Ancient History & Civilisation


Chopping off the immortal head of the venomous Hydra, he buried it alive, and placed a heavy rock over it.

—Myth of Hercules

LICINIUS LUCULLUS and his Roman soldiers were not the first army to face weapons of poison and hellish fire, nor were they the last. But theirs is a story brimming with mythic parallels. Not only did they encounter biological and chemical weapons on their campaigns, but they discovered the celebrated statue of the dying Hercules and visited the famous desert island of Philoctetes, two mythic warriors who exemplified the unforeseen consequences of toxic weapons. Lucullus’s experiences help show how the ongoing history of biochemical weapons continually harks back to its mythological beginnings.

From antiquity onward, the annals of toxic weaponry form a widening gyre of myth reflecting history, and history mirroring myth. And just as the Hydra’s heads multiplied at a drastic rate, so human ingenuity in waging biochemical warfare has proliferated at a dreadful pace. “And so,” wrote the philosopher Lucretius, contemplating that murderous progression in his own lifetime (the first century BC), “tragic discord gave birth to one invention after another and added daily increments to the horrors of war.” In the race to develop more and more fearsome weapons to intensify psychological dread and ensure agonizing death, suffering, and destruction on a scale far beyond that wrought by the simple sharp and blunt weapons of old, the terse words of Appian, historian of the Mithridatic Wars, are fitting: “They left nothing untried that was within the compass of human energy.”

The basic concepts of the diverse biochemical weapons that were wielded in historical battles—from poisons and contagion to animal allies and hellish fire—were first imagined in ancient mythology. The archaic myths even anticipated the moral and practical quandaries that have surrounded biological and chemical armaments since their invention. Far from fading over millennia, the age-old problems of controlling toxic agents of war and avoiding unintended consequences have intensified with the advance of science in the service of war. Hercules thought he could control the poisoned arrows he created from the Hydra’s venom, but they brought death and tragedy to his friends and ultimately destroyed Hercules himself. The poison weapons were inherited by Philoctetes and dealt him great misfortune, too, even though they turned the tide in favor of the Greeks at Troy.

Once created, toxic weapons take on a life of their own, resistant to destruction and threatening harm over generations. Tons of still-active chemical weapons from World Wars I and II lurk in long-forgotten dumping areas, releasing toxins and posing grave risks to unwitting finders. These weapons, and the countless vials of smallpox, anthrax, and other super-pathogens stored in laboratories around the world, ripe for weaponization, have their antecedents in the “plague demons” imprisoned in jars buried under the temple in Jerusalem, and the pestilence locked inside the golden casket in Babylon. Centuries later, those containers were broken open during wartime, and plague spread over the land.

Long before the invention of Greek Fire, and two millennia before the invention of napalm and nuclear bombs, the Greeks and Romans confronted new chemical fire weapons whose awesome powers of destruction could not be checked by normal means. Over and over, the ancient historians repeated the refrain: the only hope of quelling such ghastly fire was to cover it with earth. That solution echoed Hercules’ method of getting rid of the monstrous Hydra’s head by burying it under the earth. Now, those desperate attempts to bury poison and fire weapons seem to foreshadow our own efforts to dispose of dangerous weapons underground, out of sight but never completely out of mind.

As the myths forewarned, a tragic myopia afflicts those who resort to poison weapons. Even as modern adversaries threaten to attack and retaliate with terror weapons that would bring mass destruction of innocents, the United States and other nations are forced to seek safe ways to dispose of the stockpiles of biochemical arms and radioactive nuclear waste they have already brought into being. But every method that has been proposed, from burning to burying, poses contamination hazards for present and future generations. Sites where biochemical and radioactive weapons have been buried, tested, or accidentally released remain deadly to all lifeforms. The menacing situation recalls the ancient dread of places corrupted by miasma, exhalations of deadly vapors.

The Soviet stores of anthrax and other super-germ weapons that were dumped into pits on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea, for example, now poison the air and water of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan. The human cost of this, the world’s largest bioweapons testing ground, is incalculable. But of the environmental disasters in the region that have been made public, the sudden death of 500,000 steppe antelopes in just one hour in 1988 was one of the most striking. The Aral Sea itself is shrinking at a fast rate, which means that sometime in the future rodents and humans could contract and spread the hyper-virulent plagues buried on what was once an island.1

In the United States, plans to incinerate tons of obsolete chemical weapons are going forward, in spite of the serious safety hazards and accidents that have already been documented at furnace sites in the Pacific and United States. Meanwhile, the search for other options for the disposal of nuclear weapons—such as chemical neutralization or vitrification (encasement in glass)—continues. “Geological disposal”— entombing lethal, indestructible weapons under mountains of rock—is the most often proposed solution. In 1999, the world’s first underground repository for the “safe and permanent disposal” of radioactive weapons material was dug in a salt bed more than 2,000 feet deep, in the Chihuahuan Desert near Carlsbad, Mexico.2


FIGURE 44. The Many-Headed Hydra, a symbol of the proliferating dilemmas of biological warfare. Caeretan hydria, about 525 BC.

( The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Hercules hit upon his own “geologic” solution to dispose of the Hydra’s immortal head, after he had created his poison weapons. He buried the evil thing alive in the ground and placed a massive boulder over the spot, to warn away future generations. The serpent’s head with fangs eternally dripping poison into the earth is a perfect symbol for indestructible biochemical and radioactive armaments emitting moral and physical pollution in the world today.

