In ancient China, the Miao women were feared for their mastery of gu – a poison that was said to inflict death with excