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HERCULES AND THE HYDRA: THE INVENTION OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS

The poison, heated by fire, coursed through his limbs.
His blood, saturated by the burning poison,
hissed and boiled. There was no limit
to his agony as flames attacked his heart
and the hidden pestilence melted his bones.

—Death of Hercules, Ovid, Metamorphoses

IT WAS HERCULES, the greatest hero of Greek mythology, who invented the first biological weapon described in Western literature. When he dipped his arrows in serpent venom, he opened up a world not only of toxic warfare, but also of unanticipated consequences. Indeed, the deepest roots of the concept of biological weapons extend very far back in time, even before the Greek myths were written down by Homer in the eighth century BC. Poison and arrows were deeply intertwined in the ancient Greek language itself. The word for poison in ancient Greek, toxicon, derived fromtoxon, arrow. And in Latin, the word for poison, toxica, was said to derive from taxus, yew, because the first poison arrows had been daubed with deadly yew-berry juice. In antiquity, then, a “toxic” substance meant “something for the bow and arrow.”

The great Greek physician of the first century AD, Dioscorides, was the first to remark on the derivation of the word “toxic” from “arrow.” But Dioscorides insisted that only barbarian foreigners—never the Greeks themselves—resorted to poisoned weapons. His assumption was widely accepted in antiquity and still holds sway today, as evident in a recent declaration about poison arrows by Guido Majno, the medical historian whose specialty is war wounds in the ancient world: “This kind of treachery never occurs in the tales about Troy.”1

Since antiquity, the Greek legends about great heroes and the Trojan War have been celebrated for their thrilling battles and heroic deaths in the era of myth. To be sure, the typical weapons of Bronze Age warfare glorified in the myths—bow and arrow, javelin, spear, sword, and axe—unleashed enough gory mayhem and violent death on the battlefield to satisfy the most bloodthirsty audience. But most people today assume that the very idea of poisoning weapons was a barbaric practice abhorred by the ancient Greeks. Modern audiences take it for granted that heroes like Hercules and the warriors of the Trojan War must have engaged in the noblest forms of ancient combat, fighting fairly and face-to-face. They wreaked havoc, but remained honorable in their behavior.

But not always. A closer look uncovers compelling evidence of less noble, decidedly unheroic forms of warfare in these legendary roots of Western culture. Mythical conflicts teem with treachery, and secretly poisoned arrows and spears were wielded by some of the greatest champions of classical mythology. This picture of morally unsettling ways of dispatching enemies is usually overshadowed by the larger-than-life figures and their exciting adventures. But once we begin to peer into the darker reaches of the mythic tapestry, scenes of nefarious trickery and ghastly suffering from poisoned weapons emerge.

Two famous Greek myths—the story of Hercules and the Hydra, and the Trojan War—turn out to have crucial information about the origins of biological weapons and the ancient attitudes toward their use.

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Hercules, the superhero of Greek myth, was renowned for his Twelve Labors. In his first labor, he slaughtered the fearsome Lion of Nemea. He then donned its skin and set out on his second task. His mission was to destroy an even more daunting monster, the Many-Headed Hydra. This gigantic, poisonous water-serpent lurked in the swamps of Lerna, terrorizing the people of southern Greece. The Hydra was said to have nine, ten, fifty, even a hundred heads—and worse yet, the central head was immortal.

Hercules forced the Hydra to emerge from its den by shooting fiery arrows coated with pitch—the sticky sap from pine trees. The mighty hero then seized the giant snake with his bare hands, thinking he could strangle it like the Nemean Lion. Hercules was strong, but no match for the Hydra. It coiled its huge body around his legs and poised its multiple heads to strike. Hercules began to smash the horrid snake heads with his club. When this proved futile, he drew his sword to chop them off.

The most diabolical thing about the Hydra was that it actually “thrived on its wounds,” in the words of the Roman poet, Ovid. Each time Hercules cut off one head, two more instantly regenerated. Soon the monster was bristling with heads and fangs dripping with venom. What to do? His ordinary weapons—hands, club, sword, arrows—were useless. So Hercules resorted to fire. Taking up a burning torch, he cauterized each bloody neck as he chopped off a head, to prevent it from sprouting new ones. But the middle head was immortal. This head Hercules hacked off, and quickly buried it alive in the ground. Then he placed a heavy rock over the spot. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to point out a colossal boulder on the road to Lerna, marking the place where Hercules had entombed the Hydra’s living head.

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FIGURE 2. Hercules and the Hydra. Hercules (left) chops off the heads, while his companion (right) cauterizes the necks with torches. Hercules will later dip his arrows in the Hydra’s venom; meanwhile, Athena, Greek goddess of war (far right), holds the conventional weapons of a hoplite warrior, eschewed by Hercules. Krater, about 525 BC, by the Kleophrades Painter.

(The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Hercules was a hunter who took trophies: he had fashioned his famous cape from the skin of the Nemean Lion. After slaying the Hydra, Hercules slashed open the body and dipped his arrows in the poisonous venom of the monstrous serpent. Ever after, Hercules’ oversized quiver carried a seemingly endless supply of arrows made super-deadly by Hydra venom.2

By steeping his arrows in the monster’s venom, Hercules created the first biological weapon. The inspiration flowed naturally from his previous idea for magnifying the power of his arrows, by coating them in pine resin to create noxious fire and fumes (in essence, a chemical weapon). Next, Hercules appropriated the Hydra’s natural weapon of deadly venom to enhance his own weapons. Since myths often coalesced around a core of historical and scientific realities, the ancient story of the Hydra arrows suggests that projectile weapons tipped with toxic or combustible substances must have been known very early in Greek history. Notably, the descriptions of poisoned wounds in the myths of Hercules—and the Trojan War—accurately depict the very real effects of snake venom and other known arrow toxins. In historical accounts of the ancient use of poisoned projectiles, archers concocted effective arrow poisons from a variety of pernicious ingredients, including viper venom. Indeed, the Scythians, real-life nomadic horse-people of the Steppes who were dreaded for their snake-poison arrows, considered Hercules to be their cultural founder.

The mythical lore that grew up around Hercules’ invention of snake-venom arrows reveals the complex attitudes of the ancient Greeks toward weapons that delivered hidden poisons. Deep misgivings were expressed in the earliest myths about warriors who destroyed their enemies with toxic weapons. Many mythological characters succumbed to Hercules’ arrows. Almost as soon as they were created, however, the poison weapons set in motion a relentless train of tragedies for Hercules and the Greeks—not to mention the Greeks’ enemies, the Trojans. With the very first deployment of his newly discovered biological weapons, Hercules proved powerless to avoid hurting his own friends and innocent bystanders.

The first victims included some of Hercules’ oldest friends. On his way to another labor—killing a gigantic boar—Hercules attended a party hosted by his Centaur friend, the half-man, half-horse, Pholus. But when Pholus opened a jug of wine, a gang of violent Centaurs invaded the party. Hercules leapt up to repel them, and in the ensuing clash many Centaurs were felled by Hercules’ poisoned arrows as he pursued them over the landscape. The fleeing horde of horse-men took refuge in the cave of Chiron, a peaceful Centaur who had taught humankind the arts of medicine and who was an old friend of Hercules.

As the Centaurs cowered around Chiron, Hercules let fly a host of Hydra-venom arrows. By mischance, one struck Chiron in the knee. Hercules rushed to his old friend’s side, deeply distressed. He drew the shaft out from Chiron’s leg and quickly applied a special poultice, as Chiron directed. And here the mythographers explain just how terrible a wound from a venom-tipped arrow was: The pain was so horrendous that you would sell your eternal soul for a swift death! According to myth, Chiron was immortal, but the agony was so excruciating that he begged the gods to relieve him of immortality and allow him to die.

Chiron’s plea was answered when Prometheus volunteered to take on Chiron’s eternal life. The Centaur was released from endless pain, and expired. Prometheus was destined to regret his act, however. When he later stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind, Prometheus’s punishment was particularly horrifying because he could not die. As every Greek knew, every day for the rest of time, Zeus’s vulture came to torture the immortal Prometheus.

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FIGURE 3. Hercules shoots the Centaur Nessus with a Hydra-venom arrow, as he carries away Deianeira. It was the Centaur’s venom-poisoned blood that ultimately destroyed Hercules himself.

While Hercules was tending the grievously wounded Chiron, his other Centaur friend, Pholus, became another unintended victim. Pholus removed an arrow from one of his companions’ corpses and wondered how such a little thing could have killed such a strong creature. As he examined the arrow, it slipped from his hand and dropped on his foot. He was mortally wounded, and Hercules sorrowfully buried yet another victim of “collateral damage.”

