Variations: Sāmma-abraṣ, Abraṣan (dual); Sawāmm-abraṣ, Sawāmm, Biraṣa, Abariṣ, Abariṣa (plural); Borṣ-sāmm, Abu Braiṣ, Abu Breiṣ, Borṣ, Wazaghah, Gecko
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The gecko has long been unfairly associated with leprosy in the Middle East, probably due to its greyish, leprous appearance, translucent, shedding skin, and detachable tail. Its common names of sāmm-abraṣ (“leper poison”) and abu braiṣ (“father of leprosy” or more simply “leper”) reflect the belief that it somehow transmits a deadly poison that causes leprosy.
Al-Qazwini and Al-Damiri describe the sāmm-abraṣ as being a large species of gecko, small-headed, long-tailed, with a leprous, sickly appearance. A sāmm-abraṣ is highly toxic and spreads leprosy by contact, often rolling in salt to transmit the disease. Its unwanted presence can be averted by the smell of saffron.
It is unlawful to eat or sell a sāmm-abraṣ, as one poet reflects “By God, even if I were His entirely, I would not be a slave eating abariṣ”. However, its blood cures alopecia, its liver alleviates toothache, its flesh heals scorpion stings, and its skin destroys hernias.
A sāmm-abraṣ in a dream is believed to represent poverty, anxiety, and toxic slander.
In India it is told that a gecko crawling over a sleeper’s body forebodes their imminent death, and a gecko falling on someone’s face makes them an albino. Ganges water and “gold water” in which gold has been placed counter the gecko’s poison, but it still ruins any food it touches.
The unwarranted evil reputation of the gecko, while deep-rooted, has not always been the case. Geckos feature in ancient Egyptian art in an apotropaic function, protecting the deceased from scavenging insects.
al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.
Fremgen, J. (1996) The Folklore of Geckos: Ethnographic Data from South and West Asia. Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 55, pp. 135-143.
Guilhou, N. (2009) Lézards et geckos dans l’Égypte ancienne. IVe Rencontres archéozoologiques de Lattes, UMR 5140 – CNRS, Université Paul-Valéry
Jayakar, A. S. G. (1908) Ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan (A Zoological Lexicon), vol. II, part I. Luzac and Co., London.
Orr, J. (1915) The New Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume III. The Howard-Severance Company, Chicago.
al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.