Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Thu, Jun 20th, 2019

Animal House in the 14th Century

One of the most entertaining Arabic compendia on animal life, taken in the loose sense of the term for things that breathe or are thought to breathe, is the Ḥayāt al-Ḥayawān (Life of Animals) of the Egyptian savant Kamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Damīrī. Writing a century before Columbus discovered America, al-Damīrī spins stories about animals with plenty of folklore about uses of animal products and parts. A scientist would no doubt shudder at the magical and literary focus of the text, only occasionally finding description useful today. A partial English translation was made by a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jayakar, and published in two volumes in 1906 and 1908 in India. Unfortunately, this text is virtually inaccessible. I have looked at two copies, one in the New York Public Library and the other at the Library of Congress, and only with trepidation have I turned the fragile pages in this poorly bound and fragile volume. There is a pdf available, but only of volume 2. 

Our author was a prolific copyist, quoting from over 800 other authors and providing a thousand entries, some simply an animal’s name and its more common synonym. Ironically, Jayakar’s Victorian sensitivity makes the translation as much an oddity as the primary work. Like other literary savants in the pre-modern Arab world, al-Damīrī is not squeamish when it comes to erotic and scatalogical innuendos. But there was a linguistic hex on translating sex with stiff upper-lipped officers like Jayakar, even when camels did it. Consider the following excerpt, in which pedantic Latin allows the translator to be scrupulous to a fault: “The stallion camel covers the female only once a year, sed diu initum prorogat et pluries semen in feminam immittit, and on that account it is subsequently affected with languor and weakness.” The only thing left out of this passage is the Viagra. 

But there’s more Latin to come. The flesh of camels and that of mountain sheep a year old is all of a poor or inferior kind. If the hair of camels is burnt and sprinkled over flowing blood, it checks the flow of blood. If the ticks infecting camels are tied up in the sleeve of one affected with excessive love, his love-madness will disappear. If one who is drunk, drinks a little of a male camel’s urine, he will become sober instantaneously. Its flesh increases the venereal power and acts as an aphrodisiac. The urine of camels is beneficial in swelling or inflammation of the liver, and in increasing the sexual power. Si qua mulier, tres dies, post menses, medulla ossis cruralis cameli, vel gossypio vel lana involuta, usa erit, recurreritque ad actionem initus, quamvis sterilis, illa concipiet. So next time you have had too many tequillas, head for the nearest camel and make sure it gets pissed off at you.

This massive Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān is a treasure trove of esoterica. One way of looking at esoterica is that it is useless information, frivolous and entertaining with little or no pedagogical value. I suppose the same could be said for many of the subjects taught on college campuses, past or present. Al-Damīrī does not just deal with animals, but he also provides pragmatic advice for humans. After all, animals should be our friends and not just our dinner. The following recipe may have few takers in contemporary society, especially the overweight citizens; but just in case you ever wanted to know, here is advice on how to become fat:

If you wish a woman to become fat, take the fat of a goose (female), pound it and mix with it borax, Kirmānī cummin-seed, and the flour of fenugreek, then mix all together with water, make it into bullets and get a black fowl to swallow them for seven consecutive days, after which it is to be killed and roasted; whoever partakes of it or its gravy will become so fat, as almost to be overpowered by the fat, whether the eater is a man or a woman; but if you wish a person to be still fatter than that, take human bile and place it over as much wheat as can be easily prepared with a little water, then wait until the wheat swells out, after which feed a black fowl on it, and do with the fowl as described before; whoever partakes of that fowl whether a man or a woman will see a wonder of wonders in the shape of obesity and fatness, so much so that he or she will not be able even to stand up; this is a wonderful and tried secret.

Given obesity rates in far too many parts of the world, I would say that either al-Damīrī’s secret is out or it really would be useless advice today.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.