BEAVER, Castor fiber L., semiaquatic mammalian rodent, in Persian commonly called sag-e ābī (lit. “aquatic dog”), no longer extant in Iran (Eʿtemād, I, and Harrington et al. do not mention it). As late as 1874 J. H. Schlimmer (p. 115) noted that “small numbers [of beavers] are found along the bank of the Šaṭṭ-al-ʿArab in the province of Šūštar and Dezfūl.”
The beaver in early Iranian sources. There appear to be references to beavers in Avestan and Pahlavi literatures. In the Ābān yašt (Yt. 5.129; Lommel, pp. 43-44; Pūr-e Dāvūd, I, pp. 297-98 and n.) the garment of Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā is described thus: “[She] wears a dress of baβra fur [made] of the [pelts of] 300 baβras [each of] which bears four pups, for the baβri is the prettiest in that [her fur] is the thickest. The baβri is an aquatic animal; his pelt, if obtained at the right time, is very glossy [like] silver and gold.” Avestan baβra/baβri- has traditionally been interpreted as “beaver,” the word itself being considered akin to Sanskrit babhru- “reddish brown, ichneumon,” Latin fiber “beaver,” Old High German bibar (modern Ger. Biber), and Pahlavi babrag (see below; see also Air Wb., col. 925; Horn, Etymologie, p. 42; Hübschmann, Persische Studien, p. 25; Horn and Hübschmann, pp. 236-37). A little more information is found in the Bundahišn (TD2, p. 96; tr. Anklesaria, 13.18, pp. 120-21): The beaver, “babrag-e ābīg [lit. “aquatic babrag”], which is [also] called sag-e ābīg,” is said to be one of “ten species of dog,” among which the fox, the sheep dog, the weasel, and the otter (udrag; see below) are also included. In Mēnōg ī xrad (35.10, ed. Anklesaria, p. 104; tr. A. Tafażżolī, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975-76, p. 51), killing a babrag is considered one of the thirty cardinal sins (along with the murder of a holy man, idolatry, heresy, and sodomy). These references are witness to the value placed on the beaver as a fur-bearing animal in pre-Islamic Iran.
The beaver in Islamic Iran. The existence of several Persian or dialectal Iranian names (all obsolete now) for the beaver and especially for its “testicles” (see on castoreum below) in Persian sources of the Islamic period indicates a continued interest in the beaver, no longer for its pelt (considered “unclean” in the Islamic law like the skin of any other dog), but for the medicinal properties of its gond/jond “testicle” (i.e., castoreum), which were made known to the physicians-pharmacologists of the Islamic period through the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ treatise on materia medica by Ḥonayn b. Esḥāq and Stephanos (Eṣṭefān b. Basīl) under the caliph al-Motawakkel (232-47/847-61). The earliest mention of the beaver in Islamic Iranian lands is probably that by the 4th/10th-century historian and philologist Ḥamza Eṣfahānī (quoted by Bīrūnī, Ṣaydana, ed. Said, p. 142): “Vīdastar [i.e., the beaver] is an animal found only in the valley of the Aras [River] in Azerbaijan and in the valley of Atil, the Khazar capital.” For the animal we also find the following names, all mentioned, or quoted from earlier authors, by Bīrūnī, op. cit., pp. 141-42; saglāb(ī)/saklābī/saglāv(ī) (corruptions of sag-e ābī, qondoz/qondos (according to Shirr, p. 129, an arabicized form of gond-e sag, lit. “dog testicle”; cf. the turkicized qondūz, still used in Turkish for this animal); hazad(ū), and ḵazadū (the last one probably a variant or alteration of hazadū in the Persian adaptation of Bīrūnī’s Ṣaydana by Kāsānī, I, pp. 218-20). By far the commonest name for the beaver in Persian and (with arabicized variants) in Arabic sources is bīdastar or bādastar, which, according to Moʿīn (Farhang-e fārsī, s.v.), is composed of bī “without”/bā “with” + dast “hand” + ar “saw,” probably referring to the fact that the beaver, without a hand-saw or as if with a hand-saw, is able to “saw,” i.e., to gnaw down, some trees with its strong sharp front teeth (but cf. Bīrūnī’s explanation, p. 141: bī “without” + dast [ = tāmm] “entire, complete,” “that is, incomplete as to its two testicles”).
