5.18.2011

A Word for Wednesday

Actually, I'm going to give you two words today for two reasons: (1) as a reward for ya'll being forebearing with me and my late-in-the-day posts, (2) the first word is just fun and the second is just too interesting not to share.

Mordaciously - adv. In a biting manner; sarcastically

See? I told you it was a fun word :) Now you don't have to overuse "sarcastically;" you have a replacement.

But now for the "real" word for Wednesday:

Mithridate - n. In pharmacy, an antidote against poison, or a composition in form of an electuary, supposed to serve either as a remedy or a preservation against poison. It takes its name from Mithridates, king of Pontus, the inventor.

Mithridate seems to have been a semi-mythical remedy with upwards of 65 different ingredients (depending on which version of the recipe was followed), making it one of the most complex and sought-after drugs during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It appears that Pliny's skepticism, noted in AD 77, went unheeded. In his Natural History XXIX.24-25, he said, "The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, while of some is prescribed one sixtieth part of one denarius. Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science."

Despite Pliny's doubts, historical accounts of the man who invented this all-purpose anti-poison seem to suggest that his brain was in fact sharp enough. Mithridates VI, a prince of Persian and Greek Macedonian ancestry, was King of Pontus and Armenia Minor from about 120 BC to 63 BC. When his father was poisoned, he was left to rule the kingdom with his younger brother and his mother as regent. His mother preferred his younger brother, prompting him to escape her plotting by going into hiding. It was during this time that he is said to have spend seven years in the wilderness. There he became strong and accustomed to hardship before returning to Pontus between 116 and 113 BC. He was hailed king, removed both his brother and mother from power, and initiated his conquest of the Black Sea and Asia. As sole ruler, his ambition was to make his state the dominant power in the Black Sea and Anatolia region.

Mithridates is remembered as one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and successful enemies. He engaged three of the late Republic's prominent generals (Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey) in the Mithridatic Wars, which raged from 88 to 63 BC. Pliny the Elder and several other historians report that the man had a prodigious memory: he could speak the languages of all the twenty-two nations he ruled.

He is most famous, though, for his practice of hardening himself against poison. He is said to have so fortified his body against poisons that, when he tried to kill himself, he could not find any poison that would have an effect. It seems he accomplished this both by taking increasing sub-lethal doses of the poisons to build tolerance, and by fashioning a 'universal antidote' to protect him from all earthly poisons. The recipe, written in his own hand, was found in his cabinet and taken to Rome by Pompey. It was translated into Latin by Pompey's freedman Lenaeus, and later improved upon by Nero's physician Andromachus and Marcus Aurelius's physician Galen.

There is a poem about King Mithridates and his antidote, found in A.E. Housman's collection of poetry titled A Shropshire Lad:  

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
--I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

I find historical figures like him fascinating (disturbing sometimes, but still fascinating). I wonder what drove him to inoculate himself so thoroughly. Surely, his father's poisoning played a role, but did Mithridates ever trust anyone? He had wives and sons and daughters but he didn't have them ingesting the antidote. Only himself. Who did he love (beside himself)?Does it make you wonder? Or is it just me?

All right. Enough about a probably-paranoid-poison-fortified-king-of-Pontus. If anyone is still with me (or opted to just skip to the end), here's the narrative/scene/glimpse of a story:


"Mithridate!" I shouted, reaching behind me with open hand only to close over air.

I swore and spun, turning my back on my lord for a moment I could not spare. That useless boy was knocking vials to the floor in every direction. I shoved him aside and snatched the precious vial.

My lord was trembling now, the poison causing his limbs to convulse and his regal face to writhe.

"What now? The man who boasted his prowess has no cure?" he said, though how he managed to choke the words out is beyond me.

"I'll have none of your mordacity just now, my Lord. Drink this."

I tipped his head back and drained the vial down his throat. I prayed all the gods, known and unknown, that it would be enough to spare him. He coughed, spluttered, and tried to raise himself. His arms gave way. I caught him before his head could hit the stone. He felt cold as I laid him back. I put my ear to his chest.

It was silent."

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your narrative, Caitlin.

    "I'll have none of your mordacity just now, my Lord. Drink this."

    That's classic! =)

    ReplyDelete

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