Sources of Islamic Theories of Reproduction
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The hadith contain many statements about fluids from both the man and woman that were believed to form the human embryo. The Qur’an too says that the embryo is formed from emitted fluid, and in one verse perhaps indicates a mingling of male and female fluids.This article will trace the origins of each of these ideas at least as far back as the Jewish Talmud and the ancient Greek physicians.
The Prophet Muhammad, who had been a well-traveled merchant, had extensive interactions with Jews in Arabia, and almost certainly with Nestorian Christians, who had large communities in Najran in the south and Hira to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. Guillaume says of the Nestorians, “Such men were a familiar sight on all the caravan routes of Arabia”. The Nestorians were based in Syria, where they already possessed and studied the works of Galen, the hugely influential 2nd century Greek physician. While this does not necessitate that the creators of the Qur’an and hadith directly copied from these works, it seems likely that they were, at the very least, indirectly influenced by these widespread ideas.
History of Embryology
Before commencing the specific topic of this article, the following timeline summarises existing theories of embryology, which may be compared with the wider content of Islamic embryology. Some argue that the vague statements of Qur'anic embryology have similarities with these theories, most conspicuously the incorrect ideas of Galen.
|1416 BC||Garbha Upinandas (Hindu text)||"From the conjugation of blood and semen the embryo comes into existence. During the period favorable to conception, after the sexual intercourse, (it) becomes a Kalada (one-day-old embryo). After remaining seven nights it becomes a vesicle. After a fortnight it becomes a sperical mass. After a month it becomes a firm mass".|
|1000 BC||Book of Job (Judeo-Christian text)||"Your hands formed me and made me - will you now absorb me? Remember that you formed me as if with clay - will you return me to dust? You poured me out like milk, and pulled me together like cheese. You clothed me with skin and flesh, and [inside me] did you interweave bones and sinews."|
|500 BC||Psalms (Judeo-Christian text)||"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."|
|460-370 BC||Hippocrates||1st stage: "Sperm is a product which comes from the whole body of each parent, weak sperm coming from the weak parts, and strong sperm from the strong parts."
2nd stage: "The seed (embryo), then, is contained in a membrane ... Moreover, it grows because of its mother's blood, which descends to the womb. For once a woman conceives, she ceases to menstruate..."
3rd stage: "At this stage, with the descent and coagulation of the mother's blood, flesh begins to be formed, with the umbilicus."
|384-322 BC||Aristotle||"When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male...the more solid part comes together, the liquid is separated off from it, and as the earthy parts solidify membranes form all around it...Some of these are called membranes and others choria..." "So nature has first designed the two blood vessels from the heart, and from these smaller vessels branch off to the uterus, forming what is called the umbilicus...Round these is a skin-like integument, because the weakness of the vessels needs protection and shelter. The vessels join to the uterus like the roots of plants, and through them the embryo receives its nourishment".|
|240-180 BC||Diocles of Carystus||"on the ninth day a few points of blood, on the eighteenth beating of the heart, on the twenty-seventh traces of the spinal cord and head"|
|129-210 AD||Claudius Galenus||"let us divide the creation of the foetus overall into four periods of time.|
The first is that in which. as is seen both in abortions and in dissection, the form of the semen prevails [compare with the Islamic nutfah/semen stage]. At this time, Hippocrates too, the all-marvelous, does not yet call the conformation of the animal a foetus; as we heard just now in the case of semen voided in the sixth day, he still calls it semen. But when it has been filled with blood [compare with the alaqa/bloodclot stage], and heart, brain and liver are still unarticulated and unshaped yet have by now a certain solidarity and considerable size,
this is the second period; the substance of the foetus has the form of flesh and no longer the form of semen. Accordingly you would find that Hippocrates too no longer calls such a form semen but, as was said, foetus.
The third period follows on this, when, as was said, it is possible to see the three ruling parts clearly and a kind of outline, a silhouette, as it were, of all the other parts [compare with the mudghah/morsel, formed and unformed stage]. You will see the conformation of the three ruling parts more clearly, that of the parts of the stomach more dimly, and much more still, that of the limbs. Later on they form "twigs", as Hippocrates expressed it, indicating by the term their similarity to branches.
The fourth and final period is at the stage when all the parts in the limbs have been differentiated; and at this part Hippocrates the marvelous no longer calls the foetus an embryo only, but already a child, too when he says that it jerks and moves as an animal now fully formed."
