By Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels contributor)
Pliny the Elder claimed there was an antidote for every snake venom, except cobra. Aelian agreed that the victim of cobra bite was “beyond help.” Some ancient antidotes, such as rue, myrrh, tannin, and curdled milk, were at least harmless; others were dangerous, and still others downright silly, such as boiled frogs, dried weasel, and hippopotamus testicle.
It was well known that natives of lands with venomous creatures such as snakes or scorpions often developed some immunity to the toxins. Some people’s resistance was so powerful that their breath or saliva was supposed to cure snake bites. According to the Romans, the Psylli of North Africa were so habituated to snake bite that their spit was an effective antivenin. Antivenin is derived from antibodies to live snake venom, and the implication was that Psylli immunity was achieved by an antiserum principle. Psylli saliva was eagerly sought by Romans during Cato’s Civil War campaigns in North Africa (first century BC). Lucan described the “unspeakable horrors” of viper bites until some Psylli joined Cato’s army to treat the constant stream of bitten soldiers. Lucan claimed the Psylli could identify the species of snake by the taste of the venom. The Psylli encouraged the notion of special immunity to boost their monopoly on curing envenomed wounds. Psylli practitioners soon set up shop in Rome, selling snake venoms and antidotes.
The best-known ancient remedy for snake bite was to suck out the venom by mouth. But this technique could be hazardous. The death of a snake-handler in Rome in 88 BC demonstrates the peril. Bitten by one of his cobras, he sucked out the poison himself. Aelian reported the fatal result: the venom “reduced his gums and mouth to putrescence” and spread through his body. Two days later he was dead. To avoid just such an accident, Trojan doctors used leeches, while Indian doctors stuffed a wad of linen in their mouths as a filter. The Roman physician Celsus recommended using a suction cup.
The reputation of Psylli saliva for neutralizing serpent venom was probably a misunderstanding by observers who saw a Psylli healer sucking out venom, noted Celsus. Their skill actually came from “boldness confirmed by experience.” Celsus pointed out that anyone “who follows the example of the Psylli and sucks out a wound will be safe,” provided that “he has no sore place on his gums, palate, or mouth.”
Indeed, snake venom can be digested safely, as long as no internal abrasions allow it to enter the bloodstream. This year, 13,000 soldiers from 20 nations in the US Marines’ jungle training course “Cobra Gold 2012” in Thailand drank cobra blood, a safe ritual that bestows confidence if not full immunity.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009) and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.