Thumbs up for Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. History.
If you’re wondering why: I have to read this kind of thing for research. At least, I have to study it. I don’t have to read it cover-to-cover. But in this case, I happily did; because let’s face it, if you’re the kind of person who read the subtitle and thought “Scorpion bombs?! Tell me more!” then this book is pretty freaking awesome. Plus, not only does Mayor cover “unusual” ancient weaponry in great detail, she discusses the reactions of ancient peoples to their use, from an ethical and emotional perspective. (That makes it sound way more boring than it is.) If you ever get sent back in time a thousand years, and have a moment to pack first, this one’s necessary luggage.
Strangers unfamiliar with the delicious honey made from poison flowers [the rhododendron!] are liable to overdose, like Xenophon’s soldiers who eagerly devoured the honeycombs. I interviewed an American anthropology student who barely survived a bout with toxic honey in the 1970s, in Nepal, where great rhododendron forests thrive. His hosts, nomadic yak herders, had warned him about the dangers of wild honey, and told him how to distinguish toxic from safe honey – one method is to hold a handful: a tingling sensation indicates toxicity. But the student also knew that the herders purposely gathered the toxic honey. Assuming that it was a hallucinogenic drug, he sought out a hive in the rhododendron forest, identified the toxic honey, and ate an ounce or so. The high began pleasantly enough, he recalled, but soon turned ferocious. Tingling and numbness progressed to vertigo, severe vomiting, and diarrhea. His speech became garbled and the psychedelic visual effects were frightening, with whirling colored lights and tunnel vision. Delirious, he was able to reach the village just before muscle paralysis caused complete collapse. The villagers nursed him back from near death. A few days later, following the same course of recovery experienced by Xenophon’s men, the student was still weak, but able to stand. Later, he learned that the herders fed tiny doses to their livestock as a spring tonic. They told him the amount he had ingested was enough to kill a huge Tibetan mastiff.
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