The danger of self-inflicted wounds or accidents with poison projectiles was always present, since even a mere scratch could be devastating. Legendary “friendly fire” incidents, like the tragic deaths of Chiron and Pholus, were favorite subjects of Greek and Roman painters and sculptors. Another innocent victim was Hercules’ own son, Telephus. During the preparations for the Trojan War, the youth tripped on a vine and fell against a spear carried by Achilles, the great Greek warrior. The point struck Telephus’s thigh, causing an incurable, festering wound. The unhealing wound implies that Achilles had smeared his spearpoint with some sort of poison. And as fate would have it, a poison arrow would bring Achilles’ own demise on the battlefield at Troy.3

In the most ironic twist of fate, Hercules himself ultimately succumbed to the Hydra venom that he had daubed on his own arrows. A wily Centaur named Nessus tricked Hercules and abducted his wife, Deianeira. Enraged, Hercules shot Nessus in the back with a Hydra arrow that pierced his heart. As the Roman poet Ovid stressed in his version of the myth, it is not fair to shoot even a rogue in the back with a poisoned arrow. And as in most mythic tales, treachery bred more treachery, and the venom multiplied in power, just like the Hydra’s heads. The dying Centaur tricked Deianeira into collecting the toxic blood flowing from his wound. Advising her to keep it in an airtight container, away from heat and light, Nessus promised that if she daubed this substance on a tunic for Hercules someday, it would work as a love charm.

Years later, Deianeira, unaware of the potential for second-hand poisoning, secretly treated a beautiful tunic with the Centaur’s contaminated blood and gave it as a gift to her husband. What happened next was the subject of a famous tragedy by the Athenian playwright Sophocles (written about 430 BC). Hercules put on the shirt to make a special sacrifice. As he approached the fire, the heat activated the Hydra poison. The envenomed tunic caused Hercules such fiery torture that he ran amok, bellowing like a wounded bull and uprooting trees. In desperation, he plunged into a stream. But the water only increased the poison’s burning power, and that stream ran scalding-hot forever after. Hercules struggled to tear off the garment, but it adhered to his flesh and corroded his skin like acid or some unnatural fire.

Unable to bear the pain of the burning poison, Hercules shouted for his companions to light a large funeral pyre. His arms-bearer and friend, the great archer Philoctetes, was the only one courageous enough to obey. In gratitude, Hercules bequeathed his special bow (originally a gift from Apollo, the archer-god whose arrows brought plague) and his quiver of Hydra arrows to his friend. Then the mighty hero threw himself onto the flaming pyre and was burned alive.

Hercules’ agony is a poetic representation of painful death by viper venom, which was often compared to burning alive. Indeed, fire motifs pervade the early mythology of biological weapons. Flaming arrows and searing torches had destroyed the Hydra, and now the Hydra venom was activated by heat and took on the nature of unquenchable fire. In fact, a real viper much feared in Greece, called the dipsas in antiquity, injects a thick venom into its victims and, according to ancient writers, it was said to “burn and corrode, setting victims on fire as if they were lying on a funeral pyre.”4

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FIG 4. Hercules on his funeral pyre entrusting the quiver of Hydra-venom arrows to the young archer, Philoctetes. Red-figure psykter, 475-425 BC.

(Private collection, New York)

But the tragic consequences ignited by Hercules’ invention of poison arrows did not end with the hero’s death. When she learned the result of her unwitting use of a poison weapon, Deianeira killed herself. And the quiver of deadly arrows went on to bring great misfortune to Philoctetes during the Trojan War.

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“Mighty-walled Troy” of Greek epic was probably the Late Bronze Age city designated Troy VI in the series of ruined cities in northwest Turkey first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870-90. The ruins show that the citadel of Troy VI was destroyed by fire in about 1200 BC. The legendary Trojan War was most famously described by Homer in the Iliad in about 750 BC, but an extensive cycle of Trojan War stories circulated in Greek and Roman times, recounted by many other mythographers and playwrights, some of whose works now survive only as fragments.

Most classical scholars agree that the oral epics probably grew up around actual battles during the Bronze Age (1300-1100 BC), and that some residue of truth exists in the legends concerning the Trojan War, including many aspects of real warfare of that era. This cycle of myths and legends provides striking evidence of the two complex, parallel pictures of warfare in classical antiquity: the familiar, idealized Homeric version of clean, fair fighting, epitomized by heroes like Achilles in the Iliad, and other, more nefarious ways of overcoming foes, often attributed to barbarians, but admired in crafty Greek heroes like Odysseus.5

According to myth, Apollo’s divine arrows inflicted deadly epidemics and fevers, especially during wartime. The Iliad opens with the god aiming his bow at the Greek army in the tenth year of their siege of Troy, cutting down King Agamemnon’s troops with a devastating plague. (The gods took sides in Greek mythology: Apollo favored the Trojans while Athena helped the Greeks.) In Homer’s words, Apollo let fly his “black bolts of plague” on the soldiers for nine days. The god’s first targets were the pack animals and dogs, then “one by one our men came down with it and died hard as the god’s arrows raked the army.” Funeral pyres burned night and day, and the Greeks’ hopes of completing the siege of Troy were dashed.