More numerous are the names for the beaver’s “testicle(s).” This animal being unknown in Arabic-speaking lands (see Maʿlūf, pp. 31-32), the authors of the Islamic period took for granted Dioscorides’ inaccurate description of the kástor (Gk., beaver), and his misinterpretation that castoreum or castor (variously arabicized as qasṭorīūn, qasṭūrīūn, qasṭūr, etc.) is the testicle [sing.: sic] of the beaver (see below; in Ar.: ḵoṣyat al-kalb al-baḥrīy “testicle of the marine dog,” ḵoṣā kalb al-māʾ “testicle of the water dog,” etc.). The Persian gond-e bīdastar/bādastar, hazad-gond, qondoz-qūrī, etc., and the Turkish qūndūz ḵāya-sī (all recorded as such by Bīrūnī, loc. cit.) reflect the same original description by Dioscorides (as quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, pt. 1, pp. 171-72): “The qāsṭor is an animal adapted to living both in water and out of it but mostly living in water, where he feeds on fish and crabs. His testicle is the jond-bādastar. This animal is fit to live both on land and in the sea, [but] he is usually in streams with snakes and crocodiles. . . . False is the report that this animal, when chased and wanted, extracts his testicle and throws it [to the hunters], for it is impossible for him to reach it, because it is stuck like a pig’s testicle. [To do this,] he should rend the skin covering the testicle and take this out with the ḥejāb (envelope) containing a honey-like moist matter, which is [then] dried, and taken internally” (it should be noted that the misinformation that the beaver “is usually in streams with snakes and crocodiles” does not occur in the translation of Dioscorides by Ḥonayn and Stephanos and later revised by Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Nātelī in 380/990-91; see the relevant fol. of the Leiden ms. of this revised translation as reproduced by Sadek, p. 184). Unrelated names for castoreum are: āš-e baččagān/baččahā (cf. its Turk. tr. oḡlān-āšī) of dubious literal meaning (“the children’s āš”? cf. the unconvincing etymology proposed by Pūr-e Dāvūd, quoted by Moʿīn in Borhān-e qāṭeʿ I, p. 44, n. 6: āš “many” + baččagān “children,” lit. “[having/bearing] many pups”), mentioned by Bīrūnī, loc. cit.; fāješa (sic; given by Bīrūnī, and recorded in Borhān-e qāṭeʿ s.v., as Persian, but cf. the Arabic al-fāḥeša mentioned by Ebn Maymūn, no. 79, along with ḵoṣyat al-baḥr, lit. “sea testicle,” and ḵoṣā al-sammūr, lit. “testicle of the sable,” etc., as synonyms for jondabādostor [sic]); and ḵazmīān (recorded by Bīrūnī and in Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, s.v.; origin uncertain; for a probable connection with ḵaz “weasel”? see the sam(m)ūr below). Another Persian name for castoreum, sag(-e) āb, lit. “water dog,” also in Bīrūnī, recalls the confused use of one and the same word for this animal and its “testicle,” as is the case for the Engl. castor meaning both (cf. also Ebn al-Bayṭār, pt. 4, p. 21, who uses qasṭūra as a synonym for jondabādastar).
Actually, castoreum is a musk-like strong-smelling resinous matter secreted by a pair of bulky glandular pouches united by a common excretory duct and located side by side under the abdominal skin in the urogenital region of both male and female beavers (it probably serves to delimit the beaver’s territory and/or to attract the opposite sex). The fact that she-beavers also possess these musk glands (though less developed than in males) must have passed unnoticed by classical authors and their Islamic imitators—hence the confusion of these pouches with he-beavers’ testicles (to be noted incidentally that the word musk, designating a substance similar to castoreum and secreted by an abdominal pouch in the male musk deer, goes back—through the Persian mošk—ultimately to the Skt. muṣká meaning “testicle, scrotum”). These glands were mistaken for testicles because, in addition to their outward resemblance to the latter, they were often sold in pairs (Meyerhof, in Ebn Maymūn, p. 42). Apparently because of the scarcity of genuine castoreum, it was often adulterated (according to Dioscorides, with some gum ammoniac and another resin mixed with blood and a little castoreum, all placed in single bladders and let to dry up); therefore, it was recommended to eventual users to “select always those twin ["testicles"] which have a common [excretory] outleṭ . . . and the inside of which is divided into numerous natural fossae (ḥojob) containing [a matter] like blood, malodorous, hot, pungent, and easily detachable [from the inner walls of the pouches]” (Dioscorides, loc. cit., condensed by Bīrūnī, loc. cit., Ebn Sīnā, II, Pers. tr., p. 106, etc.; cf. Anṭākī, I, p. 95, who states that “the best jondabīdastar is the red, sweet-smelling [sic], friable one, not older than three years”).
