To make wounds twice as deadly, these men dip
In viper’s venom every arrow-tip.
—OVID, on the Scythians
It was their custom to throw javelins
steeped in noxious juices,
thus disgracing the steel with poison.
—SILIUS ITALICUS, on the Nubians
“THERE IS NOTHING more dangerous than poisons and the bites of noxious animals,” wrote Galen, the great Roman physician to gladiators and emperors. We can avoid most dangers by fleeing or defending ourselves, he noted, but the toxins from plants and venomous creatures are treacherous weapons because they strike without warning. The ancients particularly dreaded encounters with poisonous snakes, a problem that plagued Alexander the Great and his army in India. Things only got worse when the Greeks learned that Indian archers tipped their arrows with snake venom, and Alexander’s soldiers may well have recalled the scene in the Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan archer Paris recoiled from face-to-face battle with the Greeks. Homer compared Paris to “a man who stumbles upon a viper in a mountain glen. He jumps aside, knees trembling, face pallid, he backs and backs away.” The scene neatly juxtaposes the ancient terror of snakebites with the fear of envenomed arrows.1
Facing battle required great courage, and knowing that one’s enemies used deadly poisons on their weapons raised the horrors of war to exponential levels. From numerous Greek, Roman, and Indian texts, one learns exactly how virulent arrow poisons were concocted, who used them in the ancient world, and what sorts of countermeasures were attempted.
Venomous animals enjoy “great confidence” in attacking, commented the natural historian Aelian, in the third century AD, and they are hated by man because they are blessed with such powerful weapons. Based on his own observations of nature, Aelian surmised that Hercules and other Greek heroes got the idea of using venom on their arrows from seeing wasps buzzing around the corpses of vipers. In antiquity, it was widely believed that stinging insects increased the potency of their stings by drawing venom from dead snakes, and in turn, that snakes fortified their venom by devouring poisonous plants. A similar principle was applied to harmful flowers, like aconite or monkshood, which were believed to draw their nutrients from entrances to the Underworld, with its unwholesome vapors. In the same fashion, man could amplify the strength of his weapons by adding natural plant and animal toxins to them. In Aelian’s words, “Hercules dipped his arrows in the venom of the Hydra, just as wasps dip and sharpen their sting.”2
Today, many people think of biological and chemical weapons as inventions that depend on modern technology, toxicology, and epidemiology. Yet, the idea of treating projectiles with noxious substances originated long ago in pre-scientific cultures, who observed that nature endowed certain plants with toxins to defend themselves and certain creatures with venom to hunt prey and kill enemies. Observation and experiment led to some simple—as well as some surprisingly sophisticated—ways of borrowing natural poisons for projectile weapons.
A great variety of toxins—from wolfbane to snake venom—were weaponized as arrow poisons in antiquity. Snake venom may have been one of the first. In antiquity, the old myth of Hercules and the Hydra was thought to be a poetic exaggeration of the historical invention of arrows tipped with snake venom in the very deep past. Several authors, such as the historians Diodorus of Sicily (30 BC) and Pausanias (AD 150), and the poet Quintus of Smyrna (AD 350), assumed that Hercules’ arrows were actually “besmeared with deadly venom of the fell water snake” or an adder common in Greece. Pointing out that the ancient Greek word hydra meant water snake, Pausanias suggested that perhaps an extra-large hydra specimen had inspired the myth of the Hydra monster.
Ancient toxicology treatises from the Mediterranean and India described an impressive array of poisonous plants, minerals, marine creatures, insects, and snakes, along with scores of antidotes and remedies, some useful and others quite dubious. In about 130 BC, for example, the toxicology manual compiled by Nicander, a priest of Apollo at the Temple of Claros in Asia Minor, listed twenty vipers and cobras known in the Greco-Roman world. Descriptions by Nicander and other writers often provide enough details for modern herpetologists to identify the species. Moreover, the medical symptoms of snakebites and arrow wounds contaminated by venom are accurately described in the ancient accounts. First, necrosis appears around the wound, with dark blue or black oozing gore, followed by putrid sores, hemorrhages, swelling limbs, vomiting, wracking pain, and “freezing pain around the heart,” culminating in convulsions, shock, and death. Only a very few lucky victims recovered from snake-venom bites or arrows, and sometimes the wounds festered for years, as described in the myth of Philoctetes.3
An effective poison needs an effective delivery system, and the technology of the bow and arrow was perfectly suited for the task of killing with confidence from afar, whether the poisoned arrows were used for hunting or for combat. The first poison arrows were probably used for hunting, and later turned toward enemies in war. This progression, from hunting to war, is clear in the Greek mythology of poison arrows. Hercules’ great quiver held “some arrows for hunting and some for smiting foes.” And indeed, the first victims of the Hydra arrows were not humans, but a deer with golden horns, the Stymphalean Birds, and the half-man, half-horse Centaurs. Then, after Hercules’ death, the arrows were inherited by Philoctetes, who intended to use them in the war against Troy. But their use on the battlefield was delayed until the tenth and final year of the war, while Philoctetes was marooned on the desert island. Philoctetes used the poison arrows to hunt birds for food for a decade before slaughtering any Trojans.
According to the Roman medical writer Celsus, hunters in Gaul (Celtic people of western Europe) used serpent venom to bring down game, because it did not poison the meat (snake venom is safely digestible). Mirko Grmek, a leading scholar of the history of medicine, and the classicist A. J. Reinach have suggested that the Greeks and Romans thought of poison arrows as essentially weapons for hunting, and therefore disapproved of their use against fellow humans. In fact, arrow poisons intended for hunting and those prepared for war differed in crucial ways.
To be effective in hunting, the ideal toxin should be fast-acting and lethal even if the wound was slight, and poisons that ruined meat should be avoided. But war arrows were very different. The most malignant toxins were selected, with the deliberate intention of inflicting a horrible death or an incapacitating, unhealing wound. Pure snake venom might be used on hunting arrows, for example, but for combat the venom was contaminated with the most debilitating or disgusting ingredients for maximum physical and psychological impact. Killing cleanly and swiftly was not the point of poisoned military projectiles.
Surprising the enemy with biochemical weapons was one option, but there were significant advantages to be had if your enemies knew that archers were shooting arrows coated in virulent substances. The armies that used poisoned arrows in war seem to have calculated the terror impact on potential enemies. They made sure that their recipes for treating war arrows promised a gruesome death, and that these formulas were well publicized. Just as today, deterrence was an important factor in creating biological weapons.4
Looking first at the botanical options for arrow poisons, the ancients knew of at least two dozen dangerous plants that were used for medicinal purposes and could also be employed to create toxic weapons. As in modern pharmacology, the dosage drew the line between therapy and death. In very small amounts, many plant toxins are beneficial, while in larger amounts they are lethal—though some poisons, like aconite, can kill even in minute doses.
Some substances mentioned by Greek and Roman historians, such as helenion and ninon, smeared on arrows by the Dacians and Dalmatians (ancient people of Romania, Hungary, and former Yugoslavia), have not been identified by modern scientists, but most of the arrow poisons used in the ancient world are well-known toxins. One of the most popular was hellebore, the all-purpose medicinal herb and the favorite prescription of doctors, including the father of medicine, Hippocrates. Two kinds of hellebore were identified by the ancients: black hellebore, the Christmas rose of the buttercup family (Helleborus orientalis), and white hellebore, a Liliacea (Veratrum). Interestingly, the plants are not related, but both are laden with dangerous chemicals so plentiful and diverse that it is surprising that anyone ever survived treatment. It was well known that hellebore killed horses and oxen, and people who collected hellebore sometimes fell ill or died. The plants were “not easy to gather, and very oppressive to the head,” noted Pliny the Elder, the natural historian of the first century AD. In tiny doses, the roots caused sneezing or blisters, but in heavier doses they induced severe vomiting and diarrhea, muscle cramps, delirium, convulsions, asphyxia, and heart attack.
It was the immediate purgative effect that made hellebore a pet prescription for all manner of complaints: it’s clear that some patients survived merely because the vomiting and diarrhea were so violent. As Pliny remarked, hellebore’s reputation evoked such “great terror” that treatment required much courage—on the part of both doctor and patient. Indeed, wrote Pliny, “the various colors of the vomits are terrifying to see, and after that comes the worry of watching the stools!”
Hellebore was obviously an excellent choice for arrow poison. Ancient writers reported that hellebore was one of the “arrow drugs” used by the long-haired Gauls to hunt wild boars and other game. The hunters had to “run hastily” to cut away the flesh around the arrow before the poison sank in and the meat rotted, although the Gauls claimed that a small amount of hellebore tenderized the flesh of hares and deer. Today, traditional hunters in Tanzania, who use the plant poison panjupe on their arrows, also rush to pull out the arrow and discard the meat around the wound.
The fact that the Gauls knew of at least two antidotes for hellebore poisoning suggests that they worried about self-inflicted injuries from hellebore arrows. The act of collecting of hellebore and many other baneful plants in antiquity was surrounded by special rituals to avoid accidental poisoning, and the preparations of arrow drugs were time-consuming and delicate. To dig up hellebore, for example, one first prayed facing east, then incised a circle around the plant with a sword, all the while keeping an eye out for an eagle—to spot one spelled death for the herbalist.5
Another oft-mentioned arrow drug, aconite or monkshood (sometimes called wolfbane), is one of the most dangerous plant poisons known to mankind and is found in many parts of the world. Its first effect is like that of a stimulant, but then it paralyzes the nervous system, causing drooling and vomiting. Finally, the limbs go numb and death results. The excessive salivation may be the reason the poison was associated in Greek myth with a mad dog foaming at the jaws. Aconite may have been the arrow toxin sought by Odysseus in Ephyra, near the mouth of the Underworld. According to Pliny, a town on the Black Sea, Aconae, was held in “evil repute” because of its abundance of aconite.
Himalayan aconite (called bish or bikh) was so lethal that sheep had to be muzzled in its vicinity. This “mountain aconite” was used in ancient India for poisoning arrowheads, and aconite is still used in India by poachers who kill elephants for ivory. In the early 1800s, the Gurkhas of Nepal considered the plant “a great protection against enemy attacks,” for they could destroy entire armies by poisoning wells with crushed aconite. During the war between the Spanish and the Moors in 1483, the Arab archers wrapped bits of cotton or linen around their arrows and dipped them in distilled aconite juice. Five centuries later, in World War II, Nazi scientists extracted the chemical toxin aconitine from aconite plants, in order to manufacture poisoned bullets.
FIGURE 7. Black hellebore (Christmas rose), a toxic plant used to poison arrows and water supplies in antiquity.
(Curtis Botanical Magazine, 1787)
According to Aelian, hyoscyamus or henbane, the sticky, gray-green, and bad-smelling weed (Hyoscyamus niger) that contains the powerful narcotic poisons hyoscyamine and scopolamine, had to be collected without touching any part of the plant (all parts of henbane are in fact poisonous). One arcane method was to loosen the soil around the root with a dagger, then attach the stem to the leg of a trained bird. As the bird flew up, it uprooted the henbane. Pliny expounded on the dangers of henbane, which was sometimes used, in tiny doses, as an anaesthetic. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “it is a dangerous drug in any form,” for it deranges the brain. Henbane poisoning can cause violent seizures, psychosis, and death. It was another of the several arrow poisons said to be collected by the Gauls. Perhaps they used hellebore (with its meat-tenderizing effect) and fast-acting snake venom for game, and reserved deadly henbane for their human foes.6
Preparing weapons from poisons evoked a lot of anxiety about self-inflicted wounds and “friendly fire” accidents in antiquity. The risks of handling bio-toxins were (and still are) very real, as shown by complex preparation methods described by the ancient writers. One can gain further insights into ways the ancients may have avoided self-poisoning problems by looking at some special procedures for creating poison weapons among more contemporary people in Asia, Africa, and South America.
In South America, for example, many rainforest tribes use “poison arrow” frogs to treat arrows and blowgun darts. The frogs secrete an extremely deadly chemical through their skin: one frog contains about two hundred micrograms of poison, and just two micrograms are instantly fatal to a human. The toxin of one frog can tip about fifty arrows, and to avoid touching the powerful poison, most archers pin down a living frog with a stick and carefully wipe their arrows on the slimy skin. But a safer method invented by the Choco Indians in Colombia yields an even greater amount of concentrated poison. They roast a skewered frog on a stick over a fire, catching the dripping toxin in a bottle, into which they can safely dip their darts.
The Choco practice sheds some light on a puzzling passage in Pliny’s natural history about the Psylli, a mysterious nomadic tribe of North Africa. The Psylli were snake charmers, and as masters of myriad venoms from snakes to scorpions, they were said to be immune to all of them. After describing poisonous frogs and toads known in antiquity, Pliny claims that he once witnessed the Psylli placing toxic toads in heated pans. Scholars have wondered why the Psylli “irritated” the toxic amphibians in this way. Taking into account the Choco methods, however, a more logical explanation might be that the Psylli were roasting the toads to obtain their poison, which was said to bring death more rapidly than the bite of an asp.
The Spanish conquistadors were terrified of the poison darts of the South American Indians, and despite the thick leathern cuirasses they wore to deflect the arrows, many early explorers died from weapons coated with deadly frog slime, or the plant toxins strychnine or curare, an alkaloid that causes fatal paralysis. A mere pinprick from a small curare blowgun dart can bring down a human or a large animal. In the Amazon rainforest, natives carried as many as six hundred tiny curare darts in a quiver, and there were horrifying reports that curare was not only used on projectiles, but in hand-to-hand combat too: it was rumored that the natives painted their fingernails with the toxin.
The art of preparing curare was extremely hazardous, yet a remarkable number of different combinations of curare arrow poison have been invented over the ages. The naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt was the first Westerner to witness the mysteries of curare preparation by shamans, in 1807. The process took many days and was fraught with danger. In view of the secret powers of the Psylli and all the complicated ancient rituals for gathering poisons described around the Mediterranean, it seems likely that in antiquity, too, shamans or mystical herbalists were responsible for creating the dangerous arrow poisons and their antidotes. In Gaul, for example, the Celtic wizard-priests called Druids may have prepared the poisons from henbane, hellebore, and snake venom.
An expert in concocting poisons would have mixed the lethal dose of hemlock for the Athenian philosopher Socrates, who was condemned to die by drinking hemlock in 399 BC. Hemlock juice (Conium maculatum) killed by “congealing and chilling the blood,” in the words of Aelian, but the effects are debated by modern philosophers and toxicologists. Did it really bring a pleasant death for Socrates, as famously described by his friend Plato? Or is death by hemlock excruciatingly painful, as others claim? Some believe that Socrates’ “gentle” death draught was actually hemlock mixed with enough opium and wine to numb the violent effects. At any rate, pure hemlock sap on a projectile point would bring sure death, and some ancient writers stated that hemlock was one of the poisons used by the fearsome Scythian archers of the Black Sea area.7
Yew, the very poisonous tree known as taxus in Latin, has symbolized danger and death since antiquity, and was long used to poison arrows. The tall, dark, and dense tree, often planted in graveyards, has a “gloomy, terrifying appearance,” observed Pliny, and was so lethal that “if creeping things go near it and touch it at all, they die.” Indeed, Pliny claimed that people who napped or picnicked beneath a yew tree had been known to perish. Yew berries contain a strong alkaloid poison, which brings sudden death by suppressing the heartbeat. Pliny also reported that in Spain, which had been brutally conquered by the Romans in the second century BC, souvenir canteens were carved from yew wood and sold to Roman tourists, many of whom died after drinking from the flasks. Could this have been a sly biological sabotage by the Spanish against their hated oppressors?
Belladonna, the deadly nightshade, was known as strychnos (hence the word strychnine) to the Romans. Proof that strychnine was a very old weapon poison lies in its other name, dorycnion. The Latin word means “spear drug” and, as Pliny commented, “before battle, spear points were dipped in dorycnion, which grows everywhere.” He also noted that strychnine-treated spears retained toxicity for at least thirty years. The poison causes dizziness, raving agitation, then coma and death. According to legend, ancient Gaelic berserkers took belladonna before battle as an “herb of courage.”
Yet another candidate for arrow poison was the sap of rhododendron, which flourishes throughout the Mediterranean, around the Black Sea, and in Asia. The showy pink and white flowers contain neurotoxins, and the nectar yields a poisonous honey, which was used as a biological weapon against the Romans in Asia Minor.8
Besides plants, poison creatures could provide arrow drugs. An exotic bio-toxin of mysterious origins was said to be collected in the high mountains of India. First described by Ctesias, a Greek physician living in Persia (Iran) in the late fifth century BC, and then by Aelian in the third century AD, the powerful poison was supposedly excreted by a tiny orange “bird” called the dikairon. A miniscule amount of the “droppings” was supposed to bring death in a few hours, and this rare substance was one of the most costly gifts exported from the King of India to the King of Persia and kept as a valuable poison in the royal pharmacy—a useful agent for assassination or suicide.
But what was the poison? Scholars have speculated on the true identity of the dikairon, which was said to be the size of a tiny partridge egg. Some suggest that it was really a type of winged dung beetle whose droppings were confused with opium, another exotic product of India. The creature’s size does match the size of a dung beetle, and “droppings” may have been a Greek translation for insect excretions or insides. Certain types of dung beetles are even found in birds’ nests. The notion that the little orange bird was actually a dung beetle seems like a good answer, except for the fact that dung beetles are not toxic.
There are many other species of highly toxic beetles that can be used to make weapons, however. For example, Diamphidia beetle larvae are used to poison arrows by the present-day San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Could the ancient Greek tale of the little “droppings” of the mysteriousdikairon have originated in a garbled report of a similar beetle toxin gathered in India? Some species of poisonous beetles were recognized in antiquity; for example, Aristotle and the toxicologist Nicander described deadly substances obtained from blister and staphylinus beetles, whose poisons are strong enough to kill cattle that accidentally eat them.
A recent discovery by entomological pharmacologists may solve the mystery of the fabled dikairon of India. In the 1980s, scientists began investigating the toxic properties of the little-studied Paederus beetles of the large Staphylinidae family (rove beetles), found in many areas of the world, including northern India. These predatory flying insects can be either orange and black, or entirely orange, and are about an inch long. Some species inhabit birds’ nests, a fact that may account for their being confused with tiny birds as the story traveled west. It transpires that the beetle was known to Chinese medicine twelve hundred years ago. A pharmacopia written by Ch’en in AD 739 accurately described the Paederus beetle, called ch’ing yao ch’ung, and stated that its “strong poison” could be used to remove tattoos, boils, and polyps from the skin.
Indeed, these blister beetles secrete a virulent poison and their insides or hemolymph contains pederin, one of the most powerful animal toxins in the world. On the skin, pederin raises angry, suppurating sores, and in the eyes it can cause blindness. But if pederinis ingested, or if it enters the bloodstream—as would occur with a poison arrow—the toxicity is more potent than cobra venom!9
In the Mediterranean, encounters with venomous jellyfish, sea urchins, and stingrays may have suggested the use of marine biotoxins as arrow poisons. The intense pain of a jellyfish sting is like a strong electric shock: it can depress the central nervous system and bring cardiac arrest and death. Sea urchins have been mentioned as another possible source of arrow poison, since the spines deliver a sting similar to a jellyfish’s, and life-threatening infections ensue if the wound is near tendons, nerves, or bone. Stingrays were also greatly feared for, as Aelian wrote, “nothing could withstand the barb of the Sting-ray (trygon). It wounds and kills instantly and fishermen dread its weapon.” It seems that people had experimented with the stingray’s weapon of self-defense. So deadly was thetrygon, declared Aelian, that “if you stab the trunk of a large, healthy tree with the stingray spine, it withers as though scorched and all the leaves shrivel up and fall off.”
In the poetic justice of Greek myth, in which a poisoner is fated to die of poison, Odysseus succumbed to a wound from a spear tipped with the spine of a stingray, wielded by the son he never knew, Telegonus. The spear was forged for Telegonus by the god of invention and fire, Hephaestus, from a large ray killed by a Triton (merman) friend of Telegonus’s mother, Circe. Several species of toxic rays inhabit Mediterranean waters and the most common is the marbled stingray Dasyatis chrysonata marmorata (Trygon pastinaca). The stiff, viciously serrated spine is filled with extremely painful poison and makes a jagged, deep, and very bloody puncture. A stab in the chest or abdomen brings quick death. Without modern treatment, a wound anywhere would be likely to develop a fatal infection.
