Ever since Timothy Zahn introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn and his mysterious people in Heir to the Empire, the Chiss have remained one of Star Wars’ most fascinating factions. In a galaxy filled with beings and civilizations, their mystery has endured for years—and across two iterations of Star Wars canon. Now that we’ve properly met them in Chaos Rising, here’s what you need to know.
Part of the reason the Chiss are such a mystery to both us as Star Wars fans and the denizens of the galaxy far, far away is that their vast society exists in a region of the universe that is, for the most part, cut off from the reaches of the core worlds and the outer rim territories. Csilla, the heart of the Ascendancy and the homeworld of the Chiss, sits in the Unknown Regions: an area of space largely separated from what we know as the Star Wars galaxy by volatile spatial anomalies that made traversing there all but impossible for most ships.
Even within the Unknown Regions, space travel and navigation were a risky business. The Chiss—who dubbed the expanse “the Chaos”—and other species had to carefully plot hyperspace paths through solar storms, by black holes, and other rogue anomalies. In particular, the Chiss harbored a secretive corps of navigational service used by its military branches to help vessels plot safe courses: Force-sensitive young girls, gifted with “Third Sight” as it was interpreted by the Chiss, could use their abilities to help a starship effectively see a path. Dubbed ozyly-esehembo in Cheunh, the Chiss language—translated as “sky-walkers”—every ship in the Chiss Navy was given one of these young girls (and their carer) as an official navigator.
While we don’t know if the use of sky-walkers was commonplace enough for civilian ships to have them—like many things in the Ascendancy, they’re kept suitably mysterious—we do know that whatever the process of using the Force to navigate the Chaos is a tumultuous one. Sky-walkers only usually have a career that lasts between the ages of around 8 and 13 before their ability to sense is almost entirely faded.
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Chiss society, aka the Ascendancy, is ruled by two main bodies: the Aristocra and the Military. The Aristocra is made up predominantly of nine major noble houses (more on those later) and handled the actual governance. Through the Syndicure, the Ascendancy’s political branch, the ruling and greater families of Chiss nobility passed laws and united the disparate sovereignties of each family. But exploration and defense itself were handled by the military—most notably the Expansionary Defense Fleet, the Ascendancy’s naval operation. The Defense Force, although itself controlled by governing articles from the Syndicure, was a fundamental aspect of Chiss culture, which prided itself on duty to the state through service. It was tasked with peacekeeping within the Ascendancy’s borders and, when required, exploratory missions beyond those borders.
The Chiss Ascendancy is one of the most powerful factions in all of the Unknown Regions and not a body born out of military expansionism. The Chiss’s strict intervention policies practically forbid war without a threat attacking first. Its influence and control are instead expanded through arms-length diplomacy, ensuring (for the most part) relative peace with other races…if only because the Chiss themselves believe their species to be the superior beings of the galaxy. But the earliest days of the Ascendancy’s reach into the stars weren’t born out of Imperial goals or even a desire to explore, but climate disaster. Approximately a thousand years before the time of the Clone Wars, Csilla’s sun began to dim, freezing the Chiss homeworld. While some Chiss brought their civilization below the ice-locked planet’s surface to survive, many took to the stars instead to find nearby worlds capable of sustaining life as they’d known it.
From those planets—Rentor, Avidich, and Sarvchi—the Chiss began looking further into the cosmos around them, reaching out to other worlds in the Chaos and, at times, going to war. The Chiss even partially ventured beyond the anomalies safeguarding their area of space and into what we know as the Star Wars galaxy. This was well before Thrawn did so as an attempt to investigate whether or not the Galactic Republic and, by the time he actually arrived, the Empire, was a worthy ally to help the Ascendancy combat the sinister forces they had discovered in their borders. In fact, the Chiss had ventured into the wider galaxy eons before: fighting alongside the Sith Empire, thousands and thousands of years prior, in its wars with the Republic.
The Aristocra, in overseeing most social, political, and economic aspects of Chiss society, is served by a council of noble families that harbor the most influence: the Ruling Families. Currently, there are nine—the Boadil, the Chaf, the Clarr, the Dasklo, the Irizi, the Mitth, the Obbic, the Plikh, and the Ufsa. The families are not bound by direct bloodlines, mostly, but are much larger sociopolitical factions, governing the worlds of the Ascendancy. There are multiple titles within a family reflecting a member’s purpose:
- Patriarchs were the heads of each Ruling Family, the most important member
- Speakers and Syndics were the representatives (Speakers being the chief Syndic) who participated directly in the Syndicure
- Patriels and Councilors were the bureaucrats who handled governmental bodies on planetary and local levels, respectively
- The Aristocra were the general nobility of a family with no specific governmental or military role.
Although they make up the majority of the Aristocra’s powerbase, there are several smaller families—known as the Greater Families—below them. Throughout Chiss history, the exact number of Ruling Families has expanded and contracted and the Nine are the most influential force in Chiss society as we know it. Not just politically, in that they essentially control the Syndicure, but because Chiss society is structured to subsume most Chiss into one family or the other. If military service is a major part of Chiss culture, then through it so is adherence to the nobility, to the point that their very names are shaped, and can be changed, by the family they are part of and their standing in that family.
As previously explained, Chiss have two names: a full name, and a shortened core name. Full names are made up of three segments broken up by apostrophes; the first segment is the name of the family they come from, the second is the personal name that helps build that Chiss’ core name, and the third is an indicator of that person’s relationship to their family. There are currently five known tiers of relation: Blood, Cousin, and Ranking Distant cover Chiss who are, in varying degrees, descended from a family’s bloodline. Trial-Born and Merit-Adoptive, meanwhile, are Chiss who have become part of the family through an assessed process of adoption. Merit-Adoptives are recruited for their skills, predominantly through military service (in which case affiliation expires upon the end of that service), but Trial-Born are permanent members who pass specific rituals (unsurprisingly called trials) to continue serving a family.
This doesn’t just highlight the tight grip the Ruling Families have on the very fabric of Chiss society but is reflected linguistically too: a Chiss’s own name can change over the course of their life, as they move between familial affiliations and careers. Thrawn, for example—full name Mitth’raw’nuruodo—was born Kivu’raw’nuru, a member of the lesser Aristocra family Kivu.
As Zahn continues to explore the Chiss in his new trilogy—and surely continues to bring over elements of the groundwork he established in Star Wars’s old Expanded Universe—no doubt we’ll learn more about the history of Thrawn’s incredible, fascinating people. But with Star Wars slowly turning those Unknown Regions into much more known ones in recent memory, the groundwork is there not just for the Chiss to have been a hidden part of the canon’s long past, but a major player in its future, too. After all, all we know of the present Ascendancy by the time of the Empire’s rise is that Thrawn left it in a period of upheaval. What’s next for what could be one of the major players in the galaxy, far, far away?
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