"... The time has come for nature to articulate the organs precisely and to bring all the parts to completion. Thus it caused flesh to grow on and around all the bones [compare with the kasawna al-'ithama lahman/clothed the bones with flesh stage], and at the same time ... it made at the ends of the bones ligaments that bind them to each other, and along their entire length it placed around them on all sides thin membranes, called periosteal, on which it caused flesh to grow."
|ca. 200 AD||Talmud (Jewish text)||The embryo was called peri habbetten (fruit of the body) and develops as:
1. golem (formless, rolled-up thing);
|571-632 AD||Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh||“Allah's Apostle, the true and truly inspired said, "(The matter of the Creation of) a human being is put together in the womb of the mother in forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period.”
“The Prophet said, "Allah puts an angel in charge of the uterus and the angel says, 'O Lord, (it is) semen! O Lord, (it is now) a clot! O Lord, (it is now) a piece of flesh.' And then, if Allah wishes to complete its creation, the angel asks, 'O Lord, (will it be) a male or a female?”
A few definitions
The following 3 words are used in the Qur’an and hadith in connection with semen:
The word nutfah is used 12 times in the Qur’an in the following verses, in each case saying much the same thing, that man is created from a nutfah: Quran 16:4, Quran 18:37, Quran 22:5, Quran 23:13, Quran 23:14, Quran 35:11, Quran 36:77, Quran 40:67, Quran 53:46, Quran 75:37, Quran 76:2, Quran 80:19.
A nutfah is a small quantity of liquid. It was also used in reference to semen that was believed to form the embryo. Lane’s Lexicon of classical Arabic defines nutfah as:
(Sperma is a Late Latin word meaning seed, semen).
The Lisan al Arab dictionary of classical Arabic gives these definitions (translated from the Arabic):
A nice example of nutfah usage can be found in a pre-Islamic poem where it is used to mean “the small quantity of wine that remained in a wineskin”.
Male or female semen. It is frequently used in hadith about ritual purity, especially narrations saying that Aisha used to clean semen off Muhammad’s clothes. It is used once in the Qur’an, verse Quran 75:37.
Evidence of influence
The purpose of this section is to demonstrate the influence of ideas from other cultures on the Qur’an and hadith regarding reproduction. It will go without saying that these ideas are inaccurate compared with current scientific knowledge of reproduction and embryology. All Qur’an quotes are from Yusuf Ali’s translation.
A mingled drop
Ibn Kathir’s commentary on this verse gives a very useful definition of nutfah from Muhammad’s companions.
﴿مِن نُّطْفَةٍ أَمْشَاجٍ﴾(from Nutfah Amshaj,) "This means the fluid of the man and the fluid of the woman when they meet and mix.” Then man changes after this from stage to stage, condition to condition and color to color. `Ikrimah, Mujahid, Al-Hasan and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas all made statements similar to this. They said, "Amshaj is the mixing of the man’s fluid with the woman’s fluid.”
In each case, the word translated “fluid” is maa (see above for definition), so there is no case for retro-fitting the sperm or ovum into it. Similar comments from Muhammad’s companions appear in al-Tabari’s Tafsir on 76:2. His companions apparently believed that the mingled nutfah was a mixture of male and female semen.
Now we shall see that this same idea was taught by Galen, the hugely influential 2nd Century Greek physician. Galen’s main treatise about embryology was called “On Semen”, and his works were studied by Muhammad’s nearby contemporaries in Alexandria, Egypt and in Gundeshapur, southwestern Syria.
Galen said that the embryo is initially formed out of the male semen mixed (μίγνυται) with what he called the female semen, which also forms an additional membrane entwined (ἐπιπλεκονταί) with that of the male semen. He believed that blood from the woman is subsequently drawn in via the uterus and membrane, and this combined material literally goes on to form the fetus. This will be explained a little more later. Unlike Galen (and before him, Hippocrates) with the two-semens theory, Aristotle believed that there was only a male semen, which does not itself provide material for the embryo, but triggers its formation from menstral blood. The quoted comments from Muhammad’s companions are good evidence for Galenic influence in 7th century Arabia.
The Qur’anic verses that are most explicit in stating that the embryo is initially formed out of semen, as per Galen and Hippocrates, are verses 80:18-19.
Just as Galen taught about the mixed semens, this nutfah is stored in the womb where it subsequently undergoes various stages of development.
The Qur’an itself confirms that it is semen that is developed in the womb in an almost identical verse. Here maa (water), the euphemism for semen, is used instead of nutfah. In this instance it probably just means male semen (see the “Extract of despised fluid” section later).
Semen stage lasts 40 days
See also Quran 23:12-14 to see how the nutfah and subsequent stages fit together. Now let us compare with the Talmud:
(Part b comes after each mishnah and is the Rabbinic commentary, called Gemara, on the mishnah in part a). Notice also that like in the Qur’an, the embryo is formed from semen.
