Quill Symbolism in Illistim Society (essay)

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This is a creative work set in the world of Elanthia, attributed to its original author(s). It does not necessarily represent the official lore of GemStone IV.

Title: Quill Symbolism in Illistim Society: An addendum to Owls, Elves, and Avian Affinity (essay)

Author: Rohese Bayvel-Timbertree

Author's Notes

Scroll n quill.jpg

A recent study of elves and their affinity to certain species of birds revealed an interesting insight into the historic use of feathers for quills by the Illistimi. Quills are not only wonderful implements to write with but can also serve as a covert means of expression, not unlike the Ardenai language of flowers1 or fanspeak2 of the Nalfein.

First and foremost, quills are considered to be the identifier of those in positions of authority and the scribal trade but their deployment by other Illistimi can also be signifiers of status or intent. Over time, the reliance on this practice has waned somewhat but it is still prevalent among the Illistim elite and within the city's influential orders so it is of interest to this author.

In order to recognise or appreciate this symbolism, however, one must first understand how a quill is made and the techniques involved.

The Anatomy and Crafting of a Quill

A quill is crafted from a bird's wing feather, ideally from the first five flight feathers or primaries.

The calamus – basically the functional part of the feather when it comes to making a quill - is the large hollow portion of the shaft that attaches the feather to the bird itself, it doesn't have any barbs on it. The rachis or shaft is the long, slender central part of the feather that holds the vanes, which make up the plumed section. The barbs grow from the rachis and each barb is a feather within a feather with a little shaft and barbs of its own called barbules. When viewed as a whole, the barbs are the vane. The afterfeather are the downy, lower barbs that are usually removed when making a quill.

To craft a quill, the feather must first be cleaned and tempered by soaking it in water overnight and then curing it in hot sand to harden it. The knife used to cut the feather should be small and short-bladed so as to be easy to handle and allow for smooth control. It is vital that the blade is very sharp to ensure the cut of the barrel (the bottom of the feather shaft) can be performed in one single diagonal stroke; sawing action will give uneven results.

The "top" of the shaft – the visible part when writing and where the slit will be made to form the nib - is situated on the convex side of the feather. The first cut is made from the top and should be done diagonally with a long strike. Should the feather shatter, like a broken fingernail, you know the knife is well sharpened. Simply repeat the cut a bit further up until you find the portion of the shaft that is hardened but still slightly flexible. The cut lines will become smoother and sculpting the feather becomes more precise as you move up the shaft.

The second cut is opposite the first, that is, on the concave side - the side that will be close to the parchment when you come to write with the finished quill. This second cut has to be more elongated and much further up the shaft (closer to the afterfeather or fluffy barbs). You will end up with a weird looking configuration resembling "two horns." Pressing these two horns together between your fingers until the feather cracks will cause a slit to form naturally. Now you simply sculpt the nib by nipping off the horns, paring it down and finally flattening the tip off by pressing it with the knife held on the perpendicular.

While this sounds like a tedious operation it is remarkably straightforward and quite quick once you get the hang of it. Alternatively, a quill can be made by the simple of addition of a metal nib but these versions tend to lack the flexibility needed to correctly inscribe characters in elvish.

Symbolism of the Quill

Since we are only interested in the calamus for the purposes of a writing implement, it stands to reason that the choice of the feather or plume itself is purely for show and this is where its symbolism comes into play.

Consider the source of the feather; the bird from which it came. As covered in an earlier discourse, elves are believed to have a connection to particular avian taxon and this is often manifested in their cultural practices. Given the well-known Illistim affinity with the peacock, one could be forgiven for believing that a quill crafted from the tail feather of the majestic bird would be the obvious choice for everyone who calls the City-State home. In fact, this is not the case. The tail feathers are really only used for non-functional adornments because of how ostentatious they are. Some might say it is actually considered gauche to use them for everyday quills as early Illistim primers on protocol dictate that they should be used for the signing of official documents only and therefore reserved for use by the Council of Thrones, Masters of Lore or Ministry of Scholars. Nowadays though, there is nothing to prevent you from wearing the feather in the form of a quill as they can serve as a lovely addition to any formal outfit – albeit in the hair or simply tucked behind the ear. Contemporary interpretation would see it is as an acknowledgement or nod of respect towards the sovereignty of the Peacock Throne.

Quills crafted from the feathers of the extremely rare golden peacock are considered to be a metaphor for a writer's inspiration. There are unsubstantiated claims that Tenesi Illistim, daughter of Lilorandrych, acquired a breeding pair of golden peacocks in honour of her mother, the so-called Golden Mirror, and that this was the catalyst that led to the financial ruin of the government at the end of her reign. Rumour also has it that Isildrich Greyvael Illistim inherited a feather from one of these birds and used it as a quill to pen "The Flight to Home," his famous poem that was responsible for giving Ta'Illistim the epithet "The Shining City."

