A Snake Oil from Tenth Century al-Andalus

Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609
Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609

Leonie Rau

Historians of medicine might know him as Abulcasis, the ‘Father of Surgery,’ but Andalusian physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf Ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī (936–1013) wrote about much more than the inner workings of the human body. As Katarzyna Gromek has explored in her post on “Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula,” al-Zahrāwī devoted parts of his famed Kitab al-Taṣrīf li-man ‘aǧiza ‘an al-ta’līf  (“The Book of Management for Those who are Unable to Compose”) to topics such as perfumes. At the time these were understood not necessarily as sensorially pleasing fragrances, but as remedies used to treat illnesses.

The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.

The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:

Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.

Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”

According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”

Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.

As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:

Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]

Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.

We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.

Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī  directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]

It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.

*****

[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text.
Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.

*****

Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation.She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]

 

This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.


Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.


[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Archive: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

As we prepare to enthusiastically welcome a new year (and say good riddance to 2020), I would love to revisit a wonderful recipe for celebratory cakes. In this piece that originally published in 2014, Molly Taylor-Poleskey notes that honey cakes commemorated the ending of the plague and the arrival of a new era. Let us all toast spiced cakes and lebkuchen to bring in the new year! –R.A. Kashanipour

by M. Taylor-Poleskey

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

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.”

What?

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.


Postscript

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.

Notes

[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.