Some classical commentators have considered the legend of Odysseus’s strange death an example of overwrought creative myth-making but, as it turns out, the idea of a stingray spear is not so far-fetched. Modern discoveries in Central and South America give credence to the Greek legend of death by a stingray spine affixed to a spear. In the 1920s, archaeologists were mystified by numerous stingray spines that they found among worked obsidian javelin points in ancient burial sites in Mexico and Latin America. The wooden shafts had long since rotted away, but it seems obvious that the sharp ray spines had served as ready-made arrowheads. Confirmation comes from Brazil where, as late as the 1960s, the Suya Indians manufactured arrows from stingray barbs, which they attached to wooden shafts.10
By far, the most feared toxic creatures in the ancient world were hidden snakes whose fangs brought sudden, agonizing death. Numerous species of poisonous snakes inhabit the Mediterranean region and Asia. The terror aroused by the idea of serpents was intensified when a soldier was the target of arrows steeped in their venom.
FIGURE 8. Poisonous snakes were deeply feared in antiquity, but some ancients were adept in handling snakes and using their venom to make arrow poisons and antidotes. Amphora, detail, Perseus 1991.07.0133.
(University of Pennsylvania Museum)
According to Greek and Roman writers, archers who “sharpened their arrows with serpent’s poison” included the Gauls, Dacians, Dalmatians, Soanes of the Caucasus, Sarmatians of Iran, Getae of Thrace, Slavs, Africans, Armenians, Parthians dwelling between the Indus and Euphrates, and Indians. Poisoned arrows of various sorts were also known in China, demonstrated by ancient texts of the second century AD that describe the surgeon Hua T’o treating a general’s poison arrow wound (with a game of chess and wine serving as the anaesthetic). In the same era, the king of the Parthians was killed by a poisoned arrow in the arm, shot by the nomadic Tochari of the Chinese steppes.
In Ethiopia of the first century BC, according to the ancient geographer Strabo, a tribe called the Akatharti hunted elephants with arrows dipped “in the gall of serpents.” (“Ethiopia” referred to East Africa north of the Equator.) Several African cultures of more recent times still use snake venom on weapons: perhaps the Akatharti were the ancestors of the present-day Akamba people of Kenya in East Africa, elephant hunters renowned for their special arrow poison. According to the historian Silius Italicus, writing in about AD 80, Roman soldiers fighting in North Africa faced “twice harmful missiles, arrows imbued with serpent’s poison.” The Nasamonians of Libya were “skilled at disarming serpents of their fell poison,” and the Nubians of upper Egypt and Sudan steeped their throwing javelins “in noxious juices, thus disgracing the steel with poison.”11
Of all the groups who wielded envenomed arrows, however, the most inventive—and the most dreaded—were the Scythians of Central Asia. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus thrilled and shocked the Greeks with his reports of these barbarians who drank from the gilded skulls of their enemies and fashioned quivers from human arms with the hands still attached. The nomad women rode to war too, and were nicknamed “man-killers.”
Warlike nomads whose vast territory stretched from the Black Sea east across the steppes to Mongolia, the Scythians dominated the region until about AD 300. For four centuries they were invincible. They successfully repelled the Persian army led by King Darius I in the fifth century BC with their guerrilla raids and ambushes. Their consummate archery skills led the Athenians to hire Scythian bowman to fight alongside hoplite phalanxes in the fifth century. In 331 BC, Scythian horse-archers even defeated the large army of Alexander the Great.
FIGURE 9. Battle between Greek hoplites and Scythian archers. The fallen warrior had decorated his shield with the image of a snake, perhaps to frighten enemies or to magically deflect snake venom arrows. Red-figure kylix.
(University of Pennsylvania Museum)
Scythian victories were due partly to their skill with the bow and their hit-and-run tactics, and partly to special weapon technologies. Indeed, they possessed the ultimate delivery system for pernicious biological agents: they had perfected a composite reflex bow whose power far exceeded other bows, allowing impressive velocity and accuracy at great distances. Each Scythian warrior carried more than 200 arrows into battle, and as crack archers and expert bio-warriors, the Scythians were truly the “sons of Hercules.”
When Herodotus traveled around the Black Sea interviewing Scythians in about 450 BC, he discovered that the nomads revered the hero Hercules—the mythical inventor of biological weapons—as their founding father. Parts of the story the nomads told were misunderstood and omitted by Herodotus, who relied on a series of translators, but some intriguing details emerge. What survives of the lost mythology of the Scythians hints that it may have had some parallels to the Greek myth of Hercules and the Hydra-snake, and may have explained the origin of the Scythians’ poison arrows. According to the Scythians, Hercules encountered a monstrous Viper-woman in Scythia and fathered three sons with her. He left his bow, arrows, and special belt to the youngest son, Scythes, the ancestor of the Scythians.
The Scythians told Herodotus that Hercules’ belt had a buckle of unusual design. The tongue of the buckle was in the form of a little gold vial. And “to this day the Scythians wear belts with little gold cups attached,” remarked Herodotus. Herodotus, who was apparently unaware of the Scythians’ use of poison arrows, did not speculate on the purpose of the belt. Why would the buckle be fitted with a little cup? I think that the cryptic passage in Herodotus can be explained by the nomads’ reliance on toxic arrows. It seems logical that the gold container held the infamousscythicon—literally, “Scythian toxin”—the substance the Scythians used for poisoning their arrows. Pure gold would be unaffected by contact with poison. Recalling the Choco method of gathering frog poison in a bottle for dipping, one can imagine that it would be efficient before a battle to dip one’s arrows into a vial of scythicon at one’s waist. It is interesting that in several early vase paintings of Hercules killing the Hydra, the goddess Athena is shown holding out a vial with a narrow opening to catch the Hydra’s venom.
The Scythians also invented a special combination bow case-quiver, called a gorytus. Artistic representations of these cases on vase paintings and gold artifacts—as well as actual bow cases excavated from fifth-century BC Scythian tombs—show the ingenious design of the case. The gorytushung from a belt and had two separate compartments: one held the bow and the other was a pocket for arrows that could be tightly closed with a flap. Each Scythian archer carried two of these cases. This practice and the unique design of the quiver guaranteed that bows and arrows of various sizes and types were at hand for any hunting or battle situation, and the safety flap helped prevent contact with the razor-sharp, poisoned points.
FIGURE 10. Right, Scythian archer shooting poison arrows at Greek hoplites. Left, running Scythian archer with bow, arrow, and quiver, about 500 BC.
(© The British Museum)
As recently as the 1970s, the Akamba tribe of Kenya (mentioned earlier) carried their poisoned arrows in a similarly combined bow case-quiver of smoked leather, fitted with a cap to prevent scratches from the points. The Akamba followed further precautions to avoid the perils of handling poison arrows. Not only did the arrows have very small, sharp retractable metal tips to carry the toxin, but the points were wrapped in leather to keep the poison moist and to prevent accidental injury. It is possible that this was also done in antiquity.
Going into battle, the Scythians may have stored pre-coated arrows in the special safety pocket of the gorytus. But when hunting or during a sniping ambush, an archer could dunk an arrow in scythicon in the cup or vial on his special belt just before shooting it. This practice would help avoid the kind of nightmarish accident that befell Philoctetes when he was carrying Hercules’ quiver of arrows.12
The most blood-curdling ingredient of the dreaded scythicon was viper venom. Scythian territory is home to several poisonous snake species: the steppe viper, Vipera ursinii renardi; the Caucasus viper, Vipera kasnakovi; the European adder, Vipera berus; and the long-nosed or sand viper,Vipera ammodytes transcaucasiana. Simply dipping an arrow in one of these venoms would create a death-dealing projectile, since even dried snake venom retains its neurotoxic effect for a long time (herpetologists working with snake skeletons have suffered envenomation by accidentally puncturing themselves with the fangs of dried-out snake skulls). But the Scythians went much further in manufacturing their war arrows.
The complex recipe for scythicon can be reconstructed from statements attributed to Aristotle; from fragments of a lost work by the natural philosopher Theophrastus (fourth century BC); and from the formula given by Aelian. Since psychological terror is a chief aspect of bio-war, the method for brewing the poison and its nauseating ingredients were probably gleefully recounted by the Scythian archers serving with the Athenian army in the fifth century BC.
First, the Scythians killed poisonous vipers just after they had given birth, perhaps because the snakes were sluggish then and easily caught. (Most vipers, also called adders, give birth to live young.) Then, the bodies were set aside to decompose. The next step required very specialized knowledge, and because shamans were important figures in Scythian culture and the keepers of arcane knowledge, they probably oversaw the complicated preparation of the poison, which required several ingredients. One was taken from humans. “The Scythians,” Aelian wrote, “even mix serum from the human body with the poison that they smear upon their arrows.” According to Aristotle and Aelian, the Scythians knew a means of “agitating” the blood to separate the plasma, the “watery secretion that somehow floats on the surface of the blood.” Theophrastus is cited as the source for this remarkable forerunner of modern blood-plasma separating technology, but unfortunately the full description of the technique is lost.13
The human blood serum was then mixed with animal dung in leather bags and buried in the ground until the mixture putrefied. Dung or human feces itself would be a simple but very effective biotoxin for poisoning weapons, and even without an understanding of modern germ theories, experience would have taught the dangers of dung-contaminated wounds. As the historian Plutarch remarked in the first century BC, “creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of excrement.” Excrement is loaded with bacteria that can cause morbid infections. The “pungee sticks” deployed by the Vietcong against U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War are a modern example of the use of feces on sharp weapons intended to inflict deep, septic wounds.
In the third step, the Scythians mixed the dung and serum with the venom and matter from the decomposed vipers. The stench must have been powerful. A comment by Strabo, who was a native of the Black Sea region, confirms this. The Soanes, a Scythian tribe of the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea, “used remarkable poisons for the points of their missiles,” he wrote. “Even people who are not wounded by the poison projectiles suffer from their terrible odor.” The reek of poisoned arrows may have been an intentional feature, an ancient version of modern “stench weapons” designed by military chemists to be “psychologically toxic” to victims.
Scythian arrow poison was obviously not intended for hunting animals. The laborious process of contaminating putrid venomous snakes with blood and feces created a bacteriological weapon clearly meant only for human enemies, since no one would eat game tainted by such toxins. As Renate Rolle, an expert on the ancient Scythians, has stated, the result was “a pernicious poison” calculated to cause agonizing death or long-term damage, since “even slight wounds were likely to prove fatal.”
Likely indeed: putrefied human blood and animal feces contain bacteria that cause tetanus and gangrene, while the rotting vipers would contribute further bacterial contaminants to wreak havoc in a puncture wound. Rolle consulted Steffen Berg, a forensic physician, who theorized that the poison delivered by a Scythian arrow would probably take effect within an hour. As the victim’s blood cells disintegrated, shock would ensue. Even if the victim survived shock, gangrene would set in after a day or two. The gangrene would bring severe suppuration and black oozing of the wound, just as described in the ancient myths of envenomed wounds on the battlefield at Troy. A few days later, a tetanus infection would probably be fatal. Even if a victim miraculously survived all these onslaughts, he would be incapacitated for the rest of his life, like Philoctetes and Telephus in the Greek myths, by an ever-festering wound.14
And as if the horrific effects of the poison were not enough, archaeological evidence reveals that Scythian arrowsmiths added yet another feature to their airborne weapons: hooks or barbs. Deploring the odious Scythian missiles for their “promise of a double death,” the Roman poet Ovid described how victims were “pitifully shot down by hooked arrows” with “poisonous juices clinging to the flying metal.” Poison arrows with ingeniously designed breakaway barbs had decimated a Roman army facing mounted archers in Armenia in 68 BC, according to the historian Dio Cassius.
“In order to render the wound even nastier and the removal of the arrow more difficult,” writes Rolle, thorns were affixed to the arrowheads, and others were barbed or hinged. Even a superficially lodged barbed arrow would be extremely tricky and painful to pull out. Projectiles “fitted with hooks and soaked in poison were particularly feared,” notes Rolle. Such weapons modified to inflict more injury and pain than conventional arms aroused moral disapproval among Greeks and Romans, who conveniently ignored their own legacy of biological weapons. Interestingly, the ancient criticism of weapons specifically designed to intensify suffering foreshadows modern war protocols that prohibit projectiles that cause “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.”15
So, the Scythians not only formulated their own extremely potent toxin and figured out how to increase damage by adding barbs to arrows shot from technologically advanced bows, they also invented ways of safely handling their hazardous ammunition with their quiver and belt designs. But it seems their creativity did not stop there.
In the 1940s, the Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko was the first to excavate several tombs of Scythian warriors, from the permafrost of the Russian steppes. The tombs, dating to the fifth century BC, were filled with equipment, weapons, and artifacts, many of which were accurately described more than two thousand years ago by Herodotus. Gold, wood, leather, wool and silk, metal, and even the mummified bodies of tattooed warriors, were unearthed from the frozen mud, which Rudenko thawed with boiling water. Since Rudenko, other Russian and American archaeologists have excavated more tombs containing male and female warriors and a wealth of artifacts. So far, nothing matching the little gold cup buckles mentioned by Herodotus has been found in the burials, but many bow case-quivers and arrowheads carved from antler, horn, and bone, and cast in bronze have come to light. Wooden artifacts are rare in most archaeological sites, but the Russian permafrost preserved quantities of wooden arrow shafts in excellent condition, with the vivid colors of paint still visible. And, here, an additional aspect of Scythian creativity comes to light.
Many of the shafts (they were about thirty inches long) were painted solid red or black, while others had red and black wavy lines and zigzags. Rudenko illustrated numerous examples of these arrow shafts in his book, The Frozen Tombs of Siberia, but no scholars have commented on the curious decorations. Our knowledge that the Scythians treated their arrowheads with snake venom, however, leads to an intriguing idea. Were the striking designs inspired by patterns on the skins of snakes? Most poisonous vipers have zigzag or diamond patterns. The Caucasian viper, for example, has a serrated black stripe along its red body, and Vipera berus has bold zigzags.16
FIGURE 11. Top, wooden arrow shafts for snake-venom arrows, painted with red and black designs, found in fifth-century BC Scythian tombs. After Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia. Bottom, the venom of the poisonous European adder, Vipera berus, may have been used by the Scythians to treat their arrows.
