History for the fantasy buff: Poison arrows

What do we know about the historical use of poison arrows?

They’ve been in use for pretty much all of recorded history. You’ll find many references to them in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

A wide variety of toxins have been used to poison arrows:

  • Snake venom. May have been the first poison used on arrows.
  • Black and white hellebore. This plant was so dangerous to collect that there were a number of superstitious rituals associated with harvesting it.
  • Aconite (also known as monkshood or wolfbane).
  • Henbane.
  • In South America, poison arrow frogs.
  • Curare.
  • Belladonna (nightshade).

Archers who routinely used poison arrows, such as the Scythians, often had specialized equipment for handling their deadly arrows without accidentally poisoning themselves. The Scythians kept their poison in a cup or vial attached to their belt. They would draw an arrow from their quiver, dip it in the poison cup, and then shoot it.

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9 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Poison arrows

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    Cool info. I like the poison cup idea. It must have had a lid on it or the poison would spill. Like a poison sippy cup thingy.

    • Amy Raby says:

      I imagine it did (poison sippy cup? eek!). From my reading, it looks like a lot of precautions were taken in handling the poisons, because accidental poisoning of the archer himself was greatly feared.

  2. Thomas says:

    Ancient archers often times also used their own fecal matter in order to infect their arrows. While this did not have an immediate impact, it would fester on the night after a battle and render the enemy inoperable for the next day.

  3. I really love your detailed research and the cool stuff you share about it. 🙂

  4. This is awesome. I’m stealing it for a future story.

  5. Mithradates Eupator says:

    for more information on poison weapons and tactics in antiquity, see Adrienne Mayor’s “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World”

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