Gasparo Diziani. Hercules strikes with a poisoned arrow the centaur Nessus, who kidnapped his wife Dejanira
For a long time, eternally warring people have tried to gain an advantage by making their weapon more dangerous and deadly. And, of course, many turned their eyes towards all kinds of poisons of natural origin. However, empirically, it was possible to find out that it is not so easy to poison a person, and not only with arsenic and cantarella, which was described in a series of articles about Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his children, Cesare and Lucrezia, but even the notorious "Novice" ( unless, of course, one believes that the substances of this group were actually used against the Skripals and Navalny). And therefore we do not read stories about how the soldiers of some Persian ruler or Byzantine strategist, before the battle, dip their swords and arrows into a vat of poison carefully prepared by ancient military toxicologists. Poisoned weapons are an indispensable attribute of some terrible secret society like the Nizari Order of the Assassins. And the dagger of one of the last Fedais, who made an attempt on the life of the English Prince Edward in 1272 in Acre, of course, was poisoned. The recipe for this poison, known to every self-respecting assassin, of course, is lost: no one wanted to get rich by revealing the secret of its manufacture to Baibars, Saladin, Guy de Lusignan or the Mongol Khan Hulagu, whose soldiers captured more than 40 Nizari fortresses. However, the symptoms of the wounded Edward and the effectiveness of surgical treatment (excision of necrotic tissue) clearly indicate that in this case there was a banal wound infection. Microbes and their toxins acted no worse than the most dangerous poison, and local infectious complications in the absence of antibiotics often turned into sepsis.
The Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos allegedly also died from a poisoned arrow accidentally fired at him, and this happened during a hunt. I wonder why use poison on a hunt? To try to poison one of the guests with the meat of a dead animal? After all, to kill a large animal, the concentration of poison must be large enough. Or is it such a sophisticated way of killing a hunter?
When an attempt was made on the life of Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, it was also claimed that a poisoned arrow was fired at him, although there is no data confirming this version. But, you understand, who in their right mind would try to kill the Grand Vizier with an ordinary arrow? Even the poisoned woman did not take it.
Frame from the TV series "The Magnificent Century": the wounding of the Grand Vizier Ibrahim
All sorts of aborigines and natives are declared other keepers of the secrets of combat poisons. Well, how else could the Europeans explain the high mortality during their campaigns and expeditions? Not the same boring reasons as infectious diseases and wound infections that complicate even the slightest wound - and all this against the backdrop of humid tropical heat, chronic fatigue and beriberi. But modern pharmacologists are skeptical even about the stories about the effective use of the famous curare. The fact is that in the concentrations used by the Indians, this poison is dangerous only for small animals - and that often does not kill them, but only immobilizes them for a while. A small light arrow, the tip of which is moistened with such a poison, has a low kinetic energy and penetrates only into the upper layers of the skin, where there are few blood vessels and absorption is poor. An adult will feel only a slight pain at the point where the arrow hit, this will not affect the general condition in any way. And that is why the spectacular shots of adventure films, where a hefty man falls when a miniature arrow fired from a tube by forced exhalation hits his hand, have nothing to do with reality.
In general, the "disadvantages" of almost all natural poisons that prevent their combat use are the insufficient speed of onset of action, low concentration in the volumes used, as well as rapid destruction, instability.
Let's try to deal with natural poisons and attempts at their practical application. We will not touch on synthetic poisons in this article.
Poisons in the Bible
Poisons are mentioned in the Bible, and the Hebrew words meaning "poison" are traditionally translated into Russian as "bile" and "wormwood". For example, Jeremiah 9:15:
“Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and I will give them bile water to drink.”
And the notorious biblical "Star Wormwood" is not a prediction of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant - it's just a "Poison Star". And "Chernobyl", one of the species of the plant wormwood (unknown in Palestine) is a bitter herb, but not poisonous. Consider the Revelation of John of Patmos:
“And a third of the waters became wormwood, and many of the people died from the waters, because they became bitter…”
The literal translation would be:
"A third of the waters became poisonous, and many people died of poisoning."
Snake venom in the Bible is denoted by a separate word "rosh".
In addition, in the Book of Numbers 11:33 there is a story about the poisoning of the Jews with the meat of wild quails. The most amazing thing is that he turned out to be true: Professor Sergeon, director of the Algiers branch of the Pasteur Institute, found out that in Sudan there is a plant whose grains contain poison that does not affect quails, but accumulates in their meat. But the use of poisons for military purposes is prudently not mentioned in the Bible: indeed, why undermine the credibility of a collection of sacred texts?
Poisoned Arrows of Hercules
But Hercules successfully used arrows, the tips of which were moistened with the poison of the Lernean hydra he had killed. But the Hellenes themselves were very condescending to this story: they say, God can, however, "what is allowed to Jupiter, it is not allowed to the bull." And the Lernaean hydras are no more. It is now impossible to check how deadly their secretions are. Hercules, by the way, died from this poison: he hit the centaur Nessus with a poisoned arrow, who desired his wife Dejanira, and before his death, he “revealed a secret to the woman”: his blood is a love potion of terrible power.