The designs may have been intended to magically empower the envenomed arrows, or they could have been a psychological device aimed at demoralizing the enemy. By painting the shafts to resemble much-feared vipers and affixing arrows with barbs that replicated fangs dripping poison, the Scythians transformed their arrows into the equivalent of flying snakes. “Snake-arrows” zinging through the air certainly would strike fear into the hearts of victims. The effect would be especially harrowing when a warrior impaled by “a bitter-biting arrow” saw that its shaft carried the patterns of a deadly viper.
The painted markings might have also designated different arrow types for the archer. Quintus of Smyrna commented that Philoctetes carried two different sorts of poison arrows in his quiver, some for hunting and others for killing foes, and many cultures around the world use different types of toxic arrows for war and hunting. Perhaps a certain design indicated an arrow coated with pure snake venom to be used for hunting game, while another design indicated arrows tipped with the bacterially enhanced and labor-intensivescythicon to be used for battles. Plain shafts may have been used for unpoisoned arrows, to serve for target practice and the many contests the nomads held to show off their skills.
Scythian archers’ accuracy and range were phenomenal, even on horseback. Archaeologists have discovered skulls of their victims with arrowheads embedded right between the eyes. Pliny wrote that these nomads were so skilled that they actually used their arrows to dislodge valuable green turquoise gems in the rocks of “inaccessible icy crags” of the Caucasus. From an ancient inscription at Olbia on the Black Sea, we know that a Scythian archer named Anaxagoras won a prize for long-distance shooting. His arrow traveled 1,640 feet (500 meters), far exceeding the average range of an ancient Greek bow, estimated at 900 feet (250-300 meters).
Facing a horde of mounted Scythian warriors was surely a hair-raising experience. The battle would begin with a hail of hideously poisoned arrows blotting out the sun, as each Scythian archer shot about twenty shafts a minute.17 And the soldiers, crouching behind their shields, had heard all about the dire effects of scythicon. In virulence and the ability to inspire terror in the ancient world, only the poison arrows of India could rival the Scythians’ flying vipers.
India, marveled the ancient writers, was fabulously rich in drugs and deadly plants, and infested with noxious reptiles. (For the ancients, “India” meant the lands east of Persia, from Pakistan to Southeast Asia.) Poison weapons could be made from a wealth of nefarious substances, from aconite to bug guts to cobra venom. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great’s men faced many daunting and marvelous dangers as they marched through India—nearly impassable mountains, strange valleys whose vapors killed birds, weird poisonous plants, scorching heat and thirst, monsoons, deadly serpents of colossal size, and new and bizarre weapons in the form of Indian war elephants—but the worst were the snake-venom arrows.
One of the most feared poisons of India was obtained from the so-called Purple Snake of the “hottest regions” According to Aelian, this snake was short, with a deep purple or maroon body and a head as white as milk or snow. It seemed “almost tame” and did not strike with fangs, but if it “vomited” on a victim, the entire limb putrefied and death was usually quick, although some victims wasted away over several years, “dying little by little.”
The Purple Snake has never been identified by modern herpetologists. When I contacted Aaron Bauer, who has studied reptiles in Asia, about Aelian’s description, he was struck by two details, the remarkable white head and the habitat in the “hottest part of Asia.” If Aelian’s account came third- or fourth-hand from Southeast Asia, suggested Bauer, the Purple Snake may refer to the rare, white-headed viper that was unknown to science until the late 1880s, Azemiops feae. This viper is the only tropical Asian venomous snake with a distinctive white head. The short and stout body is dark blue-black with red marks and looks purplish, especially as the scales reflect light or if a preserved specimen is observed. This primitive viper has relatively short fangs and small venom sacs. Described by herpetologists as “docile but dangerous,” the white-headed viper is found in modern Tibet, China, Burma, and Vietnam. The lack of fangs and disastrous result of “vomiting” on a victim described by Aelian probably referred to venom that accidentally dripped into an open sore. The venom of Azemiops has not been fully analyzed, but the “long-term effects would be devastating with significant necrosis.”
FIGURE 12. The dreaded Purple Snake of India, as described by Aelian and Ctesias, had a distinctive white head. It may have been the poisonous Azemiops feae, discovered by scientists in the late 1800s.
(Photo © R. W. Murphy)
Collecting the toxin of the Purple Snake was difficult and dangerous, Aelian recounted. To extract the venom, the Indians suspended the reptile alive and head down over a bronze pot to catch the dripping poison, which congealed and set into a thick amber-colored gum. When the snake eventually died, the first pot was replaced with another to catch the watery serum flowing from the carcass. After three days, this foul liquid jelled into a deep black substance. The two poisons of the Purple Snake were kept separate, as they killed in different ways, both dreadful. The black poison caused a lingering, wasting death over years, from spreading necrosis and suppurating wounds. The amber poison (the pure venom) caused violent convulsions, and then the victim’s “brain dissolves and drips out his nostrils and he dies a most pitiable death.”18
Feeling queasy? That reaction was exactly the intention of poison arrow makers in Scythia and India. Just dipping arrows in pure venom would be deadly enough. But soaking war arrows in the most grotesque poisons and broadcasting the horrid recipes to potential enemies was an important psychological aspect of biological warfare. The very idea of facing archers supplied with scythicon or Purple Snake poison was terrifying.
When Alexander the Great and his army advanced over the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Punjab in 327-25 BC, India was still an unknown land of fabled wonders. The Greek veterans brought back more accurate information about the natural history of India, along with some tales that defied belief. In a decisive battle on the Hydapses River in northern India, Alexander’s soldiers were astounded by the sight of the giant King Porus atop his huge elephant. This was the first time the Greeks had encountered war elephants in action, but Alexander’s army managed to defeat Porus by hemming in the elephants and shooting the mahouts (drivers) who controlled them.
After that victory, many cities and kingdoms acquiesced to Alexander, but others still resisted. It was Alexander’s dream to push eastward to the Ganges River and thence to the ocean, but his troops were exhausted by the long campaign so far from home and dispirited by rumors of invincible armies led by King Chandragupta of the Mauryan Empire in northeast India. Demoralized by the drenching monsoons and the strange deadly plants and terrible serpents of India, the Greeks mutinied and refused to advance.
Alexander conceded to his men’s wishes. They did not have to fight King Chandragupta’s formidable forces (the king would later make alliances with Alexander’s successors and supplied them with Indian war elephants for their wars). Alexander followed the Indus River south to the Indian Ocean, where his army divided, half heading home by sea and the others trudging west through the waterless wilderness of Gedrosia (southern Pakistan and Iran) with their leader.