Gender determined after 40 days
See also Sahih Muslim 33:6395 quoted above, for example. Once again, we see that this is an idea from the Talmud:
It should, however, be noted that in the next hadith, number 6393, the angel who comes after 40 days creates the child’s flesh and bones and then gender is determined. In number 6397 (also appears in Sahih Bukhari), gender is determined once the fetus has become a “lump of flesh”.
Resemblance of the child to its parents
A similar idea is found in the Talmud:
The same thing is reported in Berakoth 60a. Notice also a two-semens theory again. In most versions of this hadith the determining factor in resemblance is whose water (maa i.e. semen) preceded (sabaqa) the other person’s water. In other versions it is whose water is on or upon (‘ala) the other’s, which is closer to various Greek theories in which resemblance or gender is caused by semens prevailing upon each other. In one case (Sahih Muslim, Book 3, number 614), it is gender rather than resemblance that is determined in this way and maniyy is used rather than maa.
“Not from all the sperm a fetus is created…”
Searching for some kind of reference to sperm (rather than merely semen), which was not discovered until the 17th century, some Islamic apologists point to the following hadith:
The first thing to point out is that the word translated “sperm” in the apologists’ translation is actually maa in the Arabic, which as mentioned above, means water/fluid and is a euphemism for semen. This is also apparent in another translation of the same hadith:
A somewhat similar idea is found in the Talmud:
The possible Talmudic influence is much less clear in this example as the hadith concerns the practice of al-‘azl, or coitus interruptus. In any case, it would have been well known that not all of a semen emission was needed to initiate pregnancy, so that this method of birth control was unreliable.
Al ‘azl and al ghila
While on the subject of ‘azl, and another practice, ghila, which is a man having intercourse with his wife while she is suckling, we see that Muhammad openly admits to his knowledge of and interest in the reproductive practices of the Byzantines (“Romans”) and Sassanids (“Persians”):
Of the two centers of Galenic study mentioned above, Syria was under the Sassinid empire and Egypt was under both the Sassinids and Byzantines at different times during Muhammad’s career. Muhammad did not live in a bubble. These hadith suggest that Muhammad would have had access to and had interest in the practices and ideas regarding sexual matters and reproduction transmitted by these other cultures.
“From the man’s nutfah and from the woman’s nutfah”
Asked by a Jewish man how man is created, Muhammad reportedly answered:
Some Islamic apologists suggest that this hadith in the Musnad Ahmad hadith collection is a reference to the sperm and ovum. However, as shown by the ibn Kathir quote above, not only were these understood to be male and female fluids, but this is once again the Galenic two-semens theory. Indeed, the remainder of the very same hadith (which is almost never included upon reference) explicitly affirms the two-semens theory, and proceeds to describe the different purposes of each of the two semens in a manner that is, needless to say, plainly unscientific and inaccurate.
See the references section for a link to the Arabic. Not only can we see that the male nutfah is none other than semen (“thick”), but the process described is completely wrong from a scientific perspective. We can even trace the origins of these ideas to the Talmud:
It’s worth pointing out that this hadith and the Talmud also have striking similarities with what Galen taught in his work, “On Semen”, Galen says:
Based on pp.91-93 and p.101, he seems to mean here the thicker male semen, which he says provides some of the material for the fetus as well as “power” or “motion” to the material. He says that the female’s semen provides nutriment to the male semen, and also has a weaker “power”, supplemented by that of her blood, to cause any resemblance of the child to the mother. On p.87 Galen says about the female semen "for it is thinner than the male semen", matching the hadith.
Galen says a few pages later:
Here, blood refers to the mother’s blood, some fine and some thick, which Galen believed is drawn via the uterus and membrane into the combined male and female semens after they have mixed in her womb. That Galen and the Talmud say the fleshy parts are formed from the woman’s blood rather than her semen barely detracts from the other striking similarities with the hadith.
Another reason that apologists should best avoid this hadith is that modern Islamic scholars classify it as having weak authenticity. Sahih Muslim 3:614 is a similar hadith, which instead of mentioning nutfah and saying what is formed from each semen, gives the resemblance theory mentioned above after saying that the man’s water (maa) is white and the woman’s water (maa) is yellow. Sahih Muslim 3:608 is a version of the hadith we look at next, but adds that the man’s water is thick and white and the woman’s water is thin and yellow.
"Then why does a child resemble (its mother)?"
This, again, is Galen’s idea about “female semen”. Even Muhammad’s reasoning in the hadith is clearly the same as Galen’s, whose main thesis in the 2nd part of 'On Semen' is that a generative female semen exists and causes resemblance to the mother. Like Muhammad in this hadith, Galen explicitly uses fluid emitted during nocturnal orgasm as evidence for the existence of a female semen that causes resemblance:
On the same page, Galen goes on to criticize other physicians who say that the female spermatic ducts just “discharge the semen on the outside down below the uterus” (a possible reference to “female ejaculation” from the paraurethral glands), and argues that the female semen is also discharged into the uterus. It is clear also from other pages that he believes this occurs at a particular moment, namely orgasm, and when it occurs during sleep the semen is subsequently voided externally.
