Arrow poison

Arrow poison

Arrow poisons are used to poison arrow heads or darts for the purposes of hunting. They have been used by hunter-gatherer peoples worldwide and are still in use in areas of South America, Africa and Asia.

Notable examples are the poisons secreted from the skin of the poison dart frog and curare (or 'ampi'), a general term for a range of plant-derived arrow poisons used by the indigenous peoples of South America.[1]

Poisoned arrows have featured in mythology, notably the Greek story of Heracles slaying the centaur Nessus using arrows poisoned with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra. The Greek hero Odysseus poisons his arrows with hellebore in Homer's Odyssey. Poisoned arrows also figure in Homer's epic about the Trojan War, the Iliad, in which both Achaeans and Trojans used toxic arrows and spears.[2]

Poison arrows were used by real peoples in the ancient world, including the Gauls, ancient Romans, and the nomadic Scythians and Soanes. Ancient Greek and Roman historians describe recipes for poisoning projectiles and historical battles in which poison arrows were used. Alexander the Great encountered poisoned projectiles during his conquest of India (probably dipped in the venom of Russell's viper) and the army of the Roman general Lucullus suffered grievous poison wounds from arrows shot by nomads during the Third Mithridatic War (1st century BC).[2]

The use of poisoned arrows in hunting and warfare by Native Americans has also been documented.[3]

Over the ages, Chinese warfare has included projectiles poisoned with various nefarious substances.[4]

Baldr's death in the Norse myths features poison arrows.



Arrow poisons around the world are created from many sources:

Plant based poisons

Strychnos toxifera, a plant commonly used in the preparation of curare

Animal-based poisons

The black-legged dart frog, a species of poison dart frog whose secretions are used in the preparation of poison darts.
  • In the northern Kalahari Desert, the most commonly used arrow poison is derived from the larva and pupae of beetles of the genus Diamphidia. It is applied to the arrow either by squeezing the contents of the larva directly onto the arrow head, mixing it with plant sap to act as an adhesive, or by mixing a powder made from the dried larva with plant juices and applying that to the arrow tip. The toxin is slow attacking and large animals can survive 4–5 days before succumbing to the effects.[14]

There is evidence of Pacific Island cultures using poison arrow and spear tips. An account from Hector Holthouse's book "Cannibal Cargoes" P.141 (on the subject of the Australian Pacific Island Labour Trade) describes a canoe, resting on forks in the sand; within the canoe the body of a man rotting in the sun. The unsealed canoe allowing the putrefaction to collect in a knotched shallow bowl in which arrow heads and spear tips are soaked. Wounds with these weapons caused terrible tetanus infection.


The following 17th century account describes how arrow poisons were prepared in China:

"In making poison arrows for shooting wild beasts, the tubers of wild aconitum are boiled in water. The resulting liquid, being highly viscous and poisonous, is smeared on the sharp edges of arrowheads. These treated arrowheads are effective in the quick killing of both human beings and animals, even though the victim may shed only a trace of blood."[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Curare". Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  2. ^ a b Mayor, Adrienne (2009). Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Revised ed.). The Overlook Press. ISBN 9781590201770. 
  3. ^ Jones, David E (2007). Poison Arrows: North American Indian Hunting and Warfare. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292714281. 
  4. ^ Sawyer, Ralph D (2007). The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465072057. 
  5. ^ "Definition of inee". Webster's International Dictionary. 1913. Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  6. ^ a b "Poisoned arrows". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2006-08-10. 
  7. ^ St. George, George (1974). Soviet Deserts and Mountains. Amsterdam: Time-Life International. 
  8. ^ Peissel, Michel (1984). The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas. London Harvill Press. pp. 99–100. 
  9. ^ Hooker, Joseph Dalton (1854). Himalayan Journals or Notes of a Naturalist. London: John Murray. p. 168. Retrieved 2006-09-17. 
  10. ^ Hutton, J. H. (July 1924). "The occurrence of the Blow-Gun in Assam". Man (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 24: 106. 
  11. ^ a b Song, Yingxing; Sun, Shiou-chuan; Sun, E-tu Zen (1996). Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century: T'ien-kung K'ai-wu. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. p. 267. ISBN 9780486295930. 
  12. ^ Chavannes, Édouard. “Trois Généraux Chinois de la dynastie des Han Orientaux. Pan Tch’ao (32-102 p.C.); – son fils Pan Yong; – Leang K’in (112 p.C.). Chapitre LXXVII du Heou Han chou.”. 1906. T’oung pao 7, pp. 226-227.
  13. ^ Jones, David E (2007). Poison Arrows: North American Indian Hunting and Warfare. University of Texas Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780292714281. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  14. ^ "How San hunters use beetles to poison their arrows". Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Archived from the original on 2006-05-06. Retrieved 2006-08-09. 

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