As they pressed south, Alexander’s men met with many adventures and battles with exotic peoples. They encountered an herb that instantly killed their pack mules and the soldiers suffered eye injuries from the blinding, squirting juice of prickly cucumbers. Men perished from thirst, tropical diseases, and eating unripe dates. And then there were the deadly cobras and vipers. “In the sand-hills,” wrote Strabo, “snakes crept unnoticed and they killed every man they struck.” Snakebites soon became such a menace that Alexander was obliged to hire Hindu physicians to accompany his army. Any soldier who was bitten was to report to the royal tent for emergency treatment by the Hindu healers.19
It was after conquering the Kingdom of Sambus that Alexander and his men arrived at the fortified city of Harmatelia, in 326 BC (probably Mansura, Pakistan). Here, the Greeks faced a “new and grave danger,” wrote the historian Diodorus of Sicily. The Harmatelians were reported to be oddly confident of victory. When three thousand warriors rushed out of the city to meet Alexander’s army, the Greeks discovered the source of their confidence.
The Harmatelians “had smeared their weapons with a drug of mortal effect.” The historian Quintus Curtius mentions poisoned swords, and Strabo says they used poisoned arrowheads carved of wood and hardened in fire. Diodorus elaborated further: he says the poison was derived from dead snakes, but by a different technique than that used for the Purple Snake. Like the Scythian adders, the snakes of Harmatelia were killed and left to rot in the sun. As the heat decomposed the flesh, the venom supposedly suffused the liquefying tissue. It is interesting that both the Scythians and the Indians used the entire bodies of vipers to make arrow poisons. A recent herpetological discovery suggests a good reason. Not only would the rotting flesh of whatever prey was in snake’s stomach contain harmful bacteria, but researchers have learned that vipers retain surprisingly large amounts of feces in their bodies over many months. In a dead viper, the volume of rotting excrement would provide further foul bacteria to the mixture.
Diodorus’s description is vivid. The wounded men went immediately numb, then suffered stabbing pains and wracking convulsions. Their skin became cold and livid, and they vomited up bile. Black froth exuded from the wound and then purple-green gangrene spread rapidly and “brought a horrible death.” Even a “mere scratch” brought the same gruesome death.
Because India is so famed for its cobras, modern scholars have simply assumed that the poison was cobra venom. I asked herpetologist Aaron Bauer for his expert opinion. Considering Alexander’s route through India and the detailed symptoms recorded by Diodorus, Bauer concluded that the venom probably came from the deadly Russell’s viper, Vipera russelli russelli, rather than from a cobra species. The symptoms suggest that pure snake venom was used on the arrows; Diodorus apparently conflated other accounts of rotting viper poisons into his description, or perhaps the story was circulated by the Harmatelians to discourage attackers. The Russell’s viper venom causes numbness and vomiting, then severe pain and gangrene before death, just as described by Diodorus, whereas death from cobra venom is relatively painless, caused by respiratory paralysis.
Watching so many of his men, even those with only slight wounds, die one after another in agony, deeply distressed Alexander. He was especially aggrieved by the suffering of his beloved general Ptolemy, who had been grazed on the shoulder by an envenomed arrow. According to Diodorus and Curtius, one night Alexander dreamed of a snake carrying a certain plant in its mouth (according to Strabo’s version, a man showed him the plant). The next morning, Alexander found the herb and applied a poultice of it to Ptolemy’s blackened wound. He also made an infusion of it to drink. With this therapy, Ptolemy recovered, as did a few other wounded men. Seeing that the Greeks had discovered the antidote to their arrows, the Harmatelians surrendered.
Strabo surmises that the fantastic story of Alexander’s healing dream was fabricated after someone—probably one of the Hindu doctors accompanying the Greek army—informed him of an antidote for the snake-venom arrows. Indian physicians were very experienced in treating snakebites and wounds made by snake-venom arrows. They would have immediately recognized by the symptoms what kind of venom Harmatelians were using on their weapons.20
The use of poisoned arrows for war was common in India and yet, as in many other ancient cultures, the practice aroused mixed reactions. Toxic weapons violated the traditional Hindu laws of conduct for Brahmans and high castes, the Laws of Manu. The laws, recited over generations in oral verses, date back to about 500 BC (some say even earlier), and were therefore known at the time of Alexander. The Laws of Manu explicitly proscribed the use of arrows that were “barbed, poisoned, or blazing with fire.”
The Laws of Manu principles of correct and noble warfare for Brahmans were countered, however, by another treatise from the time of Alexander’s adventures in India, the Arthashastra. An infamous book on ruthless statecraft written by Kautilya, King Chandragupta’s Brahman military strategist, the Arthashastra has been described as “revolting” and “cynical” by the medical historian Guido Majno, while political scientists and historians see it as a fascinating example of ancient realpolitik. Kautilya advised King Chandragupta to use any means, with no moral constraints, to obtain his military goals, and enumerated an astonishing number of methods to secretly poison enemies, including several complex recipes for creating biochemical weapons based on venomous snakes and other noxious ingredients. The Harmatelians (identified as Brahmans by the ancient Greek historians) probably felt justified in using toxic measures similar to those recommended by Kautilya, to defend themselves against such a formidable foreign invader as Alexander the Great.
How many of Kautilya’s biochemical recipes were actually put into practice is unknowable, but the deterrent effect of the weird and loathsome ingredients may have been part of the book’s impact. Indeed, Kautilya himself referred to the valuable propaganda effects of exhibiting the frightening effects of his poisons and potions to induce “terror among the enemy.”
In a startling revival of ancient bio-warfare in modern India, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, compiled some twenty-three hundred years ago, became the subject of intense study by Hindu military experts and Pune University scientists in 2002. Funded by the Indian Defence Ministry, the scientists began researching Kautilya’s ancient “secrets of effective stealth warfare” and biochemical armaments, to use against India’s modern enemies. According to reports by the BBC and other news agencies, the military scientists have begun experimenting with ancient recipes reputed to give armies special biological powers. For example, a potion of fireflies and wild boar’s eyes are believed to endow night vision, and special shoes smeared with the fat from roasted pregnant camels or the ashes of cremated children and bird sperm are supposed to allow soldiers to walk for hundreds of miles without fatigue. The scientists are also studying Kautilya’s formulas for powders from nefarious substances that were intended to cause madness, blindness, or death in one’s adversaries.
The Indian military experiments might be dismissed as useless experiments with magic. Yet the Hindu scientists are not alone in the search for unusual biochemical agents to give armies special biological powers. In 2002, for example, military scientists funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Defense Department initiated a search for special stimulants and agents based on “magical genes in mice and fruit-flies” that would eliminate the need for sleep in American soldiers.21
The possibilities for creating arrow poisons from natural toxins were myriad in the ancient world, and the search for antidotes and treatments for poison wounds kept pace. Remedies for envenomed wounds in Greek myths reflected the actual treatments used by battlefield doc-tors. For example, the festering wound suffered by Hercules’ son Telephus, caused by a puncture from Achilles’ poisoned spear, was cured with iron rust. Pliny described a famous painting that depicted Achilles using his sword to scrape rust from his spear into Telephus’s wound (a relief sculpture of the same scene was found in the ruins of ancient Herculaneum). According to Pliny, scrapings of iron rust and bronze verdigris mixed with myrrh staunched oozing poisoned wounds, and indeed, archaeologists have discovered sets of rusty nails and old metal tools for this very purpose in Roman military surgeons’ kits.
