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Healing with Mercury: The Uses of Mercury in Arabic Medical Literature

Natalia Bachour EMAIL logo

Abstract

Three textual traditions can be discerned in Arabic medical literature: the early translations from Greek, Syriac and Indian sources; the autochthonous tradition, which reached its height between the tenth and thirteenth centuries; and the translations from Latin sources, beginning in the seventeenth century. This study traces the medical use of mercury and its derivatives within these traditions. The Greek works translated into Arabic like those of Galen or Paul of Aegina did not prescribe mercury as a remedy for human beings because of its toxicity. However, many scholars of the second period, including Rhazes (d. 925), Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 979), Avicenna (d. 1037), Abū l-ʿAlāʾ Zuhr (d. 1131) and Muḥammad al-Idrīsī (d. 1166), described the external application of mercury. Many terms were used to describe these varieties of mercury – the living (ziʾbaq ḥayy), the dead (ziʾbaq mayyit), the murdered (ziʾbaq maqtūl), the sublimated (ziʾbaq muṣaʿʿad) and the dust of mercury (turāb al-ziʾbaq). To reconstruct the meaning of these terms, I examine various recipes for mercurial preparation given in these works. The internal use of mercury is documented in the sixteenth century in a work by Dawūd al-Anṭākī (d. 1599), who used the term sulaymānī to refer to a sublimated derivative of mercury. I attempt to reconstruct the modalities of knowledge transmission from the Indian and Persian East into Arabic medicine, and from the Arabic world into the Latin West. I also address the impact of translations into Arabic of Latin works in the seventeenth century, such as the Practicae medicinae and Institutionum medicinae by Daniel Sennert (d. 1637), the Antidotarium generale et speciale by Johann Jacob Wecker (d. 1586) and the Basilica Chymica by the Paracelsian Oswaldus Crollius (d. 1608).

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Published Online: 2015-12-2
Published in Print: 2015-12-1

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