless, even if we consider these words to be unrelated, it doesn’t resolve the undeniable fact that the Slavic and Sanskrit terms for the mulberry tree share a common origin. It raises intriguing questions: Could the Slavic peoples, particularly the Serbs, have encountered silk directly at its point of origin in Northern India rather than through the Silk Road? And also, is it possible that they were present in the Balkans earlier than conventionally believed and introduced this word to the Celtic inhabitants of the region?