Probably because of the nonexistence of the beaver in the greater part of the Islamic world, confusion has also developed about the very animal yielding castoreum. The confusion seems to have been first with a certain fur-bearer of the family Mustelidae: sammūr in some Arabic texts, and ḵaz(z) in some Iranian sources. For instance, Ebn Beklāreš (2nd half of the 5th/11th century), quoted by Renaud and Colin (p. 48, no. 103), while giving the synonym ḵoṣyat al-baḥr for jondobādastar [sic], states that “it comes from the animal called sammūr; and Ebn Maymūn (6th/12th century), loc. cit., believing that “jondabādostor is the testicle of the sammūr,” explains that the latter “is a sea animal, the "water dog," which comes out [of water] and feeds/roams freely on land.” Bīrūnī (d. 440/1048) reports (al-Jamāher, p. 102) some people’s belief that “the hunters of ḵazz castrate it and [that] its testicle is [called] jondbīdastar.” Esmāʿīl Jorjānī (6th/12th century) states (p. 603) that “jond-e bīdastar is the testicle of the animal called ḵaz in Persian and qondos by Turks.” Kāsānī (1st half of the 8th/14th century), loc. cit., quotes “some people” as saying that “the jond-e bīdastar is the testicle of the animal from the hair of which ḵaz clothes are woven [sic]” (cf. also ḵazmīān “castoreum” above). As an animal unanimously acknowledged as bearing a valuable fur, the sammūr (Pers. samūr, Pahl. samōr) has been generally identified by modern authors as Mustela/Martes zibellina, the sable (see, e.g., Schlimmer, p. 393, Maʿlūf, p. 213, and Ghaleb, s.v., who, however, has “common sammūr” = ḵazz = Mustela martes and reserves M. zibellina for the “sammūr of Siberia”), and the ḵaz(z) variously as Martes martes, pine marten, Mustela martes, “common marten,” or M. foina, weasel (see the same sources, and Dāʾerat al-maʿāref-e fārsī I, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966-67, s.v.; for the great confusion in the identification of the sam(m)ūr, ḵaz(z) and the like in Arabic and Persian sources, see Maʿlūf, pp. 158-60 and 213).
A further confusion is that of the beaver with another mustelid, the otter, Lutra lutra L. (udrag in Pahl., cf. Hindi ūd “otter,” from Skt. udrá, referring to an aquatic animal, the otter according to some). The following fact may have added to the confusion due to the nonexistence of the beaver in these areas: Most members of the family Mustelidae (including martens, weasels, badgers, and otters, all of which are found in Iran; see Harrington et al., p. 10), particularly martens and polecats, “have well-developed [anal] scent-glands” from which they emit a fetid secretion to defend themselves and/or to mark their territory; both terrestrial species (martens) and semiaquatic (fluvial) ones (otters) exist; generally they bear much valued furs; they are carnivorous (unlike the beaver, which feeds mainly on the bark and tender twigs of some trees). The otter is called qożāʿa, kalb al-māʾ (lit. “water dog”) or qondos/qondor in Arabic (see Maʿlūf, p. 31, who states that “the otter is abundant in Iran and Iraq, well known in Syria and possibly in Jazīrat al-ʿArab”); in contemporary Persian it is called samūr-e ābī, sometimes sag-e ābī, or more accurately by its specific Gīlakī name šang (in Maz. (ū-)šeng). Melgunof, writing in 1863 (Pers. tr., p. 72), reports the pelts of the fox, weasel, jackal, and otter (šeng) among the goods bought by Russian traders from the Turkmans and others in Astarābād.
Interestingly, the imaginary picture of a beaver in the illustrated Leiden ms. of the above-mentioned Arabic translation of Dioscorides (dated 475/1083; the earliest dated ms.: University of Leiden, Or. 289, Warn., see Sadek, loc. cit., fig. 37), far from representing a true beaver, looks rather like a fox (cf. the Ar. name ṯaʿlab al-māʾ, lit. “water fox,” also used for the beaver). This untrue representation indicates that the confusion about the identity of the beaver was already great in the 5th/11th century. The zoologist-philologist Damīrī (742-808/1341-1405), I, p. 306, by adding some features of the seal (probably the species Phoca caspica Gmel.) to some features of the beaver, the sammūr, and the otter has raised the confusion to its highest point: “The jondabādastar is an animal [sic] looking like a dog, not like the kalb al-māʾ. He is [also] called qondoz as well as sammūr. He is found only in the country of the Qefjāq [i.e., Qepčāq] and in the neighboring regions. . . . He lives mostly in water, where he feeds on fish and crabs. He looks like a red fox. He has no forepaws, but he has hindlegs and a long tail. His head is like a human head, with a round face. He crawls on his chest as if walking on all fours. He has four testicles: two outer/apparent ones and two inner/hidden ones. . . . When he sees that the hunters are after him to obtain the castoreum, which exists in his two apparent testicles, he flees, and if they persist in pursuing him, he cuts [his outer testicles] off with his mouth and throws them to the hunters. . . . After having cut off the apparent two, he brings into view the two invisible ones in their stead. Inside his testicle there is something like blood or honey, foul-smelling. . . . His pelt has dense hair, and is suitable to be worn by cold-tempered (mabrūd) and aged people” (the medicinal virtues subsequently mentioned by Damīrī are those traditionally attributed to the castor).