This opening scene is a not-so-subtle reminder of the ancient linguistic metaphor linking arrows and toxins. Several other passages in the Iliad hint strongly that poisoned weapons were wielded by warriors on the battlefield, although Homer never says this outright. When Menelaus was wounded by a Trojan arrow, for example, Machaon (son of the legendary god of healing, Asclepius) was summoned to suck out the “black blood.” This treatment was the emergency remedy for snakebite and poisoned-arrow wounds in real life. Elsewhere, Homer described “black blood” gushing from arrow wounds, and referred to Philoctetes’ “black wound from a deadly snake.” Black blood, as opposed to red, always signaled a poisoned wound to ancient battlefield doctors, and in fact snake venom does cause black, oozing wounds. In the Iliad, Machaon also applied a special balm prepared by the Centaur Chiron, recalling the treatment for the Centaur’s own poisoned-arrow wound.6

Only once did Homer explicitly describe a Greek hero actually searching out a poison for treating his arrows (not surprisingly, it was Odysseus, master of cunning tricks). But many other ancient mythographers make it clear that arrow poison was employed by both sides in the Trojan War.

The Trojan War began when the Greeks launched an expedition to avenge the abduction of the Spartan beauty, Helen, by the Trojan seducer, Paris. Hercules’ old friend, the great archer Philoctetes, commanded seven of the twelve hundred Greek ships sailing to Troy. Homer specified that each of Philoctetes’ ships was rowed by fifty expert bowmen. Did Philoctetes equip his archers with poison arrows from Hercules’ quiver, which he was bringing to Troy?

Homer does not say, but an ill-omened accident involving serpent venom did occur on the voyage. Philoctetes received a hideous “black wound” in the foot. According to some versions of the myth, he was accidentally struck by one of the poison arrows he had inherited from Hercules. In other versions, he was bitten by a poisonous hydra, a water-snake. Both versions underscore the perils of handling toxic substances used to create bio-weapons. Philoctetes’ accident was an inauspicious start for launching the war. The men found the stench of his festering wound intolerable and his howls of pain a very bad omen. Agamemnon ordered his captain Odysseus to abandon Philoctetes on a tiny desert island called Chryse, near the island of Lemnos, and continue on to Troy.

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FIGURE 5. Archer testing shaft and point of arrow; any archer who tipped his projectiles with poison had to avoid all contact with the sharp point. Red-figure wine cup, Athens, 520-510 BC.

(Henry Lillie Pierce Fund © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

For a decade, while his companions fought the Trojans, the warrior was marooned in unending pain and fever, as “a black flux of blood and matter” continued to ooze from his wound. Philoctetes, the most skilled archer after Odysseus, survived by shooting birds with Hercules’ bow and poison arrows. The mythic description of Philoctetes’ suppurating, never-healing wound and spreading necrosis is an accurate depiction of the aftermath of a snakebite.

Until about AD 150, Philoctetes’ desert island was a popular landmark visited by Greek and Roman travelers. A small shrine there memorialized the warrior’s ordeal with the poisoned arrows: the altar displayed Philoctetes’ bow, his bronze armor, and a bronze water snake. Philoctetes’ tragic tale was widely known: he was celebrated as a god in Italy, where he was said to have settled at the end of his life. His tribulations were illustrated in numerous art works and presented on the Athenian stage in plays by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

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FIGURE 6. On his way to Troy, Philoctetes was abandoned on a desert island after his accident with a poison arrow. This Athenian vase (about 420 BC) shows him with bandaged foot and the quiver of poison arrows.

(Fletcher Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ten years into the war with Troy, an oracle advised the Greeks that the Trojans could only be defeated by Hercules’ original poison arrows. So, Odysseus led an envoy of Greeks back to Chryse, where they had stranded Philoctetes so long ago. The men were horrified to find the once-proud warrior living like an animal in a cave, whose floor was slick with the fetid pus draining from his wound. The emaciated archer, surrounded by feathers and bird bones, was still racked by pain from the arrow poison. The Greeks were filled with pity for their companion, yet they expressed no qualms about using the same nasty poison against the Trojans.

