by Adrienne Mayor (regular contributor)
Can one drink snake venom and live to tell the story, as in an ancient tale from the Caucasus?
Snake bite and venoms were much dreaded in classical antiquity. Scythian archers of the Caucasus region and steppes north of the Black Sea were notorious for deadly arrows dipped in snake venom and other noxious substances. Recipes for Scythian arrow poison called for venom, rotted viper corpses, human blood, and animal dung mixed in a leather pouch and allowed to putrefy. Even a scratch contaminated with such a concoction of venom and pathogens would cause a fatal suppurating wound.
King Mithradates VI of Pontus on the Black Sea was celebrated for his universal antidote, said to make him immune to all poisons and venoms. The recipe is lost but venom and minced viper were among the reported ingredients in his Mithridatium. Mithradates demonstrated his immunity by drinking snake venom with no ill effects. Mithradates understood that snake venom can be ingested safely as long as it does not enter the blood stream, through abrasions in the mouth, throat, or the digestive tract (see http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2012/08/treating-snake-bite-in-antiquity.html)
Drinking snake venom figures in some interesting ancient tales from Circassia and Abkhazia (between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea) recently translated by John Colarusso in Nart Sagas from the Caucasus. In one saga, foes plot to kill a powerful hero by placing seven poisonous snakes in a large drinking horn. Another story features Narjkhyaw, a superhero with a mustache of steel. His enemies offer him a cup of wine mixed with a soup of venom, blood, and flesh of two poisonous snakes, one from the mountains and one from the seashore, both red. The Caucasian viper (Vipera kaznakovi), Black Sea viper (Vipera pontica), and Orlov’s viper have dark red and black patterns.
In the tale, Narjkhyaw compels two of his enemies to drink first and they die horribly. But when he drains the cup, his steel mustache strains out the poisons. Setting down the cup, he casually picks the snake bones out of his mustache and “his stomach did not even rumble.” The story suggests that the venom was digested harmlessly while the decomposed snake flesh, infected with lethal bacteria, was filtered out by the hero’s metal mustache.
Further reading: Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy; Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs; John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus (Princeton University Press, 2002 paperback forthcoming 2016)