Probably the first attempt to clarify this confusion was by M. M. Tonokābonī (fl. 1077-1105/1667-94) who had first-hand knowledge about the otter, which is abundant in his native Tonokābon in Māzandarān, and about the seal (Phoca caspica Gmel.) living in the Caspian and on its shores, but no knowledge of the beaver. In his Toḥfa (pp. 731-33, s.v. kalb, and 253-54, s.v. jond), first he distinguishes three kinds of kalb “dog”: domestic (ahlī), wild (barrī), and aquatic (ābī). He then distinguishes two kinds of the aquatic: marine (baḥrī) and fluvial (nahrī). According to him, the fluvial “dog” is called ḵaz-mān (“for it resembles the ḵaz”) in Persian (cf. the above-mentioned ḵazmīān) and kalb māʾī (lit. “aquatic dog”) in Arabic. “The jond is obtained from this [fluvial] one.” “The marine "dog" is as large as the domestic one and [even] larger, has very short limbs, and no tail. It is abundant [in the "Lake of Darband," explains Tonokābonī’s commentator ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, p. 361, probably meaning the part of the Caspian Sea facing the Caucasus], where [the local people] use its hide as a container for naphtha.” (This description applies to the seal.) “The fluvial "dog" is as large as a cat or larger, resembles the dalaq [arabicized from dala, weasel], has long limbs and a tail like a cat’s. It is mostly found in large streams. [It also lives out of water, explains ʿAqīlī, op. cit., p. 160] . . . Its hair is blackish red. . . . It is called šang/šeng in Tonokābon and Deylam. The jond obtained from it looks like a testicle. . . . In Īravān I have seen its fresh jond, which had just been cut off by a hunter: it had no odor or color whatever; only after I had boiled it in lye and had cured it with smoke from straw fire did a kind of transformation occur in it, and it gained odor and color.” (This description applies to the otter and to its “testicle.”)
The therapeutic virtues mentioned for castoreum by the Islamic-period authors are essentially those indicated by Dioscorides and Galen (cf. the quotations from these two by Ebn al-Bayṭār, pt. 1, loc. cit.)—a fact which further confirms that most of those authors did not have any direct, exact knowledge about the beaver and its jond. The principal therapeutic indications of castoreum derive from the Galenic assumption that it is highly mosaḵḵen (heating, calorific), mojaffef (desiccant) and, at the same time, very laṭīf (gentle, soothing). Consequently, it is useful in “all cold and moist ailments of the lungs and the brain” (Galen), including nervous disorders such as spasm, tremor, hiccups caused by “cold humors,” lethargy, cramp, etc. (Galen and Dioscorides). Other “cold and moist” diseases reported by later authors as curable with castoreum are: eḵtenāq al-raḥem (strangulatio uterina), cephalgia (Ṭabarī, Ferdaws al-ḥekma, p. 438), poisoning by “cold” poisons especially by opium, phlegmatic and gazeous colic, epilepsy, omm al-ṣebyān (hydrocephalus of newborn children), “cold” gout, palsy, anesthesia (Sofyān Andalosī, quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, loc. cit.), and “moist” tetanos (Ebn Sīnā, II, Pers. tr., p. 106). Other uses: (castoreum ointment) against vermin stings (Dioscorides), bites of wild beasts (Ṭabarī, loc. cit.); (taken internally with wild pennyroyal) as an emmenagogue (Dioscorides and Galen), and to expel the embryo and placenta (Dioscorides); (taken with vinegar or “honey water”) against persistent flatulence, etc. (Dioscorides and Galen); (in a collyrium) for “clearing” the eyesight (Ṭabarī, loc. cit.); (in eardrops with nard oil) against otitis (Ebn Sīnā, loc. cit.); as a sternutative (Dioscorides), and so on. Curative virtues were also indicated for some other parts of the beaver. According to a certain Baṣrī (ʿĪsā b. Māsa?), quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār (loc. cit.), eating its flesh, which is also mosaḵḵen and moyabbes (desiccant), is good for paralytics and people affected with roṭūbāt (moist humors); and as reported by Ṭabarī (loc. cit.), “some people believe that a piece of its pelt, if placed under a gouty person, cures him.”
Partly given in the text. See also Dāwūd Anṭākī, Taḏkerat ūli’l-albāb wa’l-jāmeʿ le’l-ʿajab al-ʿojāb, 2 vols., Cairo, 1308-09/1890-91.
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Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
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Vol. IV, Fasc. 1, pp. 71-74