White peacock symbolism is different again. Particularly striking in appearance, the white bird denotes purity, illumination, and ultimately ascension so it should come as no surprise that Myasara Illistim, the current Argent Mirror often referred to as "Her Illumination," recently used a white peacock feather quill to sign the treaty at the Valley of Gold summit in 5119. Records of the event also note that Emperor Aurmont Chandrennin Anodheles used a crimson feather quill of unknown origin, which could be interpreted in various ways but that is best left to the imperial historians.

Citizens and visitors to Ta'Illistim will be familiar with the winged residents of the series of mountains and valleys known as Griffin's Keen. Despite the mayhem caused by these magnificent beasts during the annual hatching of their grifflets, they tend to keep to themselves, largely protected by the inhospitable terrain. Intrepid adventurers covet their powder-blue feathers for their ability to flare in the form of electrical criticals. As such, they embody ferocity and the quills made from these particular soft plumes are popular with the master tacticians and affiliates of the Sapphire Guard.

Other elves within Illistim society – the mercantylers, administrators, and other non-state employees - relate more to other members of the Phasianidae family; that of chicken, turkey, quail, partridges, pheasants, and grouse. It is likely that they will be seen using quills made from the feathers of these more commonly known birds.

Using feathers from birds believed to be associated with the other Elven Houses also has significance. Notable tensions between city-states over the millennia have seen Illistim elves electing to wear and use quills made from carefully selected feathers denoting where their sympathies may lie. For example, displaying a hawk feather quill could be referencing opinions held by House Vaalor at that particular time.

Scholars of quill lore pay particular attention to the contour, coloration, and patterns within the feather themselves or the way the vanes may have been sliced or cut. Nicks into the rachis or subtle patterns worked into the barbs by adepts of the art of quill making can all be used to bear messages of their own. For example, the simple act of leaving the afterfeathers in place when crafting a quill can have significance; it is often interpreted as the owner being a Student of Lore, the fluffy barbs removed once they reach the rank of Walker of Lore.

There are many visible attributes to quill feathers so the interpretation of cut variants is beyond the scope of this study. A good example for the purposes of this essay though would be the peacock quill that belonged to the Scholar, Gwennelen Mea'reth Illistim. The three precise incisions into the vane on the lower, right-hand side of her quill denoted her work with the three Aelotoi she brought before the Ta'Illistim Council in 5103.

Feather Colors

Taken from associated documentation relating to the Ardenai use of Wind-Sight as referenced in A Comprehensive Guide to Divination in Elanthia.3

Color Meaning
Black death, mourning
Red fire, life, or fertility
White spiritual, peace, protection, air, hope
Pink love, romance, happiness
Purple awakening, progress, connections between mind, body and spirit
Blue water, mental, calm
Grey healing, growth, harmony
Yellow sun, warmth, intelligence, joy
Orange success, change, creativity
Green wealth, environment, harmony, luck
Brown earth, stability, tranquility, elemental

Interpretation of Quill Use

As mentioned earlier, the use of the quill has been known to serve a similar purpose to that of the Nalfein fanspeak but with far less complexity and intrigue. Nalfein men and women use fans widely as a way to express themselves and communicate, whether that is in social gatherings, bartering in the market, or guiding ships into harbor4.

An educated elf, familiar with both the documented protocols and subtle intricacies of Illistim court, would appreciate the nuances of quills on display and their manipulation in certain situations.

Expression Action
Pay attention Put the quill behind your ear or in your hair and/or noticeably draw attention to it by touching it or running your finger along it.
I agree with or have noted what is being said Tap the quill tucked behind your ear or in your hair.
I disagree Remove the quill from wherever it is worn.
I will need time to consider this Roll the quill between the fingers and/or smooth the barbs.
I am amused Twirl the quill between thumb and forefinger.
Be careful Tap the quill against your cheek.
I am nervous or concerned Nibble on your quill.
I am frustrated/not happy about this Openly gaze at or focus on your quill in your hand.
We must speak Brush the quill against your lips.

One can only imagine what is being communicated in a gathering of mixed heritage where the elves present are conversant in both Nalfein fanspeak and Illistim quill lore.

In closing, it is worth noting that zoetic quills are a law unto themselves so responsibility for their behaviour and its potential interpretation in social situation should not necessarily lie with the wearer.


  1. Speech Unspoken: The Language of Flowers by Tesseitre Carhiesel Illistim
  2. Nalfein Fans, Fan-Dancing and Fanspeak by by Althiza Amalathia Illistim
  3. A Comprehensive Guide to Divination in Elanthia by Seledwyn Var'Taliesin
  4. Fanning the Spark of Dissent: An Introduction to the Sparrows of the Night Queen by Uniana Anduin Nalfein