A geologic solution on a massive scale was proposed in 2002, when plans were developed to bury a huge cache of radioactive material deep under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, in the desert about one hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas. The seventy-seven thousand tons of nuclear material are expected to remain dangerously radioactive for one hundred thousand years. The government hopes to make the toxic sepulchre impregnable for at least ten thousand years, until the year AD 12,000.

Scientists who oppose the plan point out that the man-made containers, seals, and barriers buried under the rock cannot safeguard the material against seismic faulting, volcanic activity, erosion, ground water seepage, and climate changes over ten thousand years. Ominous evidence at Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado, where chemical weapons were disposed of in deep wells in the mid-twentieth century, suggested that the deep dispersal of toxic fluids actually caused earthquakes in the area.

But beyond the grave problems of trying to imprison perilous materials of mass destruction under rock for one hundred centuries, there is also the necessity of preventing “inadvertent human intrusion” into such storage sites. Most obvious are the immediate problems of keeping uninformed people or terrorists away from deadly weapons burial grounds.

Since the Russians abandoned the biochemically contaminated Vozrozhdeniye Island in 1992, for example, people living around the Aral Sea continue to salvage tons of military equipment and valuable scrap materials despite the health risks. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is contaminated with napalm, mustard gas, sarin, and other biochemical weapons dumped in the 1940s and ’50s. Public access to the popular wildlife refuge had to be suspended in 2000, while ways to deal with the pernicious miasma are investigated.

Since 1993, several caches of live munitions containing viable mustard gas were unearthed in a luxury housing development in Washington, DC, and in 2003, an archaeological discovery with disquieting echoes of the vessels of plague in ancient temples occurred in San Francisco when, during excavations of the historic fort at the Presidio, archaeologists unearthed a cache of glass vials. The strange “artifacts” turned out to contain still-toxic mustard gas buried by the U.S. military during World War II. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg: it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of deteriorating chemical munitions lie in unmarked burial sites around the world.3

But at sites like that proposed for Yucca Mountain and already in existence in New Mexico, the enormity of the geologic scale and vast time frame of toxicity take on cosmic proportions. In other words, the authorities must face the ramifications of their act on future generations in mythic terms. To that end, the government has turned to mythic solutions. Panels of folklorists, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and other scholars and scientists were convened to figure out how to ensure that the buried Hydra’s head of radioactive doom will remain undisturbed by human beings over time measured in many thousands of years.

What if, over the ages, Yucca Mountain takes on a mysterious allure? What if the site comes to be seen as a place where treasure was hidden in the deep past, like the Pyramids of Egypt or the secret tomb of Genghis Khan? How can future treasure hunters, archaeologists, scientists, prospectors, and other explorers, be prevented from breaking the seals of the Pandora’s box inside the mountain and unwittingly releasing the “spirits of death,” as occurred in the ancient temples where plague was once stored?

Some experts have suggested that frightening legends be disseminated about the doomsday weapons, in the hope that these tales will become long-lasting oral traditions, like Homer’s Iliad or biblical stories. Inspired by Babylonian inscriptions carved on stone in the eighteenth century BC, archaeologists proposed that stone tablets inscribed with warnings in seven languages be randomly buried in the surrounding desert. These messages would explain what is under Yucca Mountain and why it should never be disturbed. But it is doubtful that present-day languages and cultures will exist ten thousand years from now.

To back up verbal warnings in what will surely become dead languages, other consultants suggest surrounding such places with “menacing earthworks,” such as gigantic concrete thorns or jagged lightning bolts emerging from the ground to convey a sense of menace. Another plan calls for a “spike field,” tall towers of polished granite, engraved with ominous symbols. Human faces expressing horror and nausea (along the lines of Edvard Munch’s The Scream) and pictographs indicating mass death and destruction have been proposed. Backfiring potentials loom, however. And with the tombs of the pharaohs, grandiose warnings, elaborate boobytraps, and terrifying curses could attract adventurers. As with the golden casket in the ancient Babylonian temple, valuable materials like titanium or marble would lure looters.


FIGURE 45. Landscape of Thorns, one of the designs intended to warn future civilizations away from nuclear materials burial sites like Yucca Mountain. Concept by architect Michael Brill, art by Safdar Abidi.

(SAND92-1382. Sandia National Laboratories)

As an anthropologist on the team remarked, the essential concept is to identify the place itself as an urgent message for future civilizations. “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. But this place is not a place of honor.” What lies buried here “was dangerous and repulsive to us.”4Such a message would have struck a chord with ancient Greeks and Romans who visited the shrine where Philoctetes had dedicated his poison arrows, or with those who marveled at the tragic statue of Hercules in the burning cloak, listened in awe to the story of Glauke’s death, or pointed out the rock marking the place where Hercules had entombed the Hydra’s head.

If only it were so easy to extinguish the poisonous miasma of bio-toxic weapons, invented so long ago, by hiding them under mountains of solid rock. If only mythology really does possess the power to warn against the relentless advance of the dark sciences of war. Perhaps there is a ray of hope in the myth of Philoctetes, in his decision to dedicate the dreadful bow and arrows to a memorial of divine healing rather than pass the weapons on to a new generation of warriors. His act anticipates modern efforts to forge treaties in which nations could agree to halt the proliferation and deployment of biochemical and nuclear arms, and turn technological efforts to alleviating human suffering.

One can only hope that a deeper understanding of toxic warfare’s mythic origins and earliest historic realities might help divert the drive to transform all nature into a deadly arsenal into the search for better ways to heal. Then Appian’s sorrowful words about war, “They left nothing untried that was within the compass of human energy,” could refer to human ingenuity striving to turn nature’s forces to good.

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