About Sylphs

This page condenses the four postings about the history and evolution of one of my exotic species, the sylphs.


Fewl netla necul rihopa

"A land without sylphs is an empty land."  Sylph saying

Apiracen Nick
(Nick's Introduction)
Those who read my work are often curious about the origins and purpose of sylphs.  Sylph characters project what is more-or-less a modern worldview, and leave humans to carry on with their mediaeval worldview.  It promoted the sylphs from minor characters to protagonists in their own right.

Genetically, sylphs are mostly, if not quite, human.  Some of their behaviour is puzzling, if not distressing, but it is all a product of their evolution.  Once that evolution and history is known, their more puzzling actions become more understandable, if not obvious.

Why does such a pacific and otherwise loving creature all but abandon infertile offspring?  Why do sylphs, particularly infertiles, put up with pretty much anything, so long as they get attention?  Why are sylphs superior in so many ways, yet utterly servile to their human overlords?

I hope these and other questions are answered here.  Oh, and please forgive the self-indulgence of using the sylph language for headings.

Necul Melea
(The Sylphs' Beginnings)
The idea for the sylphs came from a sci-fi short story to explain how humans came to the ilvenworld.  A technologically advanced race would use either robots or a lesser species to fulfil menial tasks few humans would now be prepared to take on.

Humans had abandoned their dying world, fleeing in "Arks" which would take many generations to find a new homeworld.  Using of automata would allow continuity of technology, but what if humans lost their abilities with advanced technology?  They might, and did, adapt after leaving their old world, and not necessarily towards greater technology.

So, instead of robots, humans on the Arks used sylphs.  But where did they come from?

Because of the way the sylph brain is constructed, and the way they view themselves, sylphs tend towards their sylph, rather than human, roots regarding their homeworld.  Sylphs give the name Setananta, or Mythworld, to their ancestral home.

This is where the sylphs originated and, assuming it still exists, is presumably where the original sylphs may still be found.  These creatures are quite unlike those found in the books.  There, two of the three sylph sexes were flying mammals, and this ancient inheritance is why male and female sylphs still dream of flying today.

On Setananta, sylphs had three genders: male, female and infertile.  The latter is a neuter, so is really a non-sex, or species phenotype.  As mammalian phenotypes are superficially feminine, infertiles are granted the "she" pronoun in human tongues, though they are not technically female.  Neither should they be referred to as infertile females, as this implies a barren breeding female, which is not the case.  In the sylph language, infertiles are granted their own personal pronoun [en = male; an = female; in = infertile; un = it, gender neutral].

On Setananta, infertile sylphs could not fly, despite the species having a predator.  When attacked, breeding sylphs usually escaped by flying away.  Even if caught, male and female sylphs exuded an odour that helped repel the predator.  This odour survives in modern sylphs as the sinabra; it is still stronger in males and females than in infertiles.

Although not neglected, infertiles were not as loved as their breeding brothers and sisters.  Parents cared for them, but kept their distance emotionally.  Non-flying and with a weaker sinabra, infertiles existed to be victims for the sylphs' predator.  Thanks to infertiles, survival of this non-violent species was secured.

This attitude towards infertiles persists in modern sylphs.  Today, parents look after their infertile offspring for the first four or five years, then lose interest in them.  This creates a psychological "wound", which is only mended in the eyes of infertiles when they bond with a human owner.  More on that later.

When humans and sylphs first interacted, the sylphs' predator was extinct, surviving only in myth.  They did not yet know it, but sylphs had just acquired a new, albeit different, predator.

At this time, there was something of a population crisis among sylphs.  With nothing to hunt them, infertile numbers exploded.  Humans needed servants for menial tasks, and sylphs needed to restore balance to their population.

So humans made their offer.

The offer consisted of a genetic manipulation of the sylph genome, reducing the number and frequency of infertile births.  Litter size was reduced as was the chance of conceiving infertiles in the first place.  Over several generations, balance was restored to the species.

But humans had stolen the sylphs' genetic code.