Franz Von Stuck. Hercules kills the centaur Nessus
Dejanira soaked her husband's shirt with poisoned blood, and the suffering of Hercules was so great that he chose to commit self-immolation. He presented a bow and arrows to a certain Philoctetes, but the poison of the hydra, apparently, was already expired - just like the “Novichok”, with which the unlucky Petrov and Boshirov allegedly poisoned the Skripals and, apparently, also Navalny (why not? the more ridiculous the lie, the more chances that the public will believe in it). However, let us return to Philoctetes, who, having been injured on the way to Troy by an arrow with an expired poison, did not die, but began to stink so much that his companions landed him on the island of Lemnos.
Philoctetes in a painting by Guillaume Guyon-Letierre. The bird on the tree of the “aroma” coming from him, it seems, also could not stand it. I hope she didn't die, but is in a deep faint.
Later, Philoctetes nevertheless sailed to the walls of Troy and killed Paris with an arrow presented by Hercules. However, it seems that this cute little squishy would have died anyway, without the poison of the hydra - if not from a wound, then from a wound infection.
By the way, the well-known word toxin (“toxikon”) is of Greek origin and means “poison”.
Another great hero of antiquity, Rustam, killed the invulnerable hero Isfandiyar with a poisoned arrow from a tamarisk tree. But this is again an epic - now Iranian, "Shahnameh".
Rustam and Isfandiyar, scene from Shahnameh
As for the real stories, and in Hellas, and in Ancient Rome, and in the states of other peoples, according to the authors of various works and chronicles, people were often poisoned and with great pleasure - political opponents, bored spouses, too long living relatives and so on. A rather weighty book could be written about this (these, however, have already been written, and more than one). But we are now talking about the military use of poisons and therefore we will not consider political and domestic murders, which are believed to have been carried out with the help of poisoning. We only note that the stories about the insidious poisoners who killed many people should be treated with a certain degree of caution. After all, before the advent of modern ideas about hygiene and the era of antibiotics, any person, even the richest and noblest, could easily die from an infectious disease, the symptoms of which were often understood as signs of poisoning - fortunately, influential people had no shortage of enemies. Yes, and suddenly developing pulmonary embolism, myocardial infarction and cerebrovascular accident has not been canceled. We have already talked about this in articles about the Borgia family and mentioned it when talking about Catherine de Medici. Today we will talk about the poisons that were used to apply to weapons (most often arrows) and try to assess the degree of their effectiveness.
In Africa, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Rwandans, Ethiopians and Somalis used the concentrated juice of Acocanthera Abyssinian to make poisoned arrows. The name of the main active ingredient of this poison is ouabain. It comes from the Somali word waabaayo - "poisonous arrow". Ouabain is found in the roots, stems, leaves, and seeds of the acocanthera, but its fruits are edible. Another source of ouabain is noble strophanthus. Ouabain is a very ancient poison. The first mention of its use is contained in the writings of Theophrastus, who lived in the III century BC. The action of ouabain is systemic: when it enters the blood, it causes palpitations, arrhythmia, shortness of breath, twitching of the muscles of the neck and chest. With a high concentration of poison - about 200 mg, cardiac arrest may occur, but this is possible only if a person is simultaneously injured by a dozen arrows. According to Portuguese sources, such arrows were used by the natives in 1505 when they defended Mombasa (a coral island in the Indian Ocean, where the city of the same name is now located, the second largest in Kenya). However, as you know, the use by both Kenyans and other Africans of arrows, the tips of which were moistened with a concentrated solution of ouabain, did not prevent the Europeans from consistently defeating them. So the Portuguese on the island of Mombasu, being wounded by poisoned arrows, did not fall during the attack, as if they had been cut down. The wounded experienced additional discomfort, but many of them continued to fight, and the island was captured. The use of arrows with ouabain made sense when hunting small animals. But they could not have a serious impact on the course of the battle with a strong enemy.
This poison was already mentioned at the beginning of the article. The Indians of Central and South America used not one, but dozens of plants containing the necessary substances to obtain it. From the root of Chondrodendron tomentosum, the most powerful poison was obtained - Tubo-curare. The bark of Strychnos castelniaeana and Chondrodendron trees has been used to produce Pot Curare. Calabash curare was made from the bark of Strychnos toxifera. Different tribes added additional components to curare - poisonous insects and worms, as well as particles of poisonous amphibians and reptiles. The meaning of such additives was to increase the toxicity of the poison, the development of inflammation in the wound area, and the disruption of blood clotting processes. However, the main active ingredient is curare. It is a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the respiratory muscles. The poison may seem just perfect, but the downside is the low concentration: it takes at least 200 microliters to knock down an adult man - from 3-5 drops, depending on the weight of the enemy. In general, to achieve the desired effect, the conquistador or "tomb raider" just needs to be stuck with arrows.
By the way, at the trial of the right SRs, which began shortly after the assassination attempt on Lenin by F. Kaplan, it turned out that the group of Grigory Semenov who organized it used curare, which was applied to the notches on the bullets.
A. M. Gerasimov. "Shot at the People"
So, talking about the poisoned bullets that were used by the enemies of the new government during the attempt on Lenin, the Bolsheviks spoke the pure truth. But this attempt at additional poisoning was obviously doomed to failure, because curare decomposes at high temperatures and was neutralized by powder gases when fired. In general, the gentlemen of the right SRs should have read a textbook on chemistry, and not only the works of Chernyshevsky, Mikhailovsky and Lavrov, whom they revere.
In the next article, we will continue the story of natural poisons and attempts to use them.