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Malthus
02-12-2010, 09:57 AM
It's a long-established trope in fantasy fiction - the deady assassin with his needle-sharp dagger, throwing star or or dart, tipped with deadly poision. One scratch and the victim, a helpless guard, drops writhing to the the ground, dead - instantly!

Now, we all know that there are nerve toxins these days that can, in fact, more or less do this. But what of the past? Did your pre-modern chemisty assassin in real life actually have access to poisions that worked in that manner, that could be stored on a blade? What would they be - cobra venom or the like? Is there any hard evidence that this sort of thing was ever actually done?

[Ignore for the moment the far more likely poisioning of a person's food - thinking only of poisioned weapons]

Labdad
02-12-2010, 10:12 AM
Curare (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curare) is one that comes to mind immediately. Mentioned by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1596.

Malthus
02-12-2010, 10:16 AM
Curare (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curare) is one that comes to mind immediately. Mentioned by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1596.


That's an excellent example, but from what I understand it was used by south american hunter gatherers. Are there any historical accounts of european or asian assassins getting ahold of curare and using it?

Kobal2
02-12-2010, 10:34 AM
Doesn't really count as "poison" per se, but some medieval dirty fighters used to smear their blades with dirt or, hah, feces before a battle. That way, even if the wounds inflicted weren't fatal, the subsequent infection surely would. That being said, death-by-sepsis is a slow process, and definitely not a one scratch = instant death thing.

However, the Greeks certainly knew their poisons - the English word "toxic" comes from the Greek toxikon, meaning "(poison) used on arrows". It was made with or from yew. Yew toxin apparently (Wikipedia to the rescue !) stops cellular reproduction altogether, which I'm going to assume is a Bad Thing, but that doesn't tell me how fast this kills the victim. Probably not an instant drop-dead either, though.

Kobal2
02-12-2010, 10:44 AM
My bad - it appears stopping cellular reproduction is only part of the deal, that part used in cancer treatment : taxine (yew poison) kills by causing hypotension and heart failure. That could be faster, then :)

WotNot
02-12-2010, 11:04 AM
That's an excellent example, but from what I understand it was used by south american hunter gatherers. Are there any historical accounts of european or asian assassins getting ahold of curare and using it?

According to this Wikipedia page, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_poison) poisoned arrows have been used just about all over the world since – ooh, forever.

Malthus
02-12-2010, 11:11 AM
According to this Wikipedia page, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_poison) poisoned arrows have been used just about all over the world since ooh, forever.

That makes very interesting reading, but it also raises a question in my mind - namely, why did folks like the Romans, who used poisioned weapons in the ancient past, eventually stop using poision as a weapon?

WotNot
02-12-2010, 04:19 PM
That makes very interesting reading, but it also raises a question in my mind - namely, why did folks like the Romans, who used poisioned weapons in the ancient past, eventually stop using poision as a weapon?

If I had to guess (and I don't but I'm going to give it a shot anyway), I'd hazard that they simply didn't have a toxin powerful enough to make it worth the trouble. It's difficult to get much poison onto a bladed weapon, so to deliver enough to trouble a big strapping warrior quickly enough to matter, you'd probably need quite a large blade driven some distance into his body. Once you've done that, though, the poison probably seems like an unnecessarily fussy detail.

Here's fun riddle, though: why is poison like the cyclops?

wierdaaron
02-12-2010, 04:36 PM
You live in a jungle environment. You see someone touch a frog, they die within minutes. You think, man, if only I could make my enemies touch this frog.

You try throwing the frog at your enemies, but they just hop away.

You think to yourself, how can I have whatever makes this frog kill people go farther than a frog can be thrown?

Anne Neville
02-12-2010, 04:51 PM
to deliver enough to trouble a big strapping warrior quickly enough to matter, you'd probably need quite a large blade driven some distance into his body. Once you've done that, though, the poison probably seems like an unnecessarily fussy detail.

The poison increases the danger of a soldier somehow harming himself with his own weapon, or the danger of a "friendly fire" type situation. This is especially true if you're using a poison like aconite (which the Chinese used in warfare) that can be absorbed through the skin.

The poison is one more thing that you have to worry about in terms of logistics. You have to produce or gather it in sufficient quantities, transport it to wherever you're going to be fighting, store it in a way that won't make it lose its potency, and get it distributed to your men. If you want a bigger army with poisoned weapons, you have to figure out a way to get more poison. That could be a problem if your poison comes from an animal or plant that you can't domesticate, or if the poison is difficult to make.

Kobal2
02-12-2010, 09:12 PM
That makes very interesting reading, but it also raises a question in my mind - namely, why did folks like the Romans, who used poisioned weapons in the ancient past, eventually stop using poision as a weapon?

My guess would be : civilization happened. The Romans had an interest in winning the hearts and minds of the people they conquered - what good does it do to subjugate some barbarian tribe, if they're going to revolt as soon as your back is turned, just because you fought dirty ? Poisoning wells doesn't make anyone any friends...

Besides, I could see their martial, tough guy culture playing a part in this too, as in : a real tough guy doesn't need that sneaky crap to stick his spatha deep in some frothing barbarian's guts and twist it.

njtt
02-12-2010, 09:18 PM
The thread title made me wonder what postmodern poisons might be like.

Maybe the stuff in Neuromancer (I think) that made your bones grow out of control.

Kobal2
02-15-2010, 03:35 AM
No. Post-modern poisons are the same as modern poisons, but they're given ironically and in de-constructive fashion.

:)

Bytegeist
02-15-2010, 08:41 AM
You think to yourself, how can I have whatever makes this frog kill people go farther than a frog can be thrown?

Then you think: frog catapult!

Or at least I do.

TruCelt
02-15-2010, 08:53 AM
The Dread Pirate Roberts used Iocaine powder. But I've heard you can build up a tolerance to it. . .

Anne Neville
02-15-2010, 08:56 AM
Besides, I could see their martial, tough guy culture playing a part in this too, as in : a real tough guy doesn't need that sneaky crap to stick his spatha deep in some frothing barbarian's guts and twist it.

If they did give up poison as a weapon for cultural reasons (because they thought it was unmanly, or something like that), it wouldn't be something that has never been done by any other civilization. The Japanese abandoned guns at one point because they didn't like the changes they brought to warfare. The US could use poison gas weapons in war now, but we don't, because our culture says that using chemical weapons on an enemy is bad in a way that shooting and killing them isn't.

Dr. Drake
02-15-2010, 09:43 AM
Did the Romans, in fact, give up using poison weapons in war? They certainly seemed to poison each other a lot in civilian life right up through the end of the Western Empire.

casdave
02-15-2010, 12:09 PM
I wonder if Ricin was a known poison in the ancient world, not always quick acting but certainly very fatal even in minute quantities.

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