Necul Kala
(The "New" Sylphs)
Once the genetic code was known, scientists mixed sylph and human DNA.  Over several accelerated generations, they finally forged a successful working hybrid.  In the early stages, the mutually alien codes would not work well together, but by reducing the sylph share to less than 5% of the entire genome, genetic engineers finally found something they could work with.

Three types of sylph were created, known familiarly as Blue, Violet and Indigo, despite little difference in skin colour, other than that determined by exposure to sunlight.  Taxonomy: genus homo; group sylphiae; names caerulus, viola and indicum.

The three sub-species were intended for different tasks, which meant there were slight differences in intelligence and capabilities.  Although intelligence was broadly similar between the three groups, inclinations varied considerably.  Blues tended towards the most menial roles, such as land husbandry and domestic duties, while Violet and Indigo Sylphs enjoyed more cerebral challenges.

However, the human designers also wanted sylphs to "know their place".  The most primitive part of the brain, taken from the human genome, was modified to preclude violence and ensure that flight always won over fight.  This had the added advantage of helping keep sylphs servile, in the knowledge that humans possessed greater power.

The primitive part was based on the human brain, but the hybrids' higher consciousness was mostly imported from the original sylphs.  But with a few tweaks.

The new hybrid inherited a human fear of sudden loud noises, but not their fear of falling.  This sometimes has unfortunate consequences in a creature that can no longer fly (even infertiles have no fear of falling, unlike the original gender they are modelled on).  As their predator used to attack from above, modern sylphs still fear, or are at best uncomfortable with, open spaces.

It was a deliberate move on the part of the genetic engineers that sylphs, despite better senses (night vision and hearing range, for example), still regard humans as superior.  The hybrids could survive and function as an independent species, but their belief was - and for the most part still is - that humans rule and sylphs follow.

Able to interbreed, it is hardly surprising that the three separate sub-species eventually merged.  Modern sylphs are their descendants.

Necul y Imita
(Modern Sylphs)
Modern sylphs - Homo Sapiens Sylphiae (the taxonomy changed after the three sub-species merged and settled) - are the sylphs met in the books.

Tall and graceful, male and female sylphs have a similar height range to each other and most approach the height of an average human male.  Many are slightly taller than humans.  Their grace and natural thinness conveys an impression of height they do not in fact possess.  Physically, there is little to choose between male and female sylphs.  Male voices do not break and physical strength is similar between the two breeding sexes.

Infertile sylphs are much shorter than their breeding brothers and sisters.  Some can be very short, while others have a height similar to human females.

Thanks to their flying inheritance, no sylph is very heavy.  Bones are extremely light and supple (although if a major bone breaks, it shatters and usually leads to the death of the sylph, either through massive internal bleeding or shock).  A human child can (in theory) pick up an adult sylph easily, and sylphs sometimes have difficulty keeping on their feet in strong winds.

The weight to size ratio means sylphs need less food to survive than humans.  Their lungs are designed for human weight, allowing for far greater stamina and physical fitness.  Sylphs can also hold their breath underwater for longer.

All sylphs have the same in common:

Blue skin.  Although the skin is one colour - there are no striations, for example - it tans a darker blue in sunlight.  Birthmarks are common and usually take the form of darker blue spots or patches on the skin.  Some birthmarks are multi-coloured.

A type of melanin dictates the amount of blue pigmentation, which in turn is influenced by local climate.  Sylphs nearer the equator have slightly darker skin than those from temperate zones, while those from the polar regions have skin so pale that it is almost white.

Blue blood.  Where humans have red blood cells, sylphs have blue blood cells.  Both fill the same function.  Most parasites that plague humans avoid sylphs.  Midges, flies, ticks, fleas have no interest in blue blood.  The only parasite that enjoys their company is the tapeworm.

Teeth.  Humans have two sets of teeth in their lives; sylphs grow a new set every eight to ten years.  However, it is easier for a sylph to lose his teeth.  There are no incisors.

Hair.  The only body hair grows on the head and above the eyes.  In old age, strands or tufts of hair may appear on the ear-points.  Hair is silver-grey or silver.

