The Magic of Socotran Aloe

By Shireen Hamza

“The people of this island are without faith — and they are strong magicians. They originate from Greece.”


I had been flipping through Ikhtiyārāt-i Badī‘ī, a Persian pharmaceutical manuscript composed in the fourteenth century by Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār (d. 1404). The British Library has many surviving manuscripts of this text, including one copied by the author’s son.[1] I was looking through each of them to see whether they included any Arabic-Persian glossaries, for an ongoing project. I was stopped short by the sentence above.

It was part of an entry on aloes. I read the entry from the beginning:

Aloes are of three varieties: Socotran, Arabic and Samḥābī. The best variety is Socotran. Socotra is an island close to the shore of Yemen. It is forty leagues [long]. The people of this island are faithless and are strong magicians. Their origins are from Greece. Alexander sent them from Greece to this island in order to make aloe. Their women are even stronger magicians.

I was beginning to wonder what this had to do with aloes. Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār continued.

On whole, the situation is so extreme that if they have a conflict with another person, and that person is present — or if they even focus on their memory of the person’s face — and they put a glass of water before themselves and begin to do magic, a drop of blood eventually appears in the glass. Then, they put the glass on their liver, heart or lung. That person falls dead on the spot. And if one were to open the person’s belly, they would find no liver. People exaggerate about their magic to this extent. The best type of Socotran aloes are the color of liver, smell like marw (Maerua), and are full of leaves [with juice] similar to gum Arabic. If someone has pain, massaging [the afflicted area] with this will quickly bring relief. It has the color of saffron and emits the smell of goose fat.

With that, I was abruptly returned to the familiar land of medieval Islamic medicine. What had these magicians to do with aloe? Livers disappear from the victims of magical attacks and reappear as the color of the best aloes — perhaps referring to the color of the juice extracted from the plant’s leaves. But this seemed a happenstance juxtaposition; the author drew no correlation.

Arid landscape and blur sky. Plan with wide lower leaves that are brown. Several long, spiny flowers that are bright red (narrow) grow out of it.
Aloe Perryi in Socotra. Credit: photo by Todd Masilko, accessed at Flickr.


Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār’s narration of the history of this object is unusual, for this text and for pharmacopeia in general. The rest of the entry continues in the usual way — Arabic aloes are also called Yemeni and Adeni aloes; aloes are hot and dry to the second degree, though some say to the first and others to the third, and Jālīnūs (Galen) says dry to the third degree, hot to the first; aloe is among the most beneficial medicines for the stomach, and for treating swelling and pain; it is a purgative for yellow bile; it pulls excess moisture and phlegm from the head and joints; it clears obstructions from the liver; with age, it turns black and loses potency; and so on. This story of the island’s magicians seemed to belong more to another kind of book.

Indeed, this story appears often in Arabic literature. The earliest version is in “Accounts of China and India,” a travelogue by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, likely written in the ninth century. Attesting to the wide renown of these aloes, al-Sīrāfī begins his description of Socotra as “the place where Socotran aloes grow.”[2] According to him, Aristotle had instructed Alexander the Great to find this island, expel its inhabitants and resettle it with Greeks who could guard the aloe and export it — because “no purgatives (ayārijāt) are complete without aloe.” He then explains how these Greeks eventually became Christian — and how their ancestors remained Christian in Socotra, living there among other peoples. Another famous traveler, al-Bīrūnī, included a brief mention of the story in a pharmaceutical text he wrote in the eleventh century — the closest precedent to Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār. By the thirteenth century, several well-known authors included some version of this story in their work, like Yāqūt in his geographical text, al-Qazwīnī in his  “Wonders of Creation,” and al-Nuwayrī in his lengthy encyclopedia. While Islamic literature is full of stories of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander, some scholars have argued that these authors drew on Greek accounts that don’t survive, and that the story spread further through The Alexander Romances.[3]

“Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave,” a painted folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi made in 1597-1598, likely in India. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār says nothing of Christianity on Socotra. al-Sīrāfī says nothing of magic. But a few pages later, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār translates a lengthy aloe recipe by Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248), originally in Arabic. This and other citations of Arabic medical texts suggest that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār could read Arabic, and may have taken his account from any of the texts mentioned here. But why?

Writing from far-away Shiraz, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār dismisses the magical abilities of Socotran people as exaggeration. But though he disagreed, he included the story as part of the information in circulation about Socotran aloe, for the sake of creating a comprehensive entry. This is why he also included contradictory accounts of the hotness and dryness of this aloe. But did he believe that Alexander’s ancient interest in Socotran aloe was additional proof of its continued superiority to other varieties of aloe?

Modern botanical research includes a survey of a plant’s history on earth, a legacy of early modern Natural History. The discipline of Natural History does not translate easily to sciences before the eighteenth century in any region.[4] But there are narrative “histories” of certain substances within texts of ṭibb, Arabic and Persian medicine, as well as in encyclopedia, lapidaries, bestiaries and other genres. Origin stories appear alongside the most practical of information.

Objects, and especially plants, are difficult to pin down — they feel unstable as we follow them through different periods, geographic contexts and even textual genres. I imagine that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār may have felt the same way. Perhaps by whisking his reader onto the scene of an ancient conquest, he felt that his enthusiasm for the remedy would come with a strong recommendation.


The people of Socotra are currently struggling under very real conditions of occupation due to the ongoing war, cholera pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. If you can, please support the work of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation or comparable organizations.


[1] British Library India Office Islamic 3499

[2] Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga. (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 122-123

[3] Mikhail Bukharin, “The Mediterranean World and Socotra,” in Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq Ed. I. Strauch. (Hempen Verlag: Bremen, 2012): 494-531, at 504-505.

[4] Karen Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa, “Medieval Natural History,” in Lindberg, David C., and Michael H. Shank. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2, Medieval Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Michale Shank. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 569-589.

Colouring metals in the Far East

By Agnese Benzonelli

How far can someone go in the name of research? In my case quite a long way. For a month, I loosely taped tiny plates of metal to my hands and woke up every morning with green stains on them. I was investigating craft recipes employed in the far East since the fourteenth Century to create coloured metal and alloys used for beautiful small artefacts. Whereas Western taste preferred the natural colour and the polished lustre of metals, the Eastern preference was to use the process of chemical patination, where different chemicals react with the surface of copper and copper alloys to form new coloured compounds.

Fig.1: Left: a tsuba (handguard of Japanese sword) made of shakudo and gold; BM-TS244. Right: a Chinese gu-tong box; BM-1992,1109.2. Photos made by A. Benzonelli.

The Japanese created a whole class of coloured alloys, called irogane. They added small amounts of different elements to the copper and simmered it in a solution containing copper salts, alum, vinegar and other ingredients, to form coloured patinas on the surface. The most beautiful patina, shakudo, was made with copper and gold and achieved a deep blue-black colour. Combining a variety of alloy compositions and solution ingredients, they were able to create hues ranging from pale brown to black. Inlaying different irogane, gold, silver, and lacquers, they were able to create small artefacts and swords fittings with complex and visually impressive designs and patterns.

Fig.2: Picture of the 13 Japanese solutions created and tested taken from Japanese recipes reported in Eastern books.

Later on, Chinese craftspeople imported the technique from Japan, possibly through travellers or trying to copy the Japanese artefacts, and, from the Ming period (1368-1644), they used it to colour ink or tobacco boxes. In contrast to the Japanese irogane, the Chinese would patinate a gold-silver alloy only, which resulted in a dark colour similar to that of shakudo, which they called gu-tong. In both cases, the precious metal content was 1-3%, a larger amount would not affect the final patina colour.

There’s not a lot known about the two different recipes the Chinese craftsmen employed to produce their patinas. However, we do know that one process they utilised was similar to that used by the Japanese to produce the irogane,butwe have no precise recipes for the solutions. Another involved handling the metal until the perspiration from their hands corroded the surface.

Creating and play with metal colours has always fascinated me. Why using gold and silver to achieve that dark colour, instead of cheaper alternatives? What was the role of the different ingredients used in the recipes? Could sweat really be used as a patinating solution? Why did Japanese recipes tell not add precious metals to bronze (copper alloyed with tin) but only to pure copper? Could it be confirmed through scientific analysis that the technology was really transmitted from the Japanese to the Chinese culture? To find answers, I needed to conduct a systematic experimental research which could explain the reasons behind the technological choices of Japanese and Chinese craftsmen.

 I reproduced a series of alloys with tin, gold and silver, which I then patinated, following the recipes for shakudo and gu-tong from available texts. These are not numerous, as the recipes were mainly kept as secret and passed from father to son. We have city records, information sheets given by dealers and, in Japan, technical texts on metal working. I analysed the resulting patinas with techniques borrowed from modern material science, and used the experimental data as reference for the interpretation of historical patinated artefacts in museum collections.

I found that, for both the Japanese and Chinese recipes, the presence of gold in the alloy did, in fact, change the colour of the final patinas, which resulted in a better, more uniform and darker hue. I also noted how parameters such as the fine grade of surface polishing prior to the patination, the use of tin-free alloys, the selection of copper acetate as a main ingredient and the addition of vinegar are all processes and actions that led to a reduced patina growth. And as it turned out, sweat was indeed an effective patinating solution in the Chinese patination (as it can be noticed by the green corrosion products left on the hands), but the presence of gold in the alloy composition is nonetheless essential to obtain a dark hue, not achieved in gold-free alloys. Sweat is a slightly acidic solution, similar to that of used by Japanese craftsmen, essential to create a coloured copper oxide on the surface in just 48 hours of handling. Similarly, in both technologies cleaning of the alloy before or after the procedure suggested in Japanese texts and the abrasive action of the hands in the Chinese method are both similar and crucial steps in the patination process. I concluded from these findings that a dark patina was not the only feature that the craftsmen of both cultures had been striving for. They also seemed to be after a shiny appearance, given by the metallic lustre coming from the alloy.

Fig. 3: Alloys of different compositions patinated with Chinese patination.

In combining experimental and historical observations I gained an understanding of the intentions behind the technological choices made by the Japanese and Chinese artisans. My analysis confirmed the deliberate nature of these choices made to achieve dark and shiny blue-black colours otherwise impossible. This confirmed the importance of colour as a driver of these artisanal processes, and supports the idea that the knowledge was transmitted between the two cultures.

Was it worth in the end – the green hands and other discomforts suffered in the name of research? It was the first study to provide a scientific basis to our knowledge of the methods and choices made by those people, the ingredients they employed in making dark patinated artefacts, and contributed to our pool of knowledge of the artisanal methods and practices described in historical sources. So yes, it definitely was, and I would definitively do it again.

Powerful Bundles: The Materiality of Protection Amulets in Early Modern Switzerland

By Eveline Szarka

If you shop around for a protection amulet today, you will most likely stumble upon ornamental jewellery. More often than not these pieces are round in shape, and pieces featuring Kabbalistic or runic symbols are especially popular. The term ‘amulet’ is described as a “piece of jewellery some people wear because they think it protects them from bad luck, illness, etc” in the OED. However, when it comes to premodern protection practices, the efficacy of amulets depended on both the production process and the materials and ingredients used. There are two additional significant differences between contemporary and early modern understandings and applications of amulets: First, in early modern Europe, amulets were not only carried around as mobile objects but also attached to houses or buried into the thresholds. Second, amulets were often used to protect valuable livestock against diseases thought to be caused by supernatural agents.

In my research, I understand amulets as powerful bundles, often of diverse materials, which take effect through physical contact between the amulet and the object (person, animal, house) to be protected. As I discuss below, the materials commonly used include herbs, plants, food stuff, words (both spoken and written) and time. For example, it was believed that gathering plants at a certain time of the day or on a holiday enhanced the amulet’s power.

While many recipe books containing instructions on how to make amulets are now lost, it is a stroke of luck that some 17th and 18th-century handbooks are still preserved in the State Archive of the Canton of Berne, Switzerland thanks to early 20th century folklorists and collectors. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to date and connect with specific authors, owners and users. However, comparisons with court documents show that people commonly produced and applied amulets throughout the early modern period. For example, in a court case in Basel 1719, a folk healer called Friedrich Fritschi defended himself for putting hazel rods underneath a window as a way to protect the house owner from a spectre.[i] Although we do not know much about these books, the recipes and the arrangements of the instructions offer valuable insights into the contemporary relevance and ideas about the efficacy of such practices and artefacts. For instance, instructions about the production of amulets are written alongside suggestions on how to get rid of cheese-eating mice, indicating that the production of amulets against evil forces belonged to everyday house care (Hauspflege) .