As the hadith is talking about a fluid that a woman can see, it has nothing to do with oviductal secretions or the jelly-like coating of the ovum produced by the ovarian folicle during her monthly ovulation (in any case it is the ovum that is the source of the female genetic contribution, not this coating). Furthermore, the hadith is saying that resemblance is caused by a semen released during the female orgasm. Orgasm has nothing to do with the genetic contribution of the woman to the embryo. There are many narrations of this hadith in which the imagined female semen is released during orgasm, as Hippocrates and Galen believed.
Other apologetic claims
Some Islamic apologists have hence turned to other arguments to find a reference to sperm (not just semen) or the female ovum in the Qur’an. They are considered below. Qur’an translations are Pickthall’s.
Single entity that is part of a bigger group of its kind
An Islamic apologist has made the following claim about the word nutfah in an attempt to make it sound like a single sperm:
نطفة (nutfah) is a single entity that is part of a bigger group of its kind:النطف (al-nutaf): هي القرطة والواحدة من كل ذلك نطفة Nutaf are the karats, and a single one is a nutfah.
The first line is the apologist's generalization based on the second line, which is his attempted translation of a definition in the Lisan al-Arab dictionary of classical Arabic.
However the quotation has been truncated, mistranslated, and is of the definition for the wrong word (nataf – pearls or earrings), which has the same n-t-f root as nutfah.
His claim has been copied on other Islamic websites, one even attempting to evolve the claim further by suggesting that this 'mistaken' generalization actually appears in the Lisan al-Arab definition. Lisan al-Arab’s actual definition of nutfah is a little amount (qalil, قليل) of water (see beginning of this article). Note that even if we supposed that nutfah had meant a single drop, a sperm is a discrete object from among many of the same discrete objects, unlike a drop of water, which is an amount of something from a larger amount.
Sperm from semen emitted
Some apologists claim that this verse shows that nutfah does not refer to the same substance as maniyy, translating the above words not in the usual way as “drop [nutfatan] of [min] semen [maniyyin]”, but instead as “sperm-drop from semen”. They also claim that if nutfah referred to semen, that word would have been used instead of maniyy in the many hadith about cleaning semen for ritual purity.
However, as demonstrated above, nutfah meant a small quantity of liquid, in this context in reference to semen that forms the embryo, whereas maniyy is simply semen. Whenever the Qur’an mentions nutfah, which indicates the small quantity of liquid, it is emphasizing the humble beginnings of man. In the hadiths that use maniyy, it is a different context where the quantity is irrelevant. We also saw in the Lisan al-Arab dictionary above that maniyy is called nutfah because it is a small amount of liquid.
In addition, verse 53:46 has virtually the same phrase with the same verb as 75:37, but this time just mentions nutfah, without maniyy.
Tumna in 53:46 and yumna in 75:37 is the same verb meaning "to emit", and from the same root as maniyy. The same verb is understandably used if it is talking about the emission of the same thing, semen, but without explicitly stating the type of liquid in 53:46. In any case, the evidence is unanimous that nutfah is always used for a liquid.
Extract of despised fluid
The word translated “seed” in Pickthall’s translation is nasl, which means progeny (i.e. descendants). It is a reasonable assumption that ma-in maheenin (fluid despised) means male semen here (see 86:6-7, which too uses maa). Some apologists like to read sulalatin (“extract”) as a reference to sperm. There are a couple of problems with this. First, it ignores the role of the female ovum (this is a problem with pretty much any interpretation of the verse). Secondly, we can compare 32:8 with 77:20, which has the exact same last 3 words, and without the word extract.
This suggests that the extract is or is of the same substance as the disdained water. As we saw above, the next two verses, 77:21-22, indicate that this fluid is gestated in the womb. There are various possible meanings for this verse, but even if it is interpreted as saying that only a special part of semen forms the embryo, that belief would have been common among the Jews with whom Muhammad was acquainted, as we saw from the Talmud quoted earlier:
This is adapted from an article originally published on the quranspotlight website.
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- On p.151 he says that the female semen “in effusions in sleep first descends into the uterus, and after that is voided to the outside” and describes the case of a widow who “convulsed, and at these tensions the semen was discharged, and she said the pleasure it gave her was like that of sexual intercourse”. On p.87 he says, “When, therefore, the female produces semen at the same time as the male, the semen dicharged through each of the two horns and carried to the middle of the hollow of the uterus coats the passages and at the same time reaches the male semen.”
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