Sunday, June 12, 2005

"Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World." by Adrienne Mayor.

As the title says, the book discusses the use of poisoned weapons, incendiary devices, poison gas, and contagion as weapons of war in the ancient world: Greece, Rome, the Middle East, China, India, Africa, and Central and South America.

Poison for arrows could be derived from poisonous snakes or plants. Poisoned weapons were discussed in The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as in Virgil's Aeneid. Odysseus, himself, was killed by the son he had with the sorceress, Circe. Telegonus mistook his father for an enemy and ran him through with a spear tipped with the poisonous spine of a stingray. Ancient writings from India, as well as the Mediterranean area, give detailed descriptions of poisonous animals, plants, insects, and minerals, along with descriptions of symptoms and antidotes and remedies. Hellbore and wolfbane were two of the most commonly mentioned plant poisons. Others were henbane, hemlock, nightshade (belladonna, also know as "strychnos" by the Romans) and yew. The sap, flowers, and nectar of rhododendrons contain neurotoxins, and honey made by bees from rhododendron nectar was also poisonous.

South American rainforest tribes use the deadly poison from "poison arrow" frogs to treat arrows and blowgun darts. Two micrograms of the frog toxin are lethal to humans. South American natives also used the plant toxins strychnine or curare (an alkaloid that causes fatal paralysis). A pinprick from a curare-coated dart can bring down a human or a large animal.

In the old world, a variety of poisonous beetles were also used to make weapons. Marine animals such as jellyfish, urchins and stingrays may also have been part of the bio-arsenal. There is archeological evidence of stingray spine spear points from Central and South America. Live insects, such as angry bees, or poisonous animals, such as scorpions, could also be deployed against the enemy in catapulted sealed jars or bombs.

Collecting the materials and preparing these poisons was incredibly dangerous, and therefore usually the province of shamans or wizard-priests--the process cloaked in ritual and arcane learning. Manufacture of the dreaded scythicon, the poison used by the Scythian archers had a complicated series of steps. First a poisonous viper was killed and its body left to decompose. Then the preparer drew blood from a human, and separated the serum. The serum was mixed with animal dung human feces and left to putrefy. The two components were mixed together to produce a foul smelling, toxic soup, laden with dangerous bacteria. If a victim didn't die immediately from the wound or the poison, gangrene and tetanus would inevitably set in. To ensure delivery and hamper removal of contaminated arrow points, barbs and double tips were used.

Particularly in siege warfare, poisoning or simply cutting off a water supply was a common tactic. Tossing animal or human carcasses into wells or rivers to contaminate the water supply is an age-old practice, used in countless conflicts around the globe. A fleeing army or populace might contaminate or poison food, wine, or water left behind to incapacitate their pursuers.

Germ warfare is often considered to have begun in 1346, when the Mongols catapulted corpses of their own plague victims into Kaffa, a Genoese fortress on the Black Sea. This act may have introduced the black plague into Europe. Long before the concept of germ theory was understood, enough was known about the spread of contagion to facilitate deliberate infection--and certainly the accusation was frequently made.

Indian and Persian lore contains tales of "poison maidens" sent among the enemy. A popular belief was that a lifelong regimen of ingesting poisons and venoms could produce a poisonous person--examples in fiction being Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and the story of the poison Sultan Mahmud Shah. Perhaps such stories were stimulated by the practices of the Psylli, the snake charmers of North Africa, or possibly a reference to venereal disease, small pox, or "typhoid Mary"-type carriers of disease.

Incendiary devices ranged from fire-arrows, fire ships, or catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen, to more diabolical weapons involving naphtha or burning mirrors such as the array attributed to Archimedes at Syracuse.