FIGURE 13. Achilles treating Telephus’s poison wound by scraping rust from his spear. Roman bas relief sculpture, found at Herculaneum.
(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)
The physician Rufus of Ephesus (first century AD) advised military doctors to ask deserters and prisoners of war about their army’s use of poisons, so that antidotes could be prepared. Purple spurge and the gum resin from giant fennel were supposed to be effective against envenomed arrows, according to Pliny, who also recommended a plant called “centaury” or “chironion” (Centaurium), after the Centaur Chiron. An astringent for drying up septic wounds, its power to close torn flesh was “so strong that pieces of meat coalesce when boiled with it.” Supplies of centaury have been discovered by archaeologists in the ruins of ancient Roman military hospitals in Britain.
Pliny claimed there was an antidote for every snake venom, except the asp (cobra). Aelian agreed that the victim of asp venom was “beyond help.” Some antidotes, such as rue, myrrh, tannin, and curdled milk, were beneficial or at least harmless; others were dangerous, and still others seem downright silly, such as boiled frogs, dried weasel, and hippopotamus testicle.22
There were also notions of trying to develop resistance to snake and other venoms. It was well known that natives of lands with venomous creatures such as scorpions or snakes often had some immunity to the toxins, so that a scorpion sting simply itched or a snakebite merely stung. The resistance of some natives was said to be so powerful that their breath, saliva, or skin repelled vipers or cured their bites. The Psylli of North Africa were considered the outstanding example of this kind of resistance. According to the Romans, the Psylli were so habituated to snakebites that their own saliva was an effective antivenin. Antivenin is derived from antibodies to live snake venom, and the implication is that the Psylli immunity was achieved by the same antiserum principle. Psylli spit was eagerly sought by the Romans to counteract snakebites during their African campaigns.
It was also a common belief in antiquity that ingesting poisons in small amounts, along with the proper antidotes, could offer protection against the poisons, a concept related to the modern techniques of immunization. The idea is evident in the ancient HinduLaws of Manu, which advised kings to mix antidotes to poisons in their food. King Mithridates VI of Pontus on the Black Sea was the most famous practitioner of this systematic poison-resistance program in antiquity. But even today, in Indonesia, jungle military training includes inuring soldiers to snake venom by having them drink snake blood.23
Another remedy for snake poison was to try to remove the venom from the victim. Philoctetes’ festering wound from the Hydra-venom arrow was cured by sucking out the poison and applying a poultice. This was the standard remedy for snakebite and poison-arrow wounds, both of which were detected by black gore instead of bright red blood. Warriors felled by toxic arrows were immediately tended by army doctors who either sucked the venom themselves or applied leeches, salves, or suction cups to draw out the poison.
Sucking out snake venom by mouth could be hazardous for the doctor. The death of a medicine man in Rome in about 88 BC demonstrated the peril. While exhibiting his snake-handling skills to fellow practitioners, he was bitten by one of his cobras. He managed to successfully suck out the poison himself, but was unable to rinse out his mouth with water soon enough. Aelian tells the horrible result: the venom “reduced his gums and mouth to putrescence” and spread through his body. Two days later he was dead. To avoid such an accident, Trojan doctors used leeches, while Indian doctors stuffed a wad of linen in their mouths as a filter.
The medical writer Celsus, writing about a hundred years after the Roman snake handler’s death, recommended a cup to draw out the poison, but if none was available, the alternative was to send for someone adept at drawing venom by mouth. The fabulous reputation of the Psylli, whose saliva was said to neutralize serpent venom, was probably a misunderstanding on the part of inexperienced observers who had watched a Psylli healer sucking out venom. Celsus revealed that their skill actually came from “boldness confirmed by experience.” He correctly pointed out that anyone “who follows the example of the Psylli and sucks out a wound will be safe,” provided that “he has no sore place on his gums, palate, or mouth.”
Snake venom can be digested safely, as long as no internal abrasions allow it to enter the bloodstream. That fact was also understood by Lucan, a Roman historian in the first century AD. Lucan described, in page after page of lurid details, the “unspeakable horrors” of death by various snakebites and scorpion stings during Cato’s arduous civil war campaigns in the North African desert in the first century BC. The Psylli came to Cato’s rescue. Just as the Hindu doctors skilled in treating snakebites aided Alexander the Great in India, the Psylli joined Cato’s army to treat the constant stream of snakebite victims carried into their tents. Whereas the Hindu doctors recognized the species of venom on the Harmetalian arrows by the symptoms of the wound, Lucan claimed the Psylli could identify the species of snake by the taste of the venom. The Psylli apparently encouraged the notion of their special immunity to boost their monopoly on curing envenomed wounds. In fact, soon after the civil war, some Psylli practitioners had set up shop in Rome, plying their arcane toxicology skills. They were criticized by Pliny and Lucan for importing deadly poisons and venomous snakes and scorpions of many exotic lands into Italy for profit—apparently the Psylli had become purveyors of poisons for nefarious plots.24
In ancient India, doctors were well versed in dealing with snakebites, but removing arrows, including those coated in venom, was a special skill of the shalyahara (“arrow-remover”). These surgeons had to decide whether to pull the shaft out or push it all the way through the body. Sometimes they used magnets to locate and help draw out iron arrowheads, and sometimes tree branches or horses were used to jerk a deeply embedded arrow out speedily, with the hope that it was not barbed. Barbed weapons “have always been the curse of battlefield surgery,” remarks the historian of battle-wound treatments, Guido Majno. In the Mediterranean world, however, special instruments were designed to deal with barbed arrowheads, like those of the Scythian nomads. In about 400 BC, Diokles of Karystos invented a tool, called the “spoon of Diokles,” to ease a hooked arrow out without further damage to the flesh.
But in spite of all the remedies, antidotes, panaceas, and drastic emergency treatments—and Alexander the Great’s legendary dream—the grim sight of black blood trickling from an arrow wound was cause for despair. A terrible toxin was already coursing through the body, which almost always spelled doom. The survival rate of real-life warriors pierced by poisoned projectiles was slim, probably no better than the dismal rate of recovery in Greek myth, where only two victims, Telephus and Philoctetes, recovered, and then only after years of suffering. Even Chiron the Centaur died despite treatment with a special healing plant, and antidotes were futile in the cases of Achilles, Paris, Odysseus, Hercules, and the many other mythic warriors felled by poison weapons. In the event of biologically contaminated wounds on real-life battlefields, the reaction among warriors was undoubtedly “gloom and frustration.”25
Despite the perils of obtaining and handling the hazardous materials to make toxic weapons—and the moral disapproval that often clouded their use—the guaranteed casualty rate, the vast arsenal of natural toxins and the lack of effective antidotes, plus the advantages of long-distance projectiles, made poisoned arrows the most popular bioweapon in antiquity. But a great many other natural agents were also manipulated to achieve military victories. The next two chapters look at delivery systems for poisons and disease, capable of destroying enemies en masse. With the ancient myths as models, one could not only pick off one’s foes arrow by arrow as did Hercules or Odysseus, but one could copy the sorceress Circe and poison entire bodies of water—or even imitate the god Apollo and spread contagion.