Words to the wise: Poison arrows

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 08 March 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:j
  1. Grant Hutchinson, consultant anaesthetist in Dundee

    In 1542 the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, ensconced aboard a tiny two masted ship, drifted down river for 4000 kilometres through the steaming South American jungle. On his return to Spain, he told (among other things) of the poisoned arrow with which the natives had killed one of his companions. The arrow poison, curare, became part of the practice of anaesthesia exactly 400 years later.

    We'll return to Orellana at the end of this piece, but move for now to ancient Greece, where arrow poison was well known. The Greek word for a bow was toxon. Arrow poison was toxicon pharmacon: toxicon, an arrow, and pharmacon, poison. The Romans derived the Latin word for poison by shortening toxicon pharmacon to toxicum. They had got the wrong end of the pointed stick, so to speak, and our English word toxin perpetuates their confusion. The original meaning of toxon is with us still, though, in toxophily (archery), toxocara (a nematode with a bow shaped head), and toxoplasma (a bow shaped organism).

    The Greek usage of pharmacon is perhaps a little surprising, since it is the origin of our word pharmacy, but it reflects the transition between poison and potion that can be made by many drugs, including curare. That linkage appears again in the derivation of the word venom: the Latin venenum may actually have been a love potion, taking its name from the goddess Venus. And, indeed, poison and potion share a common root in Latin potare, to drink. There is probably a connection, too, with Irish poteen, a substance that hovers on the dangerous borderland between potions and poisons.

    Drugs, then, were as likely to kill as cure, and antidotes were always welcome. Kings of ancient Persia, who were often targets for wilful poisoning, liked to keep a calculus from the intestinal tract of the Persian mountain goat at the bottom of their wine cups. Its porous structure may actually have absorbed some poisons, and it was credited with magical protective powers. It was called padzahr, “against poison,” in Persian, and the derived word bezoar is still used to designate large, unpleasant gastrointestinal concretions.

    The Scythians were distant nomadic relatives of the Persians, and they occupied the southern Ukrainian plains during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The landscape is still dotted with their burial mounds, and a fifth of the female burials are found to be accompanied by bows, arrows, and armour: female warriors, buried with honour. The existence of such women was rather disturbing for the patriarchal society of ancient Greece, and Greek storytellers (presumably male) spun tales of how these wild women burnt off their right breasts, the better to pull back a bowstring. They used a word that is still in the medical lexicon today, indicating an absence of breasts: amazia. They called the warrior women Amazons.

    And 2000 years later in South America, Francisco de Orellana found himself dodging poisoned arrows that were being fired by women. The experience provided him with a name for the river he was following: the Amazon.


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