Eyes.  The iris fills the visible eye and it is rare to see the whites of a sylph's eyes.  Iris is normally silver-grey or silver, although gold flecks are sometimes seen.  Tawny eyes also occur, but are rare.  The pupil is cat-slit.  Sylphs from polar regions have eyes that are more silver-white than silver-grey.

Eyes sometimes glow in the dark, especially if there is plenty of light.  Sylphs can see in the dark, as the iris acts as a light reflector.  "In" reflectors are situated at the edges of the iris and "out" reflectors nearer the pupil (this is what causes the glow).  If there is very little light, the pupil expands to cover the out reflectors (more correctly, the iris folds on itself); too much light and the pupil narrows to a barely visible vertical slit.

In darkness, sylphs are colour-blind.

Sylphs are as expressive with their eyes as humans.  Like humans, sylphs can train their expressions to hide their true feelings.  But...

Ear-points.  Sylph ears rise to points.  When erect, the points are the highest part of the body, rising above even the crown of the head.  They are also fully manoeuvrable and expressive.  No sylph can train his ear-points.

Ear-points are held erect when content, or ordinarily happy; bolt upright to show shock, surprise, concentration, anger or extreme interest; erect or bolt upright and twitching to show curiosity and happiness; slanted forward and twitching to show sexual interest, slanted forward to show curiosity, determination and when their owner is confused or wants to ask a question.  They slant backwards in the hair to show fear, uncertainty or apprehension.  Sagging ear-points show sadness, sorrow, remorse, submission, guilt or resignation.  Ear-points are tucked into the ears to show the sylph no longer wants to listen, disagrees strongly with what is being said or has a pressing urge to relieve himself.  When asleep, ear-points are usually tucked away.

Ear-points are also an erogenous zone for breeding sylphs.  Male and female sylphs will stroke or tickle each other's ear-points, but only when the sylphs are very close: usually lovers, although not exclusively so.  Litter-sisters sometimes indulge, but male-to-male ear-point stroking is very definitely taboo.  Few breeder sylphs tolerate even their owners touching their ear-points.  Sylphs who are lovers sometimes intertwine ear-points when kissing.

Parents will stroke the ear-points of very young children to soothe or calm them, but this should not be regarded as a sexual act.

Infertile sylphs are different.  Infertiles love to have their ear-points touched and stroked, and often contrive such contact with their owners.  It should be pointed out that this practice is not sexual for infertiles, though possibly the closest they get to such feelings.  Ear-point stroking is the quickest way to calm an upset or excited infertile.

Hearing.  Sylphs can hear a wider range of sounds than humans.  This can be used to advantage as sylphs can whistle at a higher pitch than humans can hear.  Sylph scouts, perhaps uniquely, utilise the skill to keep messages private.

Sinabra.  Petan nodded.  '...some of 'em smell.'  Markan Empire, Chapter XIII

The sinabra is the sylphs' natural scent and is strongest in the breeding sexes.  Humans find this odour neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  It is tolerated in most places, though in a few, such as the Imperial Republic, it is regarded as unpleasant and domestic sylphs are scented to mask the sinabra.

It is often believed that the stronger the sinabra, the dirtier the sylph.  This is quite unfair as personal hygiene is important to sylphs.  Those with the weakest sinabra - the infertiles - are probably the most lax (although no sylph is too lax) in this regard.  However, the sinabra does grow stronger with unwashed sylphs.

Male and female sylphs are attracted to a strong sinabra in the opposite sex.  This is another "hangover" from the original sylphs, because a strong sinabra increased the chance of surviving an attack from the predators.  It also meant there was a greater chance of the children inheriting a strong sinabra, thus increasing the chances of their survival.

Parasites and disease.  Sylphs are remarkably resistant to disease and parasites.  Parasites do not recognise them as a food source and they are different enough from humans to avoid most of their diseases.  The only parasite known to target sylphs is the tapeworm and owners are supposed to de-worm sylphs annually.  Popular lore suggests that sylphs would prefer to keep the worms.

