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Hunayn ibn Ishaq on the Hidden Drugs of Galen – Part II

Here is the second and concluding part of our “restructuring” of the English translation of the Arabic Al-Adwiya al-Maktuma (“The Hidden Drugs”) written originally by Galen and commented upon by Hunayn ibn Ishaq:


Carob tree - female flowers


Carob Tree

Ceretonia siliqua L.

 Galen: The malodorous plant whose cones (fruits) resemble kidney beans: if a woman swallows from its seeds one whole seed she will not become pregnant for a year, and likewise every [other] seed [that she takes counts] for [another] year [that she will not become pregnant].

Hunayn: He means the plant that is called […]. [The authors, taking their cue from the term “planta Xilocarapte” in the Latin version, believe Hunayn is referring to the carob tree. Carob is not known to prevent pregnancy, and we have not seen evidence it was used for this purpose in the ancient Mediterranean or Middle East. – RWL]

White Hellebore [Poison]

Veratrum album L. and Var.

(Arabic: kharbaq)

Galen: The plant that has in its middle a raceme like the raceme of the banana tree kills worms and reptiles. Whoever colors his eyelids with one of its seeds will find it beneficial against ophthalmia and bleariness. It is beneficial against unilateral headache and [pain in the] eye, and cures running eyes.

Hunayn: He means the white hellebore plant.

Galen: The plant that is called “the lamp of darkness” – it is one of the lethal drugs if it is not administered properly – it is one of the [emetics]. It should not be used as a drug except for someone who is far away from a doctor. It expels all the phlegm that is harmful and that descends from the head into the stomach. If it is given to drink to someone for whom drinking it is not good, and who cannot withstand its use, it kills when it is imbibed. It increases the flow of urine and menses, if it is taken in measure.

Hunayn: He intends the dandas (?) [plant] [Latin version: the plant that is called “white hellebore”] because it shines in the dark night. When travelers and wayfarers see it, they have no doubt that it is a lamp. However, when they come near to it, they do not see a thing.

Black Nightshade

Solanum nigrum L.

Galen: The plant that has in it something like the tamarisk…. The seed of this plant is helpful for epilepsy and hallucinations…. The plant that grows between the vineyards whose wood is square: if its leaves are pounded, and kneaded with vinegar, and given to the person suffering from [Latin: tenesmus] to drink, it cures him. Whoever drinks from its juice will hardly become inebriated from wine. If a pregnant woman drinks from the water of this tree, she will miscarry the fetus.

Hunayn: He means by this the black nightshade plant.


Hyoscyamus niger L.

Galen: The tree which [causes] male birds to drop dead when they alight upon it is useful for the bite of vermin, cold winds, and hard swellings. It clears gout, adds sexual vigor, and strengthens the erection. If one fumigates with it, it removes quartan fever.

Hunayn: He means henbane…. It is one species of the [different species] of the banj…. It is an Indian tree.

Strawberry Tree

Arbutus unedo L.

(Arabic: qatil abihi)

Galen: The tree which, if a pregnant woman looks at it, she miscarries and the fetus dies within her.

Hunayn: He means the ‘DR’WZN (?) tree. It is called in Arabic “strawberry tree” [qatil abihi = “father killer”].

Oriental Plane Tree

Platanus orientalis L.

Galen: The tree which, if flying creatures, that is bats, eat its leaves and smell its scent, they die within the hour. It is beneficial against inflamed tumors, and its ashes are beneficial against putrid ulcers.

Hunayn: He means the “plane-tree,” and it is [also] called as-sant (acacia tree, Acacia nilotica or Acacia senegal).


Cuscuta epithymum L.

Galen: The plant that is called “the sandal” [Latin: wild purslane] opens obstructions, takes away superfluities, helps against [quartan] fever and hard tumors.

Hunayn: He intends here the clover (lesser) dodder [parasitic plant]. It is called by that name because it has no roots, it has veins which entwine itself around trees, without roots.


Coriandrum sativum L.

Galen: The tree that is called “the bearer of great strength,” is useful in the case of inflamed tumors. It checks a loose belly, cuts the matter of yellow bile, and it is employed in foods in general.

Hunayn: He means the plant that is called “fresh coriander.”

