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How Old Is Poison?
Recently researchers from Denmark were in for a rude shock when they decided to read three rare medieval books from the 16th and 17th centuries belonging to the University of Southern Denmark’s library collection.
They decided to scan the books using a series of x-ray fluorescence analyses so that they could read the Latin text beneath the green book covers. As soon as the X-rays hovered over the books, they detected significant amounts of arsenic beneath the green covers.
The arsenic concentration found was so toxic that it could easily damage the lungs, intestine, and stomach causing immense nausea and skin irritations. The arsenic called "Paris green" or "emerald green" was extremely dangerous to humans and capable of immediate incapacitation if not remediated on time. As Jacob Povl Holck, a research librarian at the university said.
"We were looking for writing which shows up as ink may contain copper, iron, or calcium.However, the moment we put the X-ray beam on the green surface, we saw the fantastic high amounts of arsenic."
This brings us to an interesting question – How old is poison?
The short answer is that it is as old as the cure. For as long as humans have felt the need to cure, we have also wanted to kill, and poison is one of the most accessible means. As Alfred Swaine Taylor, a 19th-century toxicologist rightly said.
"A poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison."
The Origins of Poison
The use of poisons dates back as far as the history of mankind.
The first recorded usage goes back to the Sumerians from Mesopotamia, who used it for ceremonial purposes to please Gula, Goddess of Medicine, around 4500 BC. Records in Egyptian history also show extensive usage of poison extracted from various poisonous plants for religion and warfare. Egyptians were well acquainted with antimony, copper, crude arsenic, lead, and reptile and insect poisons.
The Easterns, particularly the Persians, Indians, and the Chinese, were also poison usage and extraction experts. The Persians were reportedly the first civilization to use poisons at the dinner table for the assassination of nobles in various palace intrigues.
The Greek philosopher Plutarch describes an incident in his work about the Persian queen Parysatis who lived during the Persian King Artaxerxes II's reign. The queen used a poisoned knife to kill her daughter-in-law at the dinner table.
And the ancient Indians perfected the art of poisoning to an entirely new level by creating one of the deadliest women assassins in history, ' Vish-Kanya',' Vish-Kanyaka,'' Vishmayi Kanya, or 'Vishanghani'. They have many names, but the purpose was only one; kill or assassinate enemies.
A poison damsel was an exquisitely beautiful woman whose system was charged with poison to such an extent that intercourse with her was believed to cause death. They were first reportedly used as assassins, often against powerful enemies, during the Mauryan Empire (321–185 BCE).
Their blood was extremely poisonous to other humans, and the raising of these damsels is described in detail in a standalone treatise to his famous book on statecraft, Arthashastra, written by Chanakya (Kautilya), an adviser and a prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta.
Dalhana, a famous ancient writer, surgeon, and medical practitioner, describe them in his treatise Susruta Samhita.
“If she touches you, her sweat can kill. If you make love to her, your penis drops off like ripe fruit from its stalk.”
In a nutshell, they were the world’s original Femme Fatales.
The Story of the Poison Damsels
According to several ancient texts, selecting a poison damsel was a long and tedious process with a minimum of two prerequisites that need to be met to enable a girl to be a successful assassin.
- She is born under an inauspicious configuration or conjugation of planets. So, she does harm to the one who marries her.
- She has a naturally gifted immune system for absorbing poisons. This was rigorously studied by doctors, and the right girl was selected from hundreds of girls identified for the task.
The selected young girls were raised on a carefully created diet of poison and antidote from an early age by a technique based on similar lines to mithridatism. Many of these girls would die during training.
And the ones who survived and became immune to the various toxins would become human weapons as their bodily fluids became extremely poisonous to others. And any contact, especially sexual contact, would prove fatal to the men who had the bad luck to sleep with them.
And according to Chanakya, once the girls are 'ready,' these damsels will approach their targets by seducing them and giving them poisoned alcohol. They would drink from the same poisonous cup to gain their victim's trust, and he would die instantly when the unsuspecting victim drinks from the same cup.
Legends also say that these girls could sometimes even take down any adversary with a single kiss due to the increasing amounts of snake venom fed to them since the 2nd day of childbirth. So, by the time they reach adolescence, even the minutest quantity of their bodily fluids can prove fatal to anybody coming in touch with them.
And even Aristotle warns his student Alexander the Great about these poison damsels in his treatise Secretum Secretorum (“The Secrets of Secrets”). Aristotle warns him to beware of lavish gifts from Indian kings.
Another Indian legend even suggests that Alexander the Great died due to embracing a damsel given to him as a trophy by the defeated King Porus. While the story might not be true, the deadly stories of these poison damsels had well managed to create shock and fear across the entire ancient world.
The selected girls would be primarily from poor to modest backgrounds who needed support for themselves and their families. They would be trained in all respects and taught various arts, including painting, dancing, poetry, music, singing, drama, and cooking. The King provided them with the best accommodation, jewelry, clothing, food, and comforts. Their teachers would be the best in the kingdom.
As Ashwin Sanghi, an Indian author, describes their training in his book.
“However, there was one golden rule that could never be broken. They each had to drink a glass of specially formulated milk in the evening... Each lactic potion was specifically mixed for a given girl... Between ages six and eight, the girls who showed no signs of pubertal development would be given one kuduba of powder-blue milk formula each day. As they progressed to ages eight and ten and their breast buds began to appear, they would be given two kudubas of a saffron-orange brew every day. From ten to twelve as their pubic hair began to grow, the daily dosage of the concoction went up to three kudubas of a pistachio-green mixture each evening... Between ages fourteen and sixteen, as they went into ovulation and mestruation, they would be fed two adhakas of an almond-brown lactic potion daily.”
Did VishKanyas Really Exist?
There are two conflicting opinions about their existence, one based on Ayurveda and the other based on military training.
As per Ayurveda, India's oldest medicinal system, the vishkanyas, demonstrate the concept of "satmya," which means adaptation through gradual change. The idea says that the human body can be easily adapted and made resistant to any dangerous substance over a while.
This is why we find certain people immune to poor quality water unfit for drinking despite containing toxic substances. The poison girls also became resistant to the ill effects of poison after regular ingestions over a long period.
The other opinion is good old military training. The girls were trained to kill, including extensive knowledge of poisons, weapons, and seductive moves. The girls were tasked to seduce a rival king and administer poison to him while eating and drinking. And in due course, they became so good at their jobs that these damsels acquired larger-than-life images with superhuman powers of killing just 'by touch.'
But one thing is for sure; while the ancient world seems to be masculine, with most feats of rewriting and transforming history done by men, women also have played path-breaking roles behind the curtains by being unglorified, unsung warriors who shaped the world as we see today.
- Ancient India’s Visha Kanyas Were the Original Femme Fatales
- Myth Of The Venomous Visha Kanyas Of Ancient India
- The Venomous Visha Kanyas Versus the Thugs: Which Would You Prefer Were Real?
- Chanakya's Chant - Ashwin Sanghi
- 10 Deadliest Assassin Organizations in History
- How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library
- Who were the vishkanyas
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan