6 Legendary Poisons and 1 Legendary Antidote

iStock.com/AurelianGogonea
iStock.com/AurelianGogonea

The line between true crime and legend can be a blurry one, and in a time before toxicology tests and forensic pathology, stories of mysterious poisons with chameleon-like properties abounded. Here are six legendary poisons, which may or may not have actually existed, and the one antidote to counter them all.

1. GU

Gu was an ancient Chinese poison with magical properties that was said to have been created by enclosing multiple venomous animals such as snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes, and assorted insects in a box. They would eat each other until there was only one left, a creature now replete with the toxins of all its digested fellows. A supervenom could then be extracted from the beast and used to kill, cause disease, or create black magic love charms.

Victims of gu poisoning were said to die vomiting blood or when all the food they ingested came back to life inside their stomachs. Gu could even kill from a distance, its malevolent spirit doing all the work with no need for actual poisoning. 

2. PARYSATIS'S ONE-SIDE-OF-THE-KNIFE POISON

Parysatis, mother of Persian King Artaxerxes II (435 or 445 BC-358 BCE), did not get along with her daughter-in-law Stateira. Furious that Stateira was taking her place in her son's affections, Parysatis hatched a plan to get her out of the way. A simple poisoning wouldn't do, because due to their mutual suspicion of each other, they both ate from the same dishes prepared by the same cook. To get past this obstacle, Parysatis smeared an unknown poison on one side of her knife and then cut into a small roasted bird which, according to Plutarch, "has no excrement, but is all full of fat inside; and the creature is thought to live upon air and dew." She gave Stateira the half of the legendary bird that the poisoned side of the blade had touched and ate the clean side herself.

Stateira died a painful death, but Parysatis's victory proved Pyrrhic. Wracked with convulsions on her deathbed, Stateira convinced her husband that his mother was responsible for her murder. Artaxerxes tortured his mother's servants and attendants, executed her most trusted maidservant, and exiled Parysatis to Babylon. They never saw each other again.

3. EITR

In Norse mythology, the liquid eitr is both the source of life and a means to end it. When fragments of ice from Niflheim (the primordial ice realm of the north) encountered sparks from Muspelheim (the primordial realm of fire to the south) in the Ginnungagap, the yawning void between the realms, the ice melted. This runoff was eitr, the generative substance which created the giant Ymir. The gods fashioned the earth from Ymir's flesh, the oceans from his blood, the mountains from his bones, the trees from his hair, the clouds from his brain. Midgard, the realm of men, was made from Ymir's eyebrows.

Eitr was thus responsible for the world and all life on it, but it was also a deadly poison, strong enough to kill gods. According to Norse mythology, at the great final battle of Ragnarök, the sea serpent Jörmungandr, which encircles Midgard, will rise from the ocean to poison the sky. Thor will slay the beast, but because Jörmungandr's blood is eitr, Thor will only walk nine paces before dying from the poison.

In Scandinavian folklore, the legendary liquid of life and death became synonymous with deadly toxins. Eitr is the word for poison in Old Icelandic, eitur in modern Icelandic.

4. THE BORGIA'S SLOW-ACTING WHITE POWDER/CANTARELLA

The Borgia family is now inextricably associated with poison. It all began with Cem, the half-brother of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II and thorn in his side. Bayezid kept his half-brother as far away from him as possible, with Cem eventually lodging with Pope Innocent VIII, and after his death in 1492, his successor Alexander VI (1431-1503), the infamous Rodrigo Borgia. In exchange for hosting his troublesome half-brother indefinitely, Bayezid paid a huge amount up front and another less huge but still enormous amount yearly.

The gravy train ended in September of 1494 when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and marched down the boot to take the Kingdom of Naples, which he planned to use as a launching pad for a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem. The Pope, alarmed by Charles's rapid advance, allied with Florence and engaged him in a couple of skirmishes which Charles's army won handily. When he reached Rome on December 31, 1494, Charles forced Pope Alexander to hand over Prince Cem. The French left Rome on January 28, 1495, with Cem in tow. On February 25, after a week's illness, Cem died.

Rumors that Cem had been poisoned by the Borgia pope started almost immediately, despite the fact that the Pope lost 45,000 ducats a year and a most useful tool of manipulation against the Ottoman Sultan when Cem died. The long gap between the last time they were together and the Sultan's death was explained with a most convenient device: a mysterious slow-acting white powder of unknown composition that could be administered one day and kill weeks later. So handy was this device that it was soon employed to explain the death of anyone who ever brushed up against the Borgias.

The mysterious white powder soon evolved into a poison of legendary versatility. A single dose could kill instantly, in a few days or in months. It was white as snow with a pleasant taste that mixed easily and undetectably in any food or beverage. It could be imbued in objects like cups and boots, making them fatal to the touch, or in candles, making their smoke deadly. It was dubbed la cantarella, and rumor had it that Pope Alexander VI, his son Cesare Borgia, and his daughter Lucrezia Borgia all made ample use of it.

Some historians posit cantarella may have been an arsenic compound, or perhaps a cantharidin powder made from crushed blister beetles, but the sources are wildly inconsistent about who was killed when under what circumstances. One oft-repeated story, contradicted by contemporary diaries but promoted by chroniclers for centuries, held that Alexander VI died when he and Cesare were somehow served the cantarella-laced wine intended for one or more cardinals. Alexander fell forward, struck instantly dead. Cesare survived long enough thanks to his youth and strength to have himself stuffed into the carcass of a bull. The bull carcass saved his life, and he emerged from it fresh and dewy as a newborn babe while the blackened and bloated corpse of his father putrefied at an accelerated rate.

5. AQUA TOFANA

Reputedly the invention of a 17th century Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana, Aqua Tofana was colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and sometimes believed to have been a compound of, variously, arsenic, Spanish Fly, pennywort, and/or snapdragon. It could supposedly kill with exceptional precision: doses could be calculated to kill immediately, in a week, a month, or years later, for the poisoner who wanted the plausibility of a slow decline. Some stories say victims gradually lost all their hair and teeth and shriveled up until they finally died in agony. Others insist there were no acute symptoms at all, that victims simply fell into a languor from which they never recovered. The poison was usually added to food, but it could also be applied to the cheek if the victim was likely to kiss it. 

Giulia bottled her deadly liquid in innocuous-looking vials. Since most of her customers were women looking to do away with their husbands, the bottles appeared to be cosmetics, indistinguishable from the other nostrums and remedies on a lady's vanity. Most deviously of all, Aqua Tofana was sold as the "manna" of St. Nicholas of Bari, an oil said to ooze from the tomb of St. Nicholas, which was widely sold for its miraculous curative properties in a bottle painted with the image of the saint (see image above).

The story goes (and there are no reliable contemporary sources for any of this) that Giulia Tofana plied her trade from her teenaged years until her seventies, moving from Sicily to Naples to Rome, always a step ahead of the authorities. She fled to a convent where she lived for 20 years, still dealing in poison, under the protection of the abbess, until finally soldiers broke down the door and arrested her in 1709. Other versions of the story have her taking sanctuary in a church, where the soldiers busted her in 1659. Under torture, she confessed to poisoning 600 men. She and her accomplices, including her daughter, were executed. Or strangled by a mob—versions differ.

Pope Clement XIV (1705-1774) was rumored to have been a victim of Aqua Tofana, as was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1829, 38 years after his death, his widow Constanze told Mozart enthusiasts Vincent and Mary Novello that on his deathbed he had declared "I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea ... Someone has given me Acqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death."

6. POUDRE DE SUCCESSION

The poudre de succession, or "inheritance powder," was named for its prowess in disposing of troublesome heirs. It was supposedly the invention of one of France's most notorious poisoners, Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers (1630-1676). Different sources claim the poudre was composed of ground glass, sugar of lead, a powdered version of Aqua Tofana, and everybody's favorite fallback, arsenic. It was said to be so deadly, a mere whiff of it would kill instantly.

Her career as a poisoner began when her father Antoine Dreux d'Aubray had her lover Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix imprisoned in the Bastille. Sainte-Croix's cellmate was an Italian fellow called Exili who had extensive knowledge of poisons, which he generously shared with his new friend. Upon his release, Sainte-Croix shared his newfound learning with the Marquise, who experimented with different compositions, handing out poisoned bread to unsuspecting paupers in hospital wards where she so charitably volunteered her time.

Her first deliberate target was her father. He died under her care in 1666. That was for revenge. When she killed her brothers Antoine and François d'Aubray in 1670, it was for the inheritance. Other mysterious deaths around them were later attributed to poisoned pigeon pies served at her elegant dinners. In 1672 Sainte-Croix died, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps from inhaling his own product. He left behind a red leather box full of poisons and all of Madame de Brinvilliers's correspondence, which detailed their nefarious activities.

She fled the country, finally winding up in a convent in Liège where she was found by a gendarme named Degrais who had disguised himself as a priest and arranged a naughty tryst with the suspect. When she showed up, Degrais arrested her. In Paris she was subjected to the water cure torture, i.e., forced to drink 16 pints of water, whereupon she confessed to all her crimes. She was beheaded and her body burned.

BONUS ANTIDOTE: MITHRIDATUM

King Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus (134-63 BC) was paranoid, and justifiably so. His mother had poisoned his father to death and ruled as regent during his minority. Even as a child he suspected she was plotting to do to him what she had done to his dad so she could install his brother on the throne. When he found himself getting sicker and sicker, he ran away into the wilderness where he dedicated himself to developing an immunity to every other poison he could find.

It worked. As an adult, Mithradates was reputed to be unpoisonable. He supposedly created a universal antidote that could counter any poison. After his defeat in the Third Mithridatic War, Pompey the Great found a recipe in Mithridates’s own handwriting that featured dried walnuts, figs, rue leaves, and a pinch of salt. Pompey brought it back to Rome. In 30 CE, a version of this recipe was published in Book V of De Medicina by Aulus Cornelius Celsus.

Mithridatum, and its Greek cognate theriac, continued to be made in a wide variety of complex formulations for the next 1800 years. It had so many ingredients, some very hard to find, and took so long to produce that it was enormously expensive. Only the wealthy could afford invulnerability.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER