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Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part 2

If you missed part one of this series, you can check it out here.

So… poisoned anyone lately?

Based on the comments on Part One, it seems that subtle murder is a well-endorsed method of killing for writers who read Fantasy-Faction. Uh, in the sense that their characters do the killing. Fictionally.

*ahem*

Now, I do want to give this word of caution to those of you taking notes and considering some of the many wonderful ways to poison your characters—remember that, like any weapon, poison must be used in a way that’s natural to the story and the person using it. A battle-scarred warrior might never consider using poison, thinking it’s a cowardly way to kill a person, while a devious advisor might find it the perfect way to “off” someone without getting his hands dirty.

Also, for that extra dose of realism, consider using a poison that would grow naturally in the climate your story is set in. For those who love worldbuilding, it’s a great opportunity to expand on your world, and might even provide an extra opportunity for conflict, particularly if the person who needs the poison has to find, harvest, and extract it herself.

And with that, let’s continue our journey through some common poisons found in Medieval Europe.

Poison #4: Poison Hemlock (Coniine) – Europe

Best known for its role in the death of Socrates, poison hemlock has also enjoyed such common names as “bad man’s oatmeal” and “Devil’s Porridge”. The scientific name for the plant is conium maculatum, where conium comes from the Greek word konas, to whirl…referring to the vertigo which, perhaps not surprisingly, is one of the symptoms of ingesting poison hemlock.

As a member of the carrot family, it has in the past been mistaken for young carrot plants or, more commonly, parsley. It’s also part of the plant family that includes herbs like dill, fennel, and the poisonous-in-large-quantities anise. Poison hemlock can grow to over eight feet tall in one growing season alone, and also produces lovely little flowers that resemble the harmless Queen Anne’s lace…perfect for the unsuspecting child or handmaid to bring back to decorate a sitting room or bedroom.

What does it do? We have a very detailed description of what happens to a victim of hemlock poisoning, thanks to Plato’s writings after witnessing the death of his tutor Socrates in 399 AD. As a neurotoxin, the poison disrupts the working of the central nervous system and will cause ascending muscular paralysis, starting in the feet or legs. Once it reaches the lungs and the heart, unless the victim is given artificial respiration for 48-72 hours (depending on the dose ingested, and also unlikely in a fantasy setting), the victim will die due to oxygen depletion to the heart and brain.

It’s also worth noting that it seems, from descriptions of those who’ve died by poison hemlock, the death isn’t necessarily painful, and the victims stay relatively lucid until the moment of death. So this may be a good choice as a poison for someone who doesn’t want their victim to suffer, but still feels the need to end that person’s life.

Poison #5: Toxic Blue-Green Algae (Cyanobacteria) – Everywhere

Also known as “pond scum”, toxic algae is native to everywhere and all time periods, even appearing in the fossil record from over three million years ago. While not technically a plant, because it occurs in nature and can be easily accessed by humans, it remains a viable form of poison for someone who knows what they’re doing.

Toxic blue-green algae forms under a variety of circumstances, but you’re mostly likely to have it form in standing water and during a period of warmer weather. The toxicity of the algae is dependent on the concentration in the water, the amount consumed, and the species consuming the algae (human or animal, child or adult, and so forth).

Apparently, present-day scientists are still trying to figure out what makes otherwise normal algae bloom release poisons into the air or water, but regardless of why, it’s not something any living creature wants to consume, breathe, or come in contact with.

What does it do? Within 15-20 minutes of consumption, victims may show signs similar to that of neurotoxin poisoning, though symptoms can vary. In humans, common symptoms are dizziness, tingling in the extremities, and numbness around the mouth and lips. Symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain may come hours or days later and indicate liver poisoning. One interesting toxin released by blue-green algae is something called ‘domoic acid’; domoic acid poisoning can appear when a victim ingests shellfish that have eaten certain algae species, for which there is currently no known treatment.

This poison provides would-be killers with a wide variety of delivery methods, from sending the victim swimming in an area with known algae growth (particularly if the poisoner knows animals have already died from drinking here), presenting someone with algae-poisoned water or baked goods, or even simply storing a vessel of contaminated water in the victim’s room and waiting for the algae to bloom. The downside is that it can be difficult to poison for specific symptoms or death, because the poisoner would have to already be aware of deaths that came as a result of exposure to the plant.

Plant #6: Yew (Taxane) – Central, South, and Western Europe, Northeast Africa, Middle East, Southwest Asia

“Oooh, yummy red berries… and look, the birds are eating them! How tasty, I’ll have another one… *yawn*… and maybe just lay down here for a quick nap…”

…and then never wake up? Ah, yes. The allure of the English or European yew tree—lovely to look at, and tempting to take a bite from, and even better if you never want to wake up again.

In England, the yew is commonly known as “the graveyard tree”, though actually for more of an historical reason than anything ominous. Roman invaders to England used to hold church services under yew trees, and thus ancient yews are still occasionally found next to churches in England—just like graveyards.

Nearly every part of the yew tree is poisonous, with one small exception: the flesh of its bright, red berries. However, inside the aril is a poisonous seed, which can easily be ingested by accident. The color and shape of the berries is highly tempting for children, animals, and hungry passers-by, but eating even just a few seeds or leaves can be fatal.

What does it do? Upon ingestion, the heart rate will drop rapidly and, depending on the amount eaten, the heart may fail completely. One veterinary medicine article has been quoted as saying that “often, the first evidence of yew toxicosis is unexpected death.” Another medical text notes that many victims are unable to describe their symptoms because they’re simply found, well, dead. At the very least, it’s undeniable evidence that eating yew kills quickly and effectively! Convulsions, muscle tremors, and difficulty breathing are also known symptoms of ingestion.

Even writers in ancient times knew how deadly this plant could be, with Pliny the Elder noting that drinking vessels made of yew wood and filled with wine could poison the drinker. There have also been rumors that archers with yew wood bows have died from handling their weapon too much, which presents plenty of intriguing possibilities in a fantasy setting.

– – –

Whether your poisoner wants to take the easy (but often painful) neurotoxin route, or is a more creative type that prefers to add a bit of character flair to his or her murders (ah, the joyous complexities of blue-green algae and ergot), there are many varieties of death to choose from! Of course, these aren’t all of them, but simply a taste to get you started and to hopefully spark your imagination.

Yes, it’s fantasy—but adding that extra little dose of reality is what can make your story sing. Or, I should say, stop your characters from singing at all.

Because they’re dead.

Realistically.

*ahem*

Title image by Biberta.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Such an amazing couple of articles this has been, Faith. I feel sorry for my characters who are now going to be poisoned… although take comfort in knowing at least they will suffer realistically 😉

  2. Avatar RobJHayes says:

    Good couple of articles. Have you thought about doing a part 3 on poisons / toxins / venoms that are harvested from animals? Not sure if they’re pertinent to the historical period during which most fantasy is set but they do have some very… interesting effects. 😀

  3. Good info. Although, personally, I prefer to invent my own poisons.

  4. Avatar Fellshot says:

    Let us not forget the wide variety of violently deadly mushrooms that are easily mistaken for edible varieties (the false morel springs to mind). Or grass peas if they haven’t been soaked properly (paralysis). Or Coyotillo poisoning (which can come to fruition a few days after consumption in the form of paralysis). Or there’s all the lovely carrot look alikes too (similar to nightshade).

    I’ve been reading “Wicked Plants” too much, I suspect. 😛

  5. Avatar Whapa!! says:

    How about arrows or arrow / spear / lance heads made from Yew wood soaked in the sap ? Even a non-fatal shot would still do them in.

  6. […] Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part Two […]

  7. Avatar Britney says:

    If your character is being captured and he needs to be subdued, is there anything that can be given to them to keep them subdued. Such as a sleeping draft, or a slow acting poison that can be reversed? Any information would be helpful. This article is really great!! thanks for the info.

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