Ancient & Modern: Poisons in Antiquity – 1 of 3

Καί τε σὺ κωνείου βλαβόεν τεκμαίρεο πῶμα·             186
κεῖνο ποτὸν δὴ γάρ τε καρήατι φοινὸν ἰάπτει
νύκτα φέρον σκοτόεσσαν· ἐδίνησεν δὲ καὶ ὄσσε,
ἴχνεσι δὲ σφαλεροί τε καὶ ἐμπλάζοντες ἀγυιαῖς
χερσὶν ἐφερπύζουσι· κακὸς δ’ ὑπὸ νείατα πνιχμός       190
ἴσθμια καὶ φάρυγος στεινὴν ἐμφράσσεται οἶμον·
ἄκρα δέ τοι ψύχει, περὶ δὲ φλέβες ἔνδοθι γυίων
ῥωμαλέαι στέλλονται· ὁ δ’ ἠέρα παῦρον ἀτύζει
οἷα κατηβολέων, ψυχὴ δ’ Ἀιδωνέα λεύσσει                 194

“Also consider the harmful draught of hemlock.
This potion shoots forth death on the head,
bringing shadowy night.  The eyes spin,
and people creep along on their hands
and roam the streets with tottering steps.
A nasty choking stops up the lower part
of the pharynx and narrows the gullet’s path.
The extremities get cold and the robust vessels
within the limbs collapse.  Tiny breathing
distresses the patient as if he were fainting,
and his life-spirit stares Hades in the face.”

Nicander Alexipharmaka 186-194

In the New York Times back in March of 1993 there was an article (“Prosecutors Say Greed Prompted Husband to Poison Drug Packages”) about a man with expensive tastes alleged to have attempted to murder his wife in order to cash in the insurance policy he had himself written on her for close to three quarter million dollars.  He was under suspicion of having laced her decongestants with cyanide.

At the time (and since) it set me to thinking about poisons, which have a long history – in antiquity alone.

Their linguistic history is interesting in its own right.  The reconstructed Indo-European proto-form is *visos, which predictably yields by diachronic phonological processes ἰός (ios) in Greek and it cognate virus in Latin.  The latter has been taken directly into modern English with strong semantic narrowing as a generalized medical term for a special kind of ‘poison’ causing various diseases. Poison as something specifically administered was more likely Greek φάρμακον (pharmakon ‘drug, poison’) and Latin venēnum.

The Greek term has spawned an obvious brood of English derivatives.  The Latin word – whose root is related to that found in Venus (the goddess of ‘love’) is actually a Latin calque (“loan translation”) of the Greek word φἰλτρον philtron, a ‘device for loving’ (φιλ-τρ- love-tool/instrument-), or a love charm, and this now undergoes semantic broadening – or, perhaps, inversion — in Latin to any kind of ‘charm’ or ‘poison’.  Derived from venēnum, our words “(anti-)venin” and “venom” thus have a linguistic history that has early associations with passion!  Is that love gone sour, or what?

And what about ‘poison’ itself?  It comes by way of Old French from Latin potiōnem, a ‘drink’ or ‘draught’.  And since poison was often administered to the unsuspecting, or those with venal (which has an entirely different ven- stem!) praegustatores (“preliminary tasters”), in liquid form (e.g., wine), this particular potable narrowed semantically to a “’poison(ous) drink”. [Cf. the similar process at work with our own word ‘drink’ in “Would you like a drink?” – i.e., an alcoholic drink.]

To round out this lexical excursus, our word ‘toxic’ and its congeners go back to a Greek word τόξον toxon, which means ‘bow’; the latter pluralized to τόξα toxa (‘bow-things, arrows) – which were dipped in a τοξικόν φάρμακον toxicon pharmakon or “arrow poison” – and of this phrase the original noun for “poison” dropped out and left only the adjective, which now got semantically loaded and had to bear the entire meaning all by itself: toxic!

The ancient medical literature on poisons, both animal (especially of snakes) and vegetable, is of considerable interest.  Although the physicians of antiquity obviously knew nothing about the pharmacology and molecular actions of toxic substances, and in fact probably could offer little real help to victims of various kinds of poisoning, they were no less astute as observers than modern physicians and toxicologists.

The name of Nicander stands out.  He lived in the Hellenistic period of the third or second century BCE and may well have been a physician himself; he clearly relied on earlier medical writings about toxic plants and animals, including those in the Hippocratic corpus, and was himself referenced in subsequent medical literature of antiquity.

He was no doubt borrowing at least in part from the works of Aristotle’s successor as chief of research in the Peipatos (the Lycaeum for the Peripatetics in Athens), Theophrastos (c. 370 – c 285 BCE), who in his “History of Plants” (Plantarum historia) 9.16.4.1 gives what appears to be the earliest account of aconite and its ‘lethal effects’ (τὴν δὲ δύναμιν τὴν θανατηφόρον tēn de dunamin tēn thanatēphoron) – we’ve already met Theophrastos in connection with perfumes, here.  Aconite was one of a number of poisons and their antidotes that Nicander describes in his Ἀλεξιφαρμακά (Alexipharmaka or “Defenses against Poisons”) at lines 12-14, a very primitive kind of Poisindex or Poison Information hotline.

The term aconite appears to have been a cover label for a variety of different plant poisons.  This particular poison was well known to ancient medicine, as is evident from its many reference in the περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (de materia medica “On Medicinal Substances”) of Dioskourides, a Greek physician in the medical corps of the Roman army during the first century CE.  Dioskourides treats from a medical point of view over 500 plants and some 1000 drugs and poisons, including aconite (4.77-78).  Nicander emphasizes its effect on the mouth, which John Tampios in Dangerous Plants notes as typical, speaking of a “tingling in the mouth”.

Our friend Nicander may also have been the author of a now fragmentary Ὀφιακά (Ophiaka, or “Snake Matters”), as well as composing other works which collectively betray a certain fascinated fixation with toxic substances – for example, mycotoxins (μυκ- myc- < ‘mushroom’) and bufotoxins (< Latin būfo ‘frog, toad’) — don’t laugh:  some years ago a sequence from an episode on “L.A. Law” was based on the latter.  And in his Θηριακά (Thēriaka, or “Wild Animal Matters”) he seems to be quite cognizant of the modern distinction between reptilian neurotoxins and hemolytic toxins.

1 of 3 – to be continued

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