The only undoubted notice of this material in the canonical Bible occurs in Re 18:12, where it is mentioned (σηρικόν) among the treasures of the typical Babylon. So also in 1 Macc. 4:23, in the enumeration of the spoil obtained from. the Syrians by Judas. It is, however, in the highest degree probable that the texture was known to the Hebrews from the time that their commercial relations. were extended by Solomon. For, though we have no historical evidence of the importation of the raw material to the shores. of the Mediterranean earlier than that. of Aristotle (Hist. Anim 5, 19) in the 4th century B.C., yet that notice, referring as it does to the island of Cos, would justify the assumption that it had been known at a far earlier period in Western Asia. The commercial routes of that continent are of the highest antiquity, and an indirect testimony to the existence of a trade with China in the age of Isaiah is probably afforded us in his reference to the Sinir (q.v.). The well known classical name of the substance (σηρικόν, sericum) does not occur in the Hebrew language, although Calmet conjectured that שׂרַיקוֹת, serikoth (Isa 19:9, A.V. "fine") was connected with sericum. But the absence of the mention of silk in the Old Test. may be accounted for partly on the ground that the Hebrews were acquainted only with the texture, and not with the raw material, and partly on the supposition that the name sericum reached the Greeks by another channel, viz. through Armenia. The Hebrew terms which have been supposed to refer to silk are מֶשַׁי, meshi, and דּמֶשֶׁק, demeshek. The former occurs only in Eze 16:10,13 (A.V. "silk"), and is probably connected with the root mashah, "to draw out," as if it were made of the finest drawn silk in the manner described by Pliny (6, 20; 11, 26); the equivalent term in the Sept. (τρίχαπτον), though connected in point of etymology with hair as its material, is, nevertheless, explained by Hesychius and Suidas as referring to silk, which may well have been described as resembling hair. (see Fuller, Miscell. 2, 11; Schroder, Vestit. Mulier. p. 324 sq.). The other term, demeshek, occurs in Am 3:12 (A.V. "Damascus"), and has been supposed to refer to silk from the resemblance of the word to our "damask," and of this again to "Damascus," as the place where the manufacture of silken textures was carried on. It appears, however, that "damask" is a corruption of dimakso, a term applied by the Arabs to the raw material alone, and not to the manufactured article (Pusey, Min. Proph. p. 183), The A.V. confounds שֵׁשׁ, shesh, byssus, with "silk" in Pr 31:22. We must therefore consider the reference to silk as extremely dubious. (See Hartmann, Hebraerinn, 2, 126 sq.; 3, 406 sq.). We have notice of silk under its classical name (שַׁריי ם) in the Mishna (Kil. 9, 2), where Chinese silk is distinguished from floss silk. The value set upon silk by the Romans, as implied in Re 18:12, is noticed by Josephus (War, 7, 5, 4); as well as by classical writers (e.g. Sueton. Caliq. 52; Mart. 11, 9). Aristotle (Hist. Anim. 5, 19) gave the first correct account of its nature by describing it as unwound from a large horned caterpillar. Notwithstanding this information, however, the most erroneous notions continued to be entertained respecting its origin; for Pliny (Hist. Nat. 11, 22) attributed it to a worm that built nests of clay and collected wax; while Virgil (Georg. 2, 121) and other authors supposed that the Seres carded the down from the leaves of plants and from flowers.
There can scarcely be a doubt that silk, the most beautiful of all the fabrics of the loom, was known and employed by the Assyrians long before the captivity of the prophet by the river Chebar. The Medes were notorious for the luxuriance and effeminacy of their costume, as is well shown in Xenophon's copious details (Cyrop. passim). After the conquest of Babylon and the possession by the Persians of universal empire, the very quintessence of magnificence was "the Median robe," which thenceforward became the dress of honor. "Cyrus distributed robes to his great men, most beautiful and noble, all of the Median sort." These were made of silk; for Procopius, writing long afterwards, when the silk worm had become known in Europe, says, "The robes which the Greeks used to call Median we now call silken." The author of The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea speaks of silk in Malabar as an article imported from countries farther east, which, however, can only apply to the raw material; for in the Statues of Menu, of an antiquity far more remote, we read of "silk and woollen stuffs" and "silken clothes" (Menu, 5, 120; 12, 64); and "woollen cloth, deer skins, jewels, soft silks, variously colored garments, and beautiful ornaments" are enumerated as presents in the Ramayana (1, 61). Pliny, commenting on the passage in Aristotle above cited, states that silk came to Greece from Assyria and was worked up by the Grecian women; and we may fairly conclude that the rich and curious products of China, her silk and porcelain, reached the marts of Egypt, of Phoenicia, and of Greece by various routes — one from the south of China through India, and thence either by sea up the Persian and Arabian gulfs or across the Indus through Persia by the great Syrian and Arabian caravans; and another by the grand route of Central Asia, by Bactra, "situate on the highway of the confluence of nations," whence the opulence of Thibet, Tartary, and China was poured in a ceaseless and splendid tide of traffic through the Caspian Gates (see Heeren, Hist. Researches, passim; and Wilkinson. Anc. Egypt. 3, 107). "As the dress described [in Ezekiel 16] is intended to be of the richest materials, it might well be supposed that the prophet would mention silk if silk were known to him. Silk continued to bear an astonishingly high price down to a comparatively late period. Thus we find that silk was forbidden to be worn by men under Tiberius. When they did wear it, silk formed only part of the fabric, robes entirely of silk being left to the women. It is numbered among the most extravagant luxuries or effeminacies of Heliogabalus that he was the first man who wore a robe of entire silk; and the anecdotes are well known of the emperor M. Antoninus, who caused a silk robe which had become his property to be sold, and of the emperor Aurelian, who refused, on the ground of its extravagant cost, a silk dress which his consort earnestly requested from him. Such anecdotes have an emphasis here, where, by a figurative reference to the most rich and costly articles of dress then known, God describes the precious and glorious things with which he had invested the. people he redeemed from the bondage and misery of Egypt" (Kitto, Pict. Bible, ad loc.).
The silk known to us is entirely produced by one insect, the caterpillar of a sluggish moth known as Bombyx mori, after its proper food plant, the mulberry (Morus). The larvae of other moths produce silk, and in India several species are cultivated, as the Tusseh and the Arrindy silk worms. But there is none that, can compete with the Chinese worm for the exquisite softness, gloss, and beauty of its silk, and its suitability for the finer textiles. Everyone in this country is now familiar with the history of the bombyx; with the round, flattened eggs; the gray worms which they produce which feed so voraciously on mulberry leaves, till they become plump white caterpillars, three inches long, and furnished with a little horn behind; with the oval yellow cocoons of silk which these caterpillars form around their own bodies; with the short brown pupa into which each immured caterpillar changes; and with the soft, downy, cream-colored moth with feathery antennoe that in due time emerges from the pupa, and from the cocoon if undisturbed. The mode of unwindling the cocoons and reeling off the silken thread is also familiarly known.