The delegation tried to persuade the long-suffering Philoctetes to bring the arrows to Troy, but he refused, embittered by their cruel treatment of him. He even threatened to shoot them with the poison arrows. So Odysseus hatched a scheme to deceive Philoctetes in order to get the bow and quiver. But Achilles’ son, an honorable youth named Neoptolemus, was outraged by Odysseus’s lack of principles. He insisted that “vile tricks and treachery” should be shameful to a true warrior. The scene, as described by Sophocles, is fraught with the age-old tension between war by the rules and war by devious means.7

Finally, after the ghost of Hercules appeared and promised he would be cured, Philoctetes agreed to rejoin the Greeks. At Troy, Philoctetes’ wound was successfully treated by Machaon, the Greek army doctor, and out on the battlefield, Philoctetes became an avenging whirlwind with the Hydra arrows, destroying legions of Trojans. Then, in an archery duel with the Trojan champion Paris, Philoctetes turned the tide of the war in favor of the Greeks.

Quintus of Smyrna, a poet of the fourth century AD, described the rain of deadly arrows in his epic, The Fall of Troy. First he told how the mighty Greek warrior Achilles was brought down with an arrow deliberately aimed at his vulnerable heel. Achilles’ mother had held the infant Achilles by the heel as she dipped him in the River Styx to make him invincible to iron weapons. Normally, a wound in the heel would be superficial—only an arrow carrying poison could render such a wound fatal. In some versions of the myth, it was Apollo who shot Achilles from behind with one of his plague arrows. But others said that Apollo had guided Paris’s arrow to the back of Achilles’ foot. According to Ovid, the god “saw Paris flinging an occasional arrow at some Greek of no importance.” “Why waste your shafts?” scolded Apollo, and turned Paris’s bow in the direction of Achilles’ heel.

Reeling with “sudden pangs of mortal sickness,” Achilles toppled “like a tower.” Rolling his eyes and gnashing his teeth from the pain of the “god-envenomed wound,” the dying Achilles expressed the traditional Greek warrior’s visceral loathing of dishonorable death. Not only had he been struck by a weapon of hidden poison, but his cowardly adversary had struck from behind, just as Hercules had shot Nessus in the back. As the doomed champion sensed the toxins racing through his veins, bringing an unheroic, “piteous death,” Achilles glared about and shouted, “Who shot me with a stealthy-smiting shaft? Let him dare to meet me face-to-face! Only dastards lurk in hidden ambush. None dare meet me man-to-man. . . . Let him face me then!”

To avenge the shocking death of Achilles from a poisoned arrow in the heel, Philoctetes drew back his great bow and aimed a “merciless shaft” with its “terrible, death-hissing point” at Paris (the poet’s words evoke the imagery of snakes). The first arrow grazed Paris’s wrist, and the next one plunged into his side. “Torturing wounds” sent Paris into a “frenzy of pain, his liver seething as in flame.” The Trojan doctors rushed onto the battlefield to apply salves and blood-sucking leeches to draw out the poison, but these means were useless against the “fierce venom which crawled through his innards with corrupting fangs.” Parched with thirst, scarcely conscious, and writhing in pain, Paris desperately held onto the hope that a nymph he had once loved would bring special healing herbs. The nymph did arrive at last, but it was too late to save the Trojan warrior-lover, who finally perished in anguish.8

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Despite the importance of the bow and arrow from the Bronze Age and onward in Greece, Homer and many other writers tell us that archers were disdained because they shot safely from afar: long-range missiles implied unwillingness to face the enemy at close range. And long-range missiles daubed with poison seemed even more cowardly and villainous. Ambush from behind was another military practice that, like poisoning arrows, was usually attributed to barbarians. Traditional Greek—and Roman—warfare was supposed to be hand-to-hand, up close and personal, as ranks of similarly armed and armored soldiers engaged in face-to-face combat or one-on-one duels. Yet at the same time, clever, inventive deceptions were also admirable—as long as the tricks did not cross certain bounds. The line between acceptable and reprehensible ruses was difficult to pin down, but classical authors often indicate some generally accepted attitudes.

Wounds in the back were never honorable, signaling cowardice or treachery on someone’s part (the Iliad and the Fall of Troy and other poems are filled with exhortations to face the enemy and avoid getting hit in the back or being taken by surprise).9 Individual courage, working together as a group, physical strength, military prowess, and steadfastness were key—and poisoned weapons and ambush undermined every one of those values. The mythic episodes pose a timeless question, deeply disturbing to warriors of any era: What good are bravery, skill, and strength when your enemy attacks deviously with weapons made ever more deadly with poison?

