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The Cows and the Bees: Arabic Sources and Parallels for Pseudo-Plato's Liber Vaccae (Kitab al-Nawamis)

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The Arabic original of the ninth-century Kitab al-Nawamis has not been discovered, save for three incomplete chapters. We have access to a fuller version only through a Latin translation, often known as the Liber vaccae, a title derived from its notorious experiments which involve the gruesome slaughter and mutilation of a cow to magically produce a rational animal or bees. Recent research on the Liber vaccae has focused mostly on its reception in medieval and early modern Europe. By contrast, the present article explores the Indo-Arabic tradition to which Kitab al-Nawamis belongs, as a re-orientation of the Liber vaccae established on two levels: textual and theoretical. Section I, on 'Texts and Practices', introduces 'Uyun al-haqa'iq of Abu al-Qasim al-'Iraqi, a text on magical practices which contains 26 chapters that correspond to sections in the Liber vaccae, affording us a glance into the Arabic reception of Kitab al-Nawamis and bringing us closer to the Arabic original. The textual connection is established further by highlighting parallels between the experiments of the Liber vaccae / Kitab al-Nawamis and other texts on natural magic, namely Ghayat al-hakim of Maslama al-Qurtubi and Kitab al-sumum by Ibn Wahshiyya. Section II investigates the theoretical bases of the Liber vaccae / Kitab al-Nawamis, by associating its content with the theories of spontaneous and artificial generation in Kitab al-tajmi attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, Ghayat al-hakim, Kitab al-sumum and, finally, another work by Ibn Wahshiyya, al-Filaha al-nabatiyya. Jabir's and al-Qurtubi's works have been studied in relation to the Liber vaccae by David Pingree, Maaike Van der Lugt, Sophie Page and William Newman; their findings are re-evaluated here in light of the texts of Ibn Wahshiyya and al-'Iraqi.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies

Publication date: December 1, 2016

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