There are sometimes epidemics of a mutated strain of the common cold, which is known incorrectly as "sylph 'flu".  Although not influenza, it is highly contagious and often kills its victims.

(Gender Ratio)
Of the three sexes, females and infertiles are born in litters, males individually.  Females are born as twins or triplets; infertiles as triplets or quads.  As the three sexes are conceived equally, this works out as fifteen females and twenty-one infertiles to six males at birth.  Infant mortality is higher in infertiles, so the ratio falls to seventeen infertiles to six males by age five and thereafter remains constant.

Litter-sisters form a close bond that lasts for life.  This is so important, that litter-sisters often marry the same male, although this is frowned upon among wild sylphs.  However, litter-sisters are rarely separated among wild sylphs (they prefer to trade males between colonies, rather than break a sisterly bond), which is not the case for enslaved sylphs.

Infertile sylphs also prefer to keep their litter-sisters close, though again this is unlikely in human civilisation.  At some studs, infertiles are separated at birth to help prevent the bond forming between litter-sisters.

Neculen Hisa
(Male Wound)
Male sylphs are born individually.  They become aware of the lack of litter-siblings by about two years of age.  Although the "wound" is nowhere near as deep as for infertiles (see below), male sylphs only find a cure for it through marriage.

Unmarried adult males are rarely fulfilled and often deeply unhappy.  Males form a very tight bond with their wife or wives when they marry and the institution of lifelong mating is more important to them than it is to females.  This need ensures male loyalty to wives and family.

Neculin Hisa
(Infertile Wound)
Mentioned above, this occurs when parents distance themselves from their infertile offspring.  This is an inheritance from the old sylphs, when infertiles were the preferred prey of predators.  It serves as an emotional buffer for the parents.

But nobody told the infertiles that.

By age five, infertiles realise they are not going to be treated the same as their fertile brothers and sisters.  Although they can accept a lower status, being shunned is deeply unpleasant.  Parents usually do not name infertile daughters.

In wild sylph colonies, infertiles form their own sub-society.  They serve their colony, but know they are excluded from the running and control of it.  They name each other and, as one small way of getting back at the breeders, keep those names secret among themselves.

With the civilised sylphs, infertiles are usually sold to their owners at about the time the infertile wound occurs.  They form close bonds with their new owners and are usually named by them.  [There is an increasing trend in studs for infertiles to be named before sale, but this is done by human intervention, rather than volunteered by sylph parents.]  No matter how they are treated, infertiles quickly become fanatically dedicated to their owner.  Unfortunately, this does not always have a happy ending, as they tend to love their owners far more than their owners love them.

However, the infertile worldview believes that negative attention is better than no attention.

Necul Caricha
(Genetic "Throwbacks")
Given the manipulated genetic history of sylphs, it is unsurprising that throwbacks (or sports) occur.  The most common type of throwback happens when some of the older sylph construct characteristics show through.  As with the other oddities, these usually manifest in the infertile gender.

Rounded ears are fairly common.  These sylphs are unable to express themselves using ear-points.  They tend not to be trusted by other sylphs, perhaps because they can hide their feelings, should they wish.

Tawny eyes, which are not cat-slit, are also fairly common.  The main drawback for these sylphs is that they cannot see (as well) in the dark.

From a human point of view, neither of the above differences is important.

Sometimes sylphs who closely resemble the original sylphs are born.  They are usually deformed, with poorly formed wings (much as the original infertiles).  As the original sylph forms so little of the new genome, these rarely survive long.

The most important throwback is the gwerin.  These are so different as to form a sub-species in their own right.  Genetically, these look more to their human inheritance.  They are pale-skinned and red-blooded.  All are infertile, and grow to a similar height as normal sylph infertiles.  From their sylph parents, they usually inherit cat-slit eyes (but not the irises) and manoeuvrable ear-points.

Unlike other infertiles, gwerins confer much honour on their parents.  Valued by humans, gwerins are very intelligent and usually become advisers to rulers or nobles.  There is jealousy because of their intelligence (from humans, not sylphs), so they usually need the protection of rulers.