Papyrus Sedge

Cyperus papyrus L.

Galen: The plant that is called “the speaking tongue and the penetrating command”: if it is burned and sprinkled on the place from which blood flows, it will check it. It is useful in the case of gangrenous sores in people. It dries out ulcers and checks menstrual blood, if it is applied in a suppository.

Hunayn: [Galen] means the reed plant from which papyri are made. When papyri are burned, they have the same effect as that plant, and they are useful in the case of the illnesses that he mentioned. He called it by that name because they convey the written message after an interval.


Sedum acre L. etc.

(Arabic: shajar al-yusr; al-musamma shajar adh-dhahab)

Galen: The plant that is called “the menses tree” is useful in the case of strangury, the bite of vermin, ischias, and excess (?) blood in the bladder.

Hunayn: He intended the […] plant. It is called in Arabic “the golden plant.” It is called “the menses tree” because its leaves, when they are pounded and applied in a suppository [stop] the excessive [menstruation] at once. [The authors suspect this plant is stonecrop, a.k.a. “golden moss,” one of the Crassulaceae. – RWL]

Greater Celandine or Tetterwort (Europe)

Chelidonium majus L.

Galen: The plant … is useful in case of [illegible] pain, dries up ulcers, dissolves superfluities; it has wonderful diluting properties.

Hunayn: He intends the celandine, because it has the capacity to cure the eye. Especially when it is pounded alone [and applied] as a collyrium, it eliminates every ailment that is due to scabs, heaviness, wind (pneuma), and the like.

Indian Hemp

Cannabis sativa L.

Galen: The plant that is called “man’s deception” is helpful in case of palpitation of the heart. It strengthens the brain, and it is helpful in case of epilepsy, facial paralysis, and chronic illnesses, when it is mixed with drugs that balance it. However, if it is taken by itself, and it is done to excess, it is fatal; if less than that [measure] is taken, it intoxicates.

Hunayn: He intends Indian hemp because some men are delighted when they take it with their meal, and others enjoy it, when they swallow it with some drink. It is [also] called “manj.

Black Papaver or Opium Poppy

Papaver somniferum L.

Galen: The smell of the [plant] that is called odor-[less] is helpful in all cases in which the “man’s deception” is helpful. It too must be balanced just as [the “man’s deception”] is to be balanced. Its harm is just like its [“man’s deception”] harm.

Hunayn: He intends the black papaver, from whose juice opium is produced. It is called by this name for the following reason. When its juice, opium, is administered to someone in order to kill him, and the attending physician sees that the [victim] is absolutely incapable of speaking to him, nor can he move at all, if that physician is skillful, he will rub a part of his body briskly with musk, until that part heats up […]. Then the physician will smell the part that has been rubbed. If he smells the scent of opium, he then knows that he has been administered [that ingredient], and he does his utmost to ward off its harm.


Indigofera tinctoria L.

Galen: The [plant] that grows amongst sorghum (Sorghum vulgare) checks the blood and dries ulcers. If its leaves are pounded and placed upon a swelling, they dissolve it. It is one of the drugs that are laxative in the extreme.

Hunayn: He intends the […]. It is known as the “seed of indigo.” The wild [type] is of no good, but the domestic [type] is good and grows mostly between sorghum. For that reason, Galen kept it hidden, attributing it [instead?] to the places within which it grows.

Ceylonese, Chinese or True Cinnamon

Cinnamomum ceylanicum Nees.

Galen: The [plant] that is called the “cooler of the glowing heat” is helpful in case of severe headache that is due to strong vapors of yellow bile. If it is placed upon [the patient], relief begins for him immediately, and his pain is removed. If it is placed in a home where [people suffer from] fever, fever departs from it.

Hunayn: He means the [plant] that is called in Greek […]. It is called “cooler of the glowing heat” because if someone takes it and [enters] the bathhouse, its heat cools off until nothing is left of it and it is [completely] cold. It is Chinese cinnamon.

[SOURCE: Bos, Gerritt, and Y. Tzvi Langermann. “Pseudo-Galen, al-Adwiya ‘l-maktuma, with the commentary by Hunayn ibn Ishaq,” Suhayl 6 (2006), pp. 81-112.]


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