Poison: The Good, the Bad and the Deadly
For thousands of years poisons have been both a deadly threat and a protective tool used around the world. Poisons have played a dominant role in our history and legends, persisting both as evil potions and curative antidotes. Vital medicines we rely on today have roots in the diabolical concoctions of antiquity.
Poisons are characterized by biologists as harmful substances absorbed by the body, the skin or gut, whereas venoms are injected by a bite or sting, and toxins are created by a function in nature. Most people use the word poison to describe any harmful substance, and to give weight to its dangerous nature.
Paracelsus, a Renaissance physician, botanist, and alchemist, once noted, "Everything is poison, there is poison in everything.” The danger of a poison is in the dosage, he concluded. Some perilous substances are harmless in small doses, but anything can be toxic if you ingest or absorb enough. Paracelsus is credited as the father of toxicology. His investigations brought a scientific analysis of toxins, and he forged the path of using chemicals and minerals in medicine.
Paracelsus, Father of Toxicology 1493 - 1541 (Public Domain)
Humans have long used poison, most commonly as weapons, antidotes, and medicines. In ancient times it was used on hunting weapons to quicken the death of enemies or prey. As the advantages of poison became clear, tools and weapons were constructed for poisons specifically. This early chemical warfare began with poisoned arrows and spears.
Researchers suggest that the more subtle and mysterious means of killing may have been reserved for higher-ranking members of tribes, creating an appearance of magical power. So mystical and unexplained would these sudden deaths appear, that traditions formed in some cultures of associating poisons with black magic, spirits, and otherworld creatures.
Strychnos toxifera, a plant used for the making of dart and arrow poisons (Public Domain)
Toxipedia writes, “The ‘Gu’ was a common poison in ancient China. It was made by placing venomous animals into a large pot together. These animals included snakes, toads, scorpions, spider, and centipedes. After a period of time passed, the pot was opened and the surviving animal was deemed the most venomous or poisonous. It was subsequently ground up and used as a poison.”
This concoction was used in dark magic to attack enemies and manipulate lovers, and according to folklore, a gu spirit could transform into various animals, like worms, frogs, pigs, snakes or dogs.
The earliest references to toxic weapons are contained in ancient Greek myths about Hercules using the venom of the Hydra monster to poison his arrows. Later, Homer’s epics implied that poisoned weapons were used during the Trojan War.
The ways in which tribes, nations, and civilizations plotted with poison against foes are beyond numerous, and include an ancient Hindu treatise advising poisoning the food of enemies, 2nd century BC writings in China advocating the use of a “soul-hunting fog” through the burning of toxic vegetables, and tactics in ancient Greece encouraging the poisoning of vital aqueducts with the harmful hellebore flower.
Even Leonardo da Vinci proposed a vessel containing a mix of sulfide, arsenic and verdigris which could be thrown at enemy ships. As the rising fumes were inhaled, the result would be a sudden mass asphyxiation of sailors.
There have been many famous ancient poison deaths. Cleopatra, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, supposedly killed herself with a bite from a venomous asp after hearing of her husband’s demise, however, some claim that she was murdered by being given a poisonous concoction. Classical Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for the crime of corrupting youth and flouting the state, and he suicided by drinking a hemlock potion. Researchers now propose that Alexander the Great, conqueror of the Persian Empire, may have also succumbed to poison, based on his symptoms.
The suicide of Cleopatra by venomous snake (Reginald Arthur, 1892 Public Domain)
While poisons are notorious for doing what they do best, antidotes can counteract some forms of poisoning.
Around 114–63 BC, Mithridates VI, King of Pontus knew of the danger of poisons, and worried obsessively that he was vulnerable to assassination. As such, he became a fervent pioneer in the search for antidotes. Described as paranoid, he exhaustively tested poisons and supposed antidotes on prisoners, and even on himself. He would dose himself with small amounts of poison daily in hopes of building up tolerances. Antidote prescriptions and notes on medicinal plants were created based on his zealous research and experimentation.
Not all toxins, poisons or venoms endanger lives or kill. Many plants possess healing qualities that have been used throughout history and are still employed today for health and wellness. But the lessons of Paracelsus were about observing dosage, and as toxic plants remain as dangerous today as they did in the past, we endeavour to keep them safely out of reach.
As such, special gardens exist where toxic and deadly plants can thrive and avoid extinction while being admired by the visiting public. One famous poison garden can be found in Alnwick, on the grounds of an English castle. The curators maintain plants like deadly nightshade and hemlock. AtlasObscura describes the poison garden: “Inspired by the legendary botanical gardens in Padua where the Medicis plotted the untimely, frothing ends of their enemies, an English duchess created this garden, dedicating it entirely to flora which are deadly and/or narcotic.”
The gates to the Poison Gardens, Alnwick Castle, England (Flickr, Jo Jakeman)
Modern appreciation for the dangers of poison continues, but poison itself as a means of murder has waned in popularity. Modern medical forensics can often readily detect the majority of poisons, venoms and toxins, so the danger of being caught dosing your enemy is high. Modern antidotes have been found for many of the more common poisons, and medical technology is better now than in antiquity, leading to more recoveries. The risk of poison today lies more in accidental ingestion, which remains a major cause of death in young people.
While poisons have a wider use today in agriculture (as pesticides) and in industry (as used in building materials), there are cultures around the world that continue the tradition of using poison for hunting, keeping alive an ancient and deadly practice which stretches thousands of years.
Featured image: The philosopher Socrates, here depicted in The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, was sentenced to drink poison after irritating the rulers of ancient Athens with his incessant questioning of assumptions. Image source: Wikipedia
Paracelsus – Wikipedia
Alnwick Poison Gardens – AtlasObscura
History of Poison - Wikipedia
The Gu - Toxipedia
Chemical Warfare - Wikipedia