After the carnage on the battlefield cut down the best of the Greek and Trojan champions, the Greeks devised the ingenious ruse of the Trojan Horse to gain entry to the citadel of Troy. The Greeks sacked the city. Then, after a series of adventures like those recounted in Homer’s Odyssey and other myths, the Greek victors headed home. Meanwhile, after the destruction of Troy, a party of Trojan survivors led by their hero Aeneas set off for Italy to found Rome, as described by the great Latin poet Virgil in his Aeneid. That epic poem, written during the reign of Augustus (first century BC), was intended to glorify Rome’s legendary past and destiny. The Trojans brought their poison weapons with them to Italy, according to Virgil’s description of Aeneas’s fellow warrior, Amycus: “No man was more skilled at dipping darts and arming metal with poison.”

And what became of Hercules’ quiver of Hydra-venom arrows after the Greek victory at Troy? According to legend, Philoctetes, like many of the other Trojan War veterans, restlessly wandered the Mediterranean after the war. After fighting various mercenary battles with his deadly bow and arrows, he finally settled in Italy. Before he died and was buried near Sybaris, in the toe of Italy, he founded a Temple to Apollo at Krimissa. There, the old warrior dedicated his poisoned weapons to the god whose own bow and arrows brought plague and pestilence.10

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Ambivalence over the use of poison by Greek heroes stands out in a pair of passages in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem recounting the postwar adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus. After ten years of wandering, Odysseus finally returned home to Ithaca to find his wife, Penelope, and his young son, Telemachus, besieged by a gang of swaggering suitors who had taken over his palace. The surly interlopers lay about drinking wine and idly speculating about how young Telemachus might try to roust them. Perhaps, proposed one suitor, he’ll travel to Ephyra, in northwestern Greece, to obtain a poisonous plant that flourishes there (as his father once did). “He could drop the poison into our wine barrels and kill us all!”

If Hercules was the mythic inventor of arrows poisoned with snake venom, Odysseus was the first mythic character to poison arrows with plant toxins. Homer tells us that Odysseus, the archer renowned for crafty tricks, did indeed sail to Ephyra on a quest for a deadly plant to smear on his bronze arrowheads.

Ephyra in Epirus, near the River Styx and the mouth of the Acheron River of Hades, was a fitting place to gather poisons, since it was famed in antiquity as one of the “gateways” to the realm of the dead. For one of his Labors, Hercules had descended by one of these entrances into the Underworld and dragged out Cerberus, the monstrous, three-headed hound of Hell. Foam from the beast’s jaws had flecked the green grass and was transformed into the poison flowers of aconite (monkshood). Other plants with potent poisons—such as black hellebore and deadly nightshade—thrived here too, nourished by Underworld vapors so noxious that birds flying over the area dropped dead.

Odysseus had once come here to consult the pallid, embittered ghosts of the Underworld. Three centuries after Homer, in the fifth century BC, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described a renowned necromanteon, an Oracle of the Dead, at Ephyra. Archaeologists have discovered the substantial ruins of an underground labyrinth, whose features match Homer’s description of the Halls of Hades in the Odyssey. Scholars believe that local hallucinogenic plants were used in the ancient rites of the Oracle of the Dead at Ephyra.

So Ephyra was a poisoners’ paradise. But King Ilus, the ruler of the territory, being “a man of virtue,” refused to supply Odysseus with the “man-killing” poison (Homer’s wording makes it clear that the poison would be used for war, not hunting). Odysseus did finally succeed in obtaining some arrow toxin, though, on an island south of Ephyra. But the incident with King Ilus reveals once again the conflicted emotions about using toxic weapons. Creative trickery, ruses, and deception were respected by the ancient Greeks. Should they admire Odysseus’s resourcefulness? Or should they agree with the honorable King Ilus that secret poisoning of foes was never virtuous? The moral issue was further complicated when the goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, suggested that poison arrows would be a good way to dispatch the gang of suitors besieging Odysseus’s family back in Ithaca. Perhaps the answer lies in the lessons to be learned from what happened to those who resorted to poison weapons.