Gwerins revere any sylph parent of a gwerin.  As they are so long-lived, their own parents are gone long before a gwerin would like, so all parents of gwerins are treated with the same respect.  Rare, gwerins are highly sought after, but they can be more mercurial than ordinary sylphs.

Among wild sylphs, gwerins always attain great rank in their own right.

Sylphs are able to eat almost anything.  They enjoy a wide variety of plants and these form the staple of sylph diet.  Though able to eat grass and leaves, and gain nutrients from them, they are not digested very well.

Sylphs are fond of fish and fowl, but tend to avoid red meat.  They can and, as a last resort, do indulge in red meat, but like grass and leaves, this does not agree with their digestion.

When food is scarce, sylphs slow their metabolism, which prolongs life, but even they eventually starve.  An overfed sylph does not get fat, but his metabolism increases.

Choca [chocolate!] is the enslaved sylphs' favourite treat.  A sylph will do (almost) anything to get his hands on the stuff, but over-indulgence has consequences on a sylph's delicate digestion.  Withdrawing the treat is the worst punishment (almost) a sylph can imagine.

Necul Setanalva
(Sylphs on the Ilvenworld)
Sylphs arrived on the ilvenworld with humans.  At first, life for sylphs continued as normal, until the initial civilisation collapsed and contact with the Ark was lost.

When humans descended into barbarity, most sylphs melted away into the extensive forests unpopulated steppes, and only returned to human overlords as civilisation began its long reconstruction.

The ilven taught sylphs how to be independent.  Even today, large colonies of sylphs are near every ilvenhome and sylphs often serve ilven, if in a less direct sense than they served humans.  Many more sylph colonies remain independent of human or ilven contact.

But most sylphs returned to human ownership, driven by instincts they cannot control.  Humans are more likely than ilven to provide the security all sylphs crave.

The division between enslaved (or civilised), and free (or wild) sylphs continues to this day.

Wild sylphs are proud of their independence.  Although customs vary from colony to colony, all are usually democratic and elect their leaders (for life, rather than for fixed terms).  Infertiles (except gwerins) are not treated as equals.

Wild sylphs are happy to trade with humans and human laws usually respect wild sylphs' freedoms (even if these laws are often ignored, see Markan Throne, Chap. II).  The wild ones often sell surplus infertile sylphs to humans and many trade male sylphs between each other.  This latter trade is thanks to wild sylphs frowning upon the practice of males marrying litter-sisters (encouraged in some human societies) and litter-sisters being very reluctant to part.  In some colonies, this debars the male from standing for election in his new home, but not in others.

Recently, a new sylph tribe elected a human to be its leader.  Quite how this will make changes remains to be seen (see Markan Throne, Markan Empire).

Civilised sylphs again fill most menial tasks in human society.  Over most of the world, a few families have become experts at selecting and breeding sylphs.  Generations of sylphs have served generations of these families.  The loyalty is mutual and, usually, respect goes both ways.

These families provide most of the sylphs in human society today.  Domestic sylphs remain popular; bonds between owner and owned are close.  Sylphs carry out much arable farming, animal husbandry, menial manufacturing tasks and (in a few places) scholarly work.  Their flexibility is recognised and utilised.

Necul Duracdurona
(War Sylphs)
Although pacific creatures, sylphs are not mere innocent victims who get caught up in war.  Until recently, the generally accepted human rule was to never involve sylphs in wars.  They rarely make good soldiers.

However, being non-warlike does not mean cowardly.

Calcan, and more recently the Markan Empire, use sylphs among their armies, and not only as officers' servants or camp attendants.

Many sylphs - of all three sexes - tend the wounded and are professionally trained in that task.  Although exposed to the full horrors of war, they are not quite as involved as the next group.

Sylph scouts are regarded by many as an abomination.  They were not forced into existence (sylph nurses were suggested by humans), but were volunteered by a very small group of sylphs.

