According to legend, it was the great Hercules who first dipped his arrow in the poisonous venom of the Hydra thus inventing the first biological weapon. Hercules used his arrows against many foes such as the centaur Nessus who kidnapped his wife Deianeira. Hercules dipped his arrows in the mythical many-headed Hydra but there were much easier ways to poison your arrow tips. Poisonous snakes and insects were widely used in the Middle East to make their arrow tips deadly. But the most common arrow poisons come from plants such as hellebore, wolfbane, henbane, yew tree, and belladonna . Hellebore was used in both war and medicine (Mayor). When used as a poison, Hellebore would cause swelling of the tongue, vomiting slowing of the heart rate and finally death (Wikipedia). Wolfbane was also very deadly. When pierced with a wolfbane dipped arrow, you would drool and vomit followed by paralysis and death. Henbane was to be gathered without touching the plant in any way or one would suffer from seizures, psychosis and then death (Pliny). All of these poisons bring about a terrible and painful death to those who are unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of the toxic arrows.
Poison has always been seen as a villainous and treacherous tactic to subdue the enemy. There are many ways to poison the enemy without shooting arrows at them. Poisoning wells are a common way to quickly annihilate the enemy and break down the defenses of cities. Hellebore was commonly used to poison the wells. Hellebore was used to attack the strong defensed city of Kirrha around 590 BCE (Mayor). The soldiers of the Greek City States gathered and threw a large amount of hellebore roots into the river Pleistos and caused the city “never-ending diarrhea” (Pausanius). Wolfbane was also used to contaminate wells. Dead bodies were also used to contaminate the waters. Mayor describes a river near Delphi where the Centaur Nessus was said to have died from Hercules arrow. The rotting corpse of Nessus contaminated the water and caused violent diarrhea for the unsuspecting drinker (Mayor).
The myth of the Hercules and the Hydra serves as a cautionary tale against poison. Poisoning your arrows was considered in both the east and the west as dishonorable. Hercules kills many enemies with the poisoned arrows but he also caused the death of many of his friends. His friend Chiron was killed by one of Hercules stray arrows. Hercules was also responsible for indirectly ending his own life. The centaur Nessus got his revenge on Hercules by tricking Hercules’ wife into smearing a vial of his own poisoned blood onto a garment which was then given to Hercules. Hercules died a fiery and painful death just as his enemies had because of his hydra poisoned arrows. Homer also criticized the hero Odysseus for poisoning his arrows (Mayor). Odysseus met his end when he himself was struck with spear poisoned with the venom in a stingray’s spine (Homer).
Elder, Pliny the. The Natural History. Ed. John Bostock and H.T. Riley. Trans. H. Rackham. Perseus, n.d.
Homer. The Illiad. Ed. Bernard Knox. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books , 1996.
Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: The Overlook Press, 2003.
Pausanius. Description of Greece. Trans. W. H. S. Jones. Fordham University Press, n.d.
Polyaenus. Stratagems of War. Ed. Attalus.org. Trans. R. Shepherd. n.d.
Wikipedia. Hellebore. en.wikipedia.org, n.d. April 2012.