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.

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.


Which Ingredients are Witch Ingredients?”

By Dana Schumacher-Schmidt, Siena Heights University

Over the last ten years or so teaching undergraduate Shakespeare courses, I’ve developed an exercise to enhance students’ exploration of Macbeth. I’ve found this activity to be effective for engaging the whole class in critical thinking and discussion, introducing recipes as primary texts, and connecting students to aspects of early modern English culture in which the play is situated. The exercise begins with a question: what’s the relationship between the concoction the weird sisters cook up out on the heath and what any housewife might have bubbling in her cauldron at home?

At the start of the class period, I give students a list of ingredients, about half of which are drawn from the contents of the weird sisters’ cauldron as described in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth and the other half from a selection of early modern medicinal recipes. Without looking back at the play text, students have to sort the ingredients into two categories: “witches’ brew” and “early modern remedies.” I make things a little more challenging by changing Shakespeare’s language to match the vocabulary and syntax commonly used in recipes (“root of hemlock digg’d in the dark” becomes “a quantity of hemlock,” for example).

Apart from easy ones like “the toe of a frog,” students typically are surprised when they struggle to categorize many of the ingredients. This difficulty is the point of the exercise—I want students to see that ingredients they consider to be downright “witchy” were used in domestic medicine. Sometimes it’s their lack of familiarity with an ingredient that presents a challenge. For instance, “dragon’s blood” sounds like just the sort of thing a weird sister would reach for to someone unaware that it’s a plant resin named for its red color and used at the time as a clotting agent.

With another ingredient, the bezoar stone, I play on the students’ potential familiarity with its two appearances in the Harry Potter series. Alas, their association of this ingredient with the wizarding world backfires in this particular activity, as it, like the dragon’s blood, comes from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe for “The red powder good for miscarrying.” Even though (or maybe because) the list is kind of rigged against them, students tend to turn to each other for help and employ a variety of critical thinking strategies to figure out where the ingredients belong, two outcomes that contribute to the value of the activity in my eyes.

Image credit: Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, MS 7113, Wellcome Library.

After students share their choices in whole-group discussion, it’s time for the moment of truth: we look at the play text and digitized images of the original recipes to see where the ingredients really belong. These revelations tend to evoke equal parts delight and disbelief from my students, especially when they get to place the powdered skull and mummy in the “remedy” category. In addition to seeing the ingredients in context, along with other ingredients and preparation techniques, this part of the exercise shows students how recipes were written and compiled in the past and familiarizes them with digital collections from the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library that they might use for future projects.

From here, we discuss how the activity impacts our interpretation of the witches and our perceptions of early modern domesticity. To help students frame their responses, I give them Jennifer Munroe’s “Recipes and the ‘Weird’: A Halloween Rumination” and excerpts from Wendy Wall’s book Staging Domesticity. Both texts help further contextualize the recipes in their own time and ours with regard to gender, domestic labor, and the history of medicine. It is new information to my students that these ingredients, which sound so strange to them, are not especially unusual in the corpus of early modern home remedies. At the same time, it is helpful for them to see that their initial distrust of these ingredients as medicine would have been shared by at least some part of the early modern audience and also stems from a centuries-long, often gender-biased, effort to raise suspicion against domestic medicine.

At the end of our discussion, I ask students to write answers to a couple of reflection questions on the day’s activities: What’s the most interesting thing you’ll take away from this exercise? What additional thoughts or questions do you have about home remedies, recipe books, or domestic work in early modern England? I address their comments and answer their questions at the start of the next class. Students appreciate this opportunity to step outside of Shakespeare’s play text and realize that recipes can enrich their understanding of the past.

Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks

A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction.

The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among its many texts is

  • a copy of the courtesy text The Boke of Nurture, purported to have been compiled by John Russell in the service of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester;
  • a treatise on lucky and unlucky days;
  • a leechbook;
  • a verse lunary called “The Thirty Days of the Moon” (extant in several manuscripts of this kind);
  • an abridged version of the widely-circulated Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy;
  • a copy of the popular herbal known as the Agnus Castus;
  • a medical regimen with the title “A Generall Rewle for to yeue Medycyns”.
‘The Zodiac Man’, or homo signorum, is a diagram of a human body and astrological symbols. This example is taken from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript. Credit: National Library of Wales.

But why stop there? Sloane 1315 also preserves a dietary, and is well-illustrated with useful diagrams, charts, and curative aids in the form of calendars and astrological tables. There is even a homo signorum at ff. 68–69.

The manuscript, originating in the south-east of England, is likely to have served a individual practising astrological and herbal medicine, collating a series of texts and tables that would have been useful to that individual.

The layout and page placements in the manuscript suggests regular consultation. For example, there are clear headings supplied throughout. Although the manuscript is in many ways unremarkable, it is clear and accessible, written in a legible cursive hand.

BL MS Sloane 1315, f 28r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

The book is, however, remarkable in one aspect. In the midst of the many works is a curious collection of short medical recipes, interspersed with a series of short texts that might be described as recipes and charms. Some of these recipes are magical or fantastic, or contain properties associated with illusion or trickery. Laura Mitchell has previously written at The Recipes Project about ludic and lascivious medieval charms.

The ones in Sloane 1315 are strangely at odds with the rest of the texts, sitting rather uncomfortably with the diagnostic and curative theme of the volume as a whole. They are extremely varied, to the point of almost being random: some of the more extreme examples with spell-like qualities include charms to “make a flodde of water to com into a howse”, to “make a lofe of brede to dawnce in an oven or on a tabull” (which calls for the use of quicksilver), and “to make a howse seeme full of snakys.”[1]

There is a method as well to “make a lampe to bren wythowte fyre”, which seems to involve soaking a wick in oil, and one to “make a whyte spotte on a blacke horsse”, which involves anointing a horse with water which has been steeped in a special herb. One that caught my eye (and too late for Valentine’s Day 2019!) is a short instruction “How to Make a Woman to love the”, which I transcribe here (with light edits):

Take the harte of coluere and bren hit on a ty3le ine to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love the

The text calls for the “harte of a coluere” – the heart of a snake – to be burned and ground into powder, then sprinkled into the food or drink of a woman. It reads like something that students at Hogwarts might create using snake fangs or skins in their Potions lessons, and indeed this section of the book has a fictive quality to it: we cannot imagine that any of these instructions could possibly work by delivering what their titles promise.

However magical and impossible they might be, moreover, they are framed as recipes, manifesting many of the same features as the recipe text-type while also bearing some relation to charms. The “take and make” formula that is so familiar to us–and common to premodern recipes–is interrupted only slightly by the strangeness of the ingredients and the apparent simplicity in achieving what seems to be rather a difficult effect.

All things considered, these recipes do seem to fit their context. Sloane 1315 is clearly a manual for giving care, containing works that will be familiar to any student of medieval astrological and herbal medicine. The strange recipes are not textually distinguished from other works in the volume; rather, they are normalised, and look as if they are intended to fit in with the book’s other contents. Their regular appearance masks their unusual qualities, and though the love-recipe might seem at first fairly innocuous, the fact that it and its co-texts are disguised to dovetail with the other works in the book may give us pause. In short, the fantastic nature of these texts may not sit well with the pretty practical bent of the book as a whole.

They cause me to pause because they recast the way in which I think about the rest of the book. On the one hand, they may have been used in unscrupulous ways. If, as literary scholar Douglas Gray observes, this is the kind of manuscript that would have been used by “leeches, ‘wise women’, and ‘cunning men'”, then these people would have occupied positions of trust in a community (35). Can we countenance, then, the possibility that the individual who owned this book may have been involved in a lucrative side-line, peddling recipes that didn’t work and perhaps selling the ingredients as well: quicksilver, snake’s hearts and skins? The recipes seem ripe for facile dissemination, being short enough to have been memorised or quickly copied, and they may have been used to bolster the credibility of the owner of the manuscript, showcasing his knowledge of strange or exotic methods or ingredients.

Or perhaps their function is altogether different. Could they have been intended to introduce humour to the healing context? Perhaps they functioned like the modern-day prank box, a kind of textual cabinet of curiosities, intended to entertain clients who were not feeling well, or appealing to younger audiences? As Gray writes, one can “sympathize with the curious owner or reader eager to discover” the varied arts described therein, and the owner of the book may have just wanted to spread some joy and mischief (35). What we read here may be an entirely personal impulse to collect (or create) fun from a pretty standard, recognisable textual tradition and format. Or perhaps the book provides further evidence of the close relationship between medicine and magic in this period (that persisted in some contexts in later centuries; see Lisa Smith’s post on an eighteenth-century magical manuscript), giving expression to a particular understanding of popular medicine as, in some respects, fanciful? Whatever the scenario, Sloane 1315 is a fascinating volume, hiding amongst its popular medical works a collection of weird and wonderful textual gems and raising all sorts of questions about the varied role of the folk practitioner in this period.

With thanks to Mary Wellesley.

[1] See Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 35.