Given Odysseus’s involvement with shrewd ruses and arrow poisons, it is somehow fitting that Odysseus himself was killed with toxic spear at the hands of his other son, Telegonus. Unknown to Odysseus, Telegonus had been born to Circe, with whom Odysseus had dallied on the long way home after the Trojan War. A sorceress-goddess who knew the powers of many mysterious pharmaka (drugs, chemicals, and poisons), Circe had enchanted Odysseus’s men with a potion that turned them into swine. This was by no means the first time Circe used drugs to obtain a desired outcome. She had also once poisoned a river with “evil herbs, whose juices contained horrid powers” in order to destroy an enemy.

With a mother like Circe and a trickster father like Odysseus, it was not surprising that Telegonus would use a poisoned weapon. The youth had journeyed to Ithaca searching for his father. When he first encountered Odysseus, however, he mistook him for an enemy and ran him through with his lance. The spear was tipped with barb of truly diabolical and ingenious design—the poisonous spine of a stingray.11

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Awareness of the idea of biological weapons, as evident in the archaic Greek myths about Hercules, Philoctetes, Odysseus, and Apollo, existed long before the first historical reports of using poisons in warfare. One of the most remarkable features of these myths is the very early recognition of the ethical and practical questions surrounding such methods. Again and again, the ancient myths hammer home the idea that once created, weapons based on poison seem to take on a life of their own, with tragic consequences that can extend over generations. Not only are biological weapons difficult to direct with precision, but they are almost impossible to destroy once created.

If the myth of Hercules and the Hydra was a poetic account of the invention of envenomed arrows in the deep past, then Hercules was the perfect figure for the role. In his celebrated labors and exploits, Hercules impulsively used his weapons to destroy all manner of monsters and enemies. Significantly, however, Hercules always managed to leave chaos in his wake. He was a paradoxical figure for the Greeks: an admired destroyer of monsters, he also frequently brought destruction to those he hoped to protect. The playwright Sophocles made it clear that when Hercules dipped his arrows in the Hydra venom, he was creating the possibility—even the inevitability—of his own death by the same agent. And his poisoned arrows certainly left a long trail of tragedy.12

The image of the “Many-Headed Hydra” has come to symbolize a multifaceted, thorny dilemma that generates new obstacles each time one is overcome or solved. Indeed, the Hydra is a wonderfully apt symbol for the problems set in motion by biological weapons. The nightmarish image of infinitely replicating heads, the impossibility of ever completely destroying the monster, and the perils of unintended casualties: these are vivid details that capture the moral and practical dangers of creating and handling biochemical agents of destruction.

Like Hercules, Philoctetes was another complex, contradictory figure whose tragic story fascinated the Greeks. One of the many unintended victims of the Hydra arrows, Philoctetes survived to destroy multitudes of Trojans with the same arrows that had brought him so much suffering. Yet at the end of his life, Philoctetes decided to store the terrible bow and quiver safely in a temple of Apollo, instead of passing them on to another warrior. This conclusion to his legend suggests a mythic model for trying to contain the proliferating Hydra heads of biological warfare. The indestructible head of the Hydra monster still lurked somewhere under the earth, but at least the hellish Hydra-venom arrows could be retired from the battlefield, to be guarded by Apollo, who was also the god of healing.

The other heroes implicated in the use of bio-weapons—Achilles, Paris, and Odysseus—were also ambivalent figures, fitting vehicles for provocative stories about challenging the ideals of fair combat. Homer’s deep understanding of human nature allowed him to show how noble virtues vied with dishonorable impulses in these heroes’ all-too-human characters. In the Iliad, Achilles was the brightest star of Greek warriors, but he was also a savage berserker who committed outrages against Hector and other Trojan foes. Paris, the playboy-warrior who started the Trojan War by taking up with Helen, was berated as a coward by his own brother, Hector, and by his lover, Helen. And the wily Odysseus was the quintessential trickster-warrior, never above stooping to devious weapons and ploys. All three of these heroes lived and died by poisoned weapons.

The mythic consequences of Hercules’ invention convey a strong warning for those who contemplate the use of biological armaments. The fates of the ancient bio-warriors fulfill an age-old folklore motif of poetic justice known as “the poisoner poisoned,” in which each hero who employed poison weapons was himself harmed or destroyed with the toxic agents, either by accident or in retaliation. There are many modern military examples that demonstrate how “poisoner poisoned” effects, as well as “friendly fire” accidents, continue to threaten those involved in biochemical arms. In 1943, for instance, in the worst Allied seaport disaster since Pearl Harbor, thousands of American soldiers and Italian townspeople in Bari, Italy, were killed by exposure to poison gas when a U.S. ship secretly carrying two thousand chemical bombs was shelled in the harbor by German aircraft. A more recent example is the cluster of health problems suffered by U.S. troops who destroyed Iraq’s biochemical munitions in the Gulf War of 1991. In 2003 it transpired that many of the biological agents used to create those weapons had come from the United States during the 1980s.13

Another telling feature of the mythology of biochemical warfare is the way the elements of poison, contagion, and fire are intertwined. The actions of deadly toxins and images of unquenchable fires are intermingled in several myths, foreshadowing the later historical accounts of military deployments of poisons and disease vectors, and prefiguring the invention of Greek Fire and earlier petroleum-based weapons, generally considered to be among the most inhumane agents of war ever invented. Weapons based on poisons, contagion, and combustibles are, of course, the prototypes of modern biological weapons and chemical incendiaries. Amazingly, these elemental agents were already combined in the ancient imagination more than three thousand years before the invention of modern germ warfare, napalm, and nuclear conflagrations.14

Poisoned projectiles, created to inflict extreme suffering and bring ignominious death, were more feared than hand-to-hand combat with swords, spears, axes, and clubs. Poison arrows killed, but never cleanly. In Quintus’s words, they dealt “ghastly wounds that caused the mightiest man to lay faint and wasted with incurable pain.” A simple scratch could result in a gruesome, putrefying wound that turned brave warriors like Philoctetes into pitiful subhumans. Even the superhero Hercules was unmoored by the excruciating pain of the poisoned tunic, uprooting trees and overturning altars, rampaging like a wild beast. “I was the bravest, the mightiest, of all time,” he bellowed, tearing at the cloth soaked in Hydra-venom, “but now, a plague is upon me, which no amount of courage can withstand!” Images like these were grim indeed for a culture steeped in a warrior ethic, where bravery and physical might was valued above all and death in battle was expected to be violent, but at least swift and honorable.

In antiquity, as today, a blurry line separated acceptable ruses of war from reprehensible tactics and inhumane weapons. For example, Odysseus’s subterfuge of the Trojan Horse seems admirably cunning, until we learn that the trick ushered in Greek atrocities against Trojan women and children. Other myths tell of poisoning rivers and wine to kill enemies, or of giving lethal gifts that concealed poisons or combustible chemicals. But such weapons violated the guidelines of “fair” conflict and corrupted the meaning of courage and skill on the battlefield, for both victor and victim alike. In the face of hidden poisons and biochemical subterfuge, a warrior’s valor, physical strength, and prowess were nullified. In the words of Ovid, subversive weapons of poison were feared and detested because they dealt a “double death.” They killed a man, and extinguished his honor as well.15

The sheer number of great warriors felled by poison arrows and the numerous unintended casualties in the myths illuminate the powerful impact of the idea of warfare with bio-weapons in antiquity. The pay-off of such practices in actual conflicts could be substantial. Dipping one’s arrowheads into something toxic or infectious would greatly magnify the damage inflicted, and it could be done at a safe distance. Poison projectiles gave confidence to unskilled archers or weak warriors. Even if one’s aim was not very accurate (like Paris, who needed Apollo’s guiding hand), a contaminated weapon would guarantee a high body count.

The mythic messages about bio-toxic weapons were important to the ancient Greeks and Romans, as shown by the many examples of artwork depicting Hercules killing the Hydra and decimating the Centaurs with poison arrows, the accidental wounding of Hercules’ son Telephus by Achilles, and Hercules done in by his own toxic weapons and bequeathing his quiver to Philoctetes. Hercules dying in the poisoned robe was painted by the famous Greek artist Aristeides in about 360 BC. Another painting in the Acropolis of Athens that showed Odysseus trying to steal the bow and arrows from Philoctetes was admired by tourists as late as the second century AD. Hercules’ death, Telephus’s wounding, and Philoctetes’ anguish were also performed on the stage in tragedies still admired today. And as noted earlier, travelers used to point out the boulder that trapped the Hydra’s immortal head under the earth, and they honored Philoctetes, the inheritor of the first biological weapons, in at least three different shrines in Italy and the Aegean. Tourists in antiquity could even bathe in the hot stream Thermopylae, where Hercules, driven mad by the shirt of burning venom, was said to have plunged.

The legendary tales of Hercules and Philoctetes and other mythic figures were viewed by the ancient Greeks and Romans as reflections of actual historic episodes in their own very distant past. In popular memories, more recent historical events could also blur into legend, and ancient historians’ accounts of real military campaigns sometimes echo mythological ones. The detailed reports written by numerous Greek, Roman, and other historians, however, provide powerful evidence of how biological and chemical weapons were actually used in warfare.

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