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.

Gluttony and “Surfeit” in Early Modern Europe

By Carla Cevasco

From buttery stuffing to champagne, the holidays give us plenty of opportunities to indulge…and plenty of nutritional advice on how to avoid holiday decadence. Early modern Europeans likewise feared gluttony and offered remedies for overeating, but I can’t say that I’ll be too tempted to try any of them myself this holiday season.

In famine-wracked early modern Europe, gluttony was the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and as The Divine Physician warned in 1676, “Diseases are the Interests of Sin.”[1]  Medical professionals instructed their readers to restrain their appetites in the interest of physical and spiritual health. “Take heed of surcharging thy stomach,” Raymundus Mindererus cautioned in 1674, noting that there was “nothing more hurtful to health” than an “extravagant” appetite. Thomas Tryon’s 1698 The Way to Health recommended a kind of fasting cleanse, claiming that “a little gentle Hunger” cleared “superfluous Matter” from the digestive system (43). An 1816 print (shown below) by Thomas Rowlandson depicted an obese man dining with Death.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Warnings against gluttony did not always sit well with readers. Louis-François Charon’s print “Le Médicin et la Malade” (shown below),  in which a gluttonous doctor instructed his patient to go on a diet, mocked medical professionals’ emphasis on moderation and suggested that they failed to practice what they preached.

V0011678 A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does. Coloured engraving by Louis-François Charon. after: Louis-François CharonPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Louis-François Charon, “Le Medicin et le Malade,” colored engraving (undated).   Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Medical practitioners even recognized specific, pathological forms of overeating. Phillip Barrough‘s 1601 The Practice of Physick described the “Doglike appetite,” which caused sufferers to “devoure in meate without measure” before “vomiting like dogges” (110-11). For a curative diet, Barrough prescribed stale bread, herbs, “fat & oily” meat, mallows, and most of all, wine, to “heate the stomacke, and destroy the sharpnesse of humours” that provoked patients to a canine hunger.

For those unable to heed injunctions against overeating, many recipe books offered remedies for “surfeit.” A recipe “To Make Poppies Water which is Good for a Surfeit,” in Wellcome MS 4054, called for soaking “Corn poppys,” marigolds, gillyflowers, sweet marjoram, angelico root, raisins, licorice, aniseeds, white sugar, and rosasolis in aquavitae, then straining and bottling the resulting cordial. John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plants noted that “black Poppy drunketh in wine” stopped diarrhea; in addition, the opioid content of distilled poppy flowers or leaves would have eased the pain associated with indigestion (400-401). I would be interested in hearing from other scholars here about how the other ingredients of poppy waters might have affected their consumers.

Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from  Opiologia, or a Treatise...of Opium (1618).  Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Method of extracting the juice from the poppy. Woodcut Opiologia, or a Treatise....of Opium Sala (Angelus) Published: 1618 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from 
Opiologia, or a Treatise…of Opium (1618). 
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In a world where people constantly risked lapsing into gluttony, and suffering ill health as a result, lack of appetite was also cause for particular concern. Medical writers identified several types and causes of loss of appetite. Barrough claimed that physiological defects, humoral imbalances, and/or sickness could result in a loss of appetite. In A New Practice of Physick, volume 1, Peter Shaw wrote that a patient might experience “anorexia,” or a long-term distaste for food, “from hard drinking, great heat, a fever,” or “consumptions” (170-71). Medical writers agreed that lack of appetite did not spontaneously occur in a healthy person, but rather could be linked to a hangover, hot weather, sickness, or bodily dysfunction.

To “provoke appetite againe,” Barrough suggested exposing the patient to pleasant odors, such as “wine infused, or decoction of quinces, or peares,” and anointing the patient with fragrant oils “of roses, masticke, and such like.” After aromatherapy, Barrough prescribed a diet of “diverse” foods “after the daintiest fashion,” including corn, eggs, “birds of the mountaines,” dates, and prunes. While medical writers blamed “variety of meats” and “curiously and daintily dressed” foods for gluttonous excesses, Barrough harnessed the appetite-stimulating powers of delicious smells and tantalizing nibbles to encourage those who had lost their hunger to find it again.[2]

Today we might reach for pink bismuth subsalicylate instead of a poppy cordial after a big meal, but early modern Europeans had many of the same questions that we do about how much to eat.

Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.
Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.

[1] Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 114, 243-245.

[2] Nicholas Culpeper, Medicaments for the Poor; Or, Physick for the Common People (Edinburgh, n.p., 1664), 10.

Bottoms up: beer as medicine

Over the years, I have encountered quite a few early modern recipes based on or consisting entirely of a drink still commonly used today, such as medicated wines and tea. In 2013, I heard James B. Sumner speak at ICHSTM Manchester about his excellent book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700–1880, on how beer brewing rapidly developed from an oral culture derived from home-based skills, into an industry with an extensive trade literature, based increasingly on the authority of chemical experiment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. My curiosity was sparked, especially as beer was often seen as a safe alternative for contaminated drinking water, and I asked Dr. Sumner on Twitter whether he had encountered any recipes for beer as a medicinal drink, to which he replied he had not.

Front page of Van Lis's 1747 Pharmacopea
Front page of Van Lis’s 1747 Pharmacopea

As medicinal drinks are not the prime topic of my research, I forgot about this until last week, when I was skimming through eighteenth-century Dutch apothecary handbooks for mineral-based recipes. Suddenly a paragraph caught my eye: not a mineral recipe, but one for beer! Wouter van Lis, who gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745, in his 1747 apothecaries’ handbook, Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel, describes various ways to prepare medicinal beers, similar to medicinal wines. The first way consists of simply letting some mashed herbs soak in beer for two or three days. According to Van Lis, this way the full powers of the herbs would be used, much more efficiently than in meads (fermented honey-herb brews), as ‘nature in these Lands is more used to such drinks [beers], the stomach will receive them with more lust, and digest them fully.’

Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Another option was to add the herbs during the brewing process, either when boiling the malt, or just slightly heating them in the beer after the boiling has taken place. Van Lis mentioned over fifty kinds of herbs to prepare medicinal beer, ranging from ginger, lavender, cardamom, hyssop, cinnamon, aniseed, rosemary, nutmeg, gentian, juniper and lemon grass to plants such as absinth leaves, sweet flag, germander sage, and eye worth. He does not advise which kind of herb-infused beer should be used for particular ailments; this was after all supposed to be at the discretion of physicians. However, Van Lis does advice that ‘Joopen beer’ (which he says literally means ‘juicy beer’ in old Dutch) heats, moistens, and nourishes the body, but causes infected blood, bad digestion, sore eyes, fevers, and gout when drunken in excess.[1]

It might seem strange that I have only found one reference to medicinal beer so far, but it makes much more sense when we look at Van Lis’s career. Before he gained his medical doctorate in 1745, he already ran an apothecary shop in Rotterdam, and also owned… a beer brewery. Apparently it ran in the family: his mother ran a beer trading company, and in the year Van Lis graduated, he also published a treatise on beer brewing, dedicated to his promotor, the Utrecht professor Oosterdijk Schacht. However, beer consumption was decreasing steadily in the eighteenth century, and in 1748 Van Lis sold all his property in Rotterdam, including his brewery with a loss, and moved to Bergen op Zoom to make a career as city physician and apothecary and doctor of the diaconate.[2] As far as I can tell medicinal beer never really took off – although I do remember older female family members telling me that a glass of dark beer should be given to women after giving birth to stimulate the flow of breast milk.

Please do let me know if you have encountered other examples of medicinal beer!

 

[1] There is still a Dutch brewer called Jopenbier, which advertises with ‘recipe 1407’. Although they use a recipe from 1407, as their own website states, this beer was called Koyt back then; the current name has been given to the beer in 1994 and refers to the 112 litre tuns in which beer used to be transported, which were called ‘jopen’.

[2] Peeters, F.A.H., ‘Wouter van Lis: Apotheker, Bierbrouwer En Stadsmedicus’, Kring Voor de Geschiedenis van de Pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin, 73 (1988), pp 1 – 21.

A Plant for the End of the World

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a
Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman’s Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices which for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images
Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.
Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept’s body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.   Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point’s worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning…2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經
Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will

cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, “Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation” Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.