Basic materials and ingredients of an amulet: linen, a cord, rods, plants, salt and bread. Source. E. Szarka

Let us now turn to an example that illustrates the concepts underpinning the efficacy of the protection amulet:

To insert into houses and barns in case of foul ghosts

Take some good vines, rods, melissa, brown periwinkles, communion bread and salt, [and bind] everything together in the three holy names with a string. Make as many as you need and drill [a hole] in both the barn and above the doors and thresholds. Put a small bundle in every hole and speak: “I put you in here in the name of God”.[ii]

This instruction exemplifies the three main production steps required to ensure the efficacy of the early modern amulet. First, people needed to gather the listed materials and ingredients. Some plants were commonly believed to be inherently powerful against evil forces, such as hazel rods. Salt and communion bread – liturgically and ritually blessed objects (so-called “sacramentals”) – were reoccurring ingredients in these kinds of recipes. Sometimes, makers also used or added slips of paper furnished with bible verses to the amulet to intensify its efficacy. Second, one had to mix the materials and ingredients, form a bundle and tie it with a string. Finally, the amulet had to be applied accordingly. It could be attached to an animal’s neck, to a door, buried into the thresholds or hidden in a drill hole above the house so that it kept malevolent entities from entering. People considered uttering sacred words both during the production and application process to be highly potent.

Drill hole in a wooden beam for a protection amulet found in an 18th century house in rural Basel, State Archive of the Canton of Basel-Land, SL 5250.5024. Source: E. Szarka

As we have seen, the gathering of materials and ingredients, the production as well as the application of the amulet were considered necessary consecutive steps to accumulate divine power. The ingredients were either inherently powerful or charged with sanctity in a liturgical context. Language, both uttered orally during these three steps or added in the form of paper slips, formed essential material ingredients that enhanced the amulet’s efficacy as it drew upon divine power. Similarly, the timing of the production could play a crucial role. For example, one had to collect the plants or apply the amulet at a particular holiday or a sacred time of the day. Time, just like language, acted as a “material” component charged with sacred power that could be transferred to the amulet through the specific production circumstances. Once applied to houses or animals, these effective little packages containing both visible and invisible materialities provided a metaphysical shield to unseen forces.

As I argue in my dissertation on ghosts and spirits in Post-Reformation Switzerland[iii], early modern people believed the world to be permeated by multiple invisible forces. Handling constant supernatural attacks from spirits and witches called for specific measures. Women and men tried to tackle and manipulate the supernatural sphere with elaborate rituals written down in recipe books. Practices concerned with amulet making disclose different concepts of causal relations in the physical and metaphysical world. Above all, they mirror a specific understanding of materiality, according to which certain plants and aliments, but also language and time, contain power that people can accumulate, enhance, and transfer to other materials, places and living beings to preserve their living environments.

[i] State Archive of the Canton of Basel, Criminalia 4, 22.

[ii] State Archive of the Canton of Berne, DQ 888, translated from the original German text by E. Szarka.

[iii] Eveline Szarka, Sinn für Gespenster. Spukphänomene in der reformierten Schweiz (1570-1730), doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich, 2020, upcoming Spring 2021.


Academic biography:

Eveline Szarka completed her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and specters in Switzerland from 1570-1730. This year, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2020-2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, due to the pandemic, she will likely postpone the start of the fellowship until 2021. Eveline’s  upcoming project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650-1850). Her research interests lie in early modern world views, historical conceptions of (im)materiality, causality, and magic as well as the potentials of human manipulation of the physical world.


Snails in medicine – past and present

By Claire Burridge 

A treatment for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum):

Grind together frankincense, mastic, and snails with their shells. Apply to the forehead in laurel leaves in two parts. It is tried and tested.

(Tus et mastice et cocleas cum testas sua simul teris et in folio lauri in duabus partibus fronte impone probatum est)

Figure 1: A group of recipes for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum) in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (p. 359), an early medieval composite manuscript (this section was written in northern Italy in the ninth century) – the snail recipe is the last entry of the group (found on the final two lines). The transcription and translation are my own. A digitised facsimile can be accessed here; full reference below.

Medieval medicine is often assumed to be full of ‘hocus pocus’: irrational magical and religious cures, bizarre potions and lotions. Although the work of many scholars has countered this common perception, the negative stereotypes surrounding medieval medicine remain firmly embedded in the popular imagination. And I must admit that, as a historian of medieval medicine, I can understand how such stereotypes have persisted – despite, of course, disagreeing! At first glance, the treatment for teary eyes listed above – which recommends making a poultice from snails, frankincense, and mastic and applying it to the forehead – may sound more like a potion brewed by the witches of Macbeth than a useful medical prescription. Surely snails are better suited to escargot than medicine, right?

Yet our slimy garden neighbours actually have long been included as ingredients in medical recipes, from classical antiquity to the present day. In fact, a number of other RP posts have already touched on pre-modern snail-based prescriptions, such as Laura Mitchell’s post on amusing charms, Lisa Smith’s post on Mary Napier’s ‘Snaile Milke’, and Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ post on snail waters. While several examples have highlighted the use of snails in cosmetic preparations, including Katherine Allen’s post on animal ingredients in the eighteenth century, in my research on early medieval recipes I have come across snails as ingredients in treatments for all sorts of ailments, from headaches and nosebleeds to diarrhoea, spleen pain, and incontinence. Who knew snails were seen to be such a wonderful panacea?!

I have been particularly struck by the use of snails in a number of different treatments for cuts and open wounds. A recipe in BAV pal. lat. 1088, a ninth-century manuscript written around Lyon, suggests the following to heal ‘cut tendons’ (Ad neruos incisos) on f. 45r:

Burn and pound together live snails with their shells, add an equal amount of frankincense, apply. It heals cut tendons.

(Cocleas uiuas cum testa sua combustas et tonsas adiecto libano paripondere inponis praecisos neruos sanat)

Two other ninth-century manuscripts in the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 751 and Cod. Sang. 759, contain nearly identical prescriptions, though the former recommends either slugs (limacis) or snails and the latter specifies that the cut was caused by iron (Ad neruus ferro precisus). Similar recipes can also be found in earlier sources, such as Pliny’s Natural History and its late antique descendent, the Medicina Plinii, as well as Dioscorides’ De materia medica.

Why did this tradition of the wound-healing power of snails catch my eye?

Figure 2: Materia medica on the move (slowly) – photograph by author.

As keen RP readers will know, the use of snails in cosmetics was not limited to pre-modern medicine but is, in fact, growing in popularity today (and you can read more on this in another piece from Katherine Allen). Snail slime, the mucus secreted by snails, has been widely marketed as a great addition to skincare products. You can find it in anti-aging serums, moisturisers, and other restorative cosmeceuticals. Given these uses, could snail slime also have applications in medicine? Indeed, snail slime is a hot topic in modern medical research, with recent work highlighting its many benefits, from helping to treat burns to its antimicrobial properties. With respect to wound healing, there are several significant features to note: first, snail mucus is well known to have agglutinant, adhesive properties. More recently, however, research has shown that it also protects against apoptosis (programmed cell death) and promotes cell migration and proliferation – processes essential to wound repair at the cellular level. The combination of snail mucus’ adhesive qualities, promotion of healing processes, and antimicrobial properties is immensely exciting, especially in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

While premodern medical practitioners and authors would not have been thinking about snails and their slime on the cellular level or as antimicrobial agents, their repeated use of snails and slugs, especially with respect to skin-related conditions (wound healing, cosmetics, etc.) suggests that they may have recognised that snail mucus had some medical benefits. So, the next time you encounter someone ridiculing the unusual or unpleasant ingredients in a medieval recipe, you can share with them the long history of snails in medicine – from medieval recipes and their ancient antecedents to current, cutting-edge research.

Full reference for manuscript image

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44: parchment, 368 pp., 30 x 21 cm; Part I: Bible, consisting of Ezekiel, minor prophets, Daniel, with Prologues and Capitula – given to St. Gall around 780; Part II: collection of medical texts – written in northern Italy in the ninth century.

Brief Academic Biography

Claire Burridge is currently a Residential Research Fellow at the British School at Rome. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and will begin a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in May 2021. Broadly, Claire works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring questions of medical practice and the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. Her research draws on a range of disciplines, bringing together textual, archaeological, and biocodicological evidence.