The Sylph Scouting Corps grew exponentially in the first twenty years of its existence.  Just five sylphs passed from the first intake.  The training is long and arduous, as sylphs have to learn everything about tracking, communications, how to "read" an army, learn about every weapon in existence and how to discipline themselves in battle.

Within weeks of first running with an army, sylph scouts had proved themselves and are now an integral part of the Markan Empire's armies.

Scouts do not actually fight, but they do lead men to their deaths and this troubles the consciences of many - human and sylph.

Necul Habyatlana
(Ship Sylphs)
While humans tried to rebuild their civilisation and the old technologies were lost, the Gifted showed a way by which ships could safely navigate.

The ilvenworld teems with life elementals and all hope that Siranva will turn them into ilven.  Life elementals are in everything: souls of all living things are - or were before they became souls - life elementals.  Inanimate objects also have a life elemental and it is believed that even the ilvenworld has its own elemental.  Free - that is unattached - elementals can sense others.  So a free life elemental can sense rocks and other dangers to ships.

However, elementals cannot communicate directly with the living except through a proxy.  The best sort of proxy is a living creature, but its soul is already an elemental and there is room for no more.

But there is something different about sylphs.

Sylphs are a construct of two species.  Despite this duality, sylphs only have one soul, but there is the potential for two.  This is the gap elementals can use.

When a ship is built, the Gifted invite an elemental to adopt the ship as its own and form a bond with a sylph (humans use infertiles for this, but any sylph can potentially become a ship sylph).  Elementals assume the name of the ship and sometimes take further ships of the name while waiting for Siranva.

This elemental can communicate with the ship's crew through the ship sylph.

Outsiders often refuse to believe this is possible, and many seafarers assume the sylph is the ship, but the two are discrete entities.  Like sylph scouts, they have made themselves indispensable.

I Kinita o Necul
(The Gift and Sylphs)
When humans first arrived on the ilvenworld, Siranva picked ten out and granted them a gift, The Gift.  This was also offered to sylphs, but turned down.  Sylphs did not believe they should have such power.

However, it is now obvious that the Father gave something to the sylphs.  They can detect the use of the Gift and sense its practitioners.  Because the power that forms the Gift is the same as that forming sorcery, sylphs can also sense sorcerers.  However, they cannot differentiate between practitioners of the Gift and sorcery.  Not a thing the sylphs like, but now it has been identified, humans are already working out ways to use it to their advantage.

The sylphs are not complaining.

The treatment and status of sylphs varies from place to place.  For wild sylphs - who no longer fully trust humans, if at all - official protection is often a thin veneer that is frequently abused.  The authorities sometimes turn a blind eye to slavers, or refuse to prosecute them when caught.  In some places, slavers are encouraged.  Sylph breeders are always looking for fresh bloodlines and wild sylphs fetch high prices.

Civilised sylphs are also treated differently from area to area.  Most have a low status, usually that of slave, but there are exceptions.  Some lands outside the Markan Empire do not practise slavery, but that does not mean that sylphs are necessarily treated much differently.

Lands to the west (Eldova) and south (Imperial Republic) of the Markan Empire are very strict with sylphs, but discipline is quite lax in the eastern provinces (Calcan, Sandester, Trenvera).

In a few of the southern lands, sylphs can even possess their own slaves, though this is rare.  However, sylphs permitted to speak before ruling councils, or even join ruling councils, are rather more common in the southern lands (south of the Imperial Republic!) than further north.

In the arctic lands (eg, Frodger, Kelthane), all must struggle equally for survival.  Here too, sylphs enjoy a higher status than is usual elsewhere.  Collars are rare in the north.

This covers much of the evolution and variety of the sylph domain.  There are bound to be errors, omissions and oversights.  As with all fiction, ideas lead to further ideas and sylphs are flexible enough to accommodate almost anything new I might come up with.

With luck, this pamphlet explains at least something of the sylphs and the influences on their behaviour.

Nicholas A. Rose
April 2008
August 2011 (rev III)

Other influences:

Brave New World, Huxley
Genetics and Ethics, The Wellcome Trust
Bioethics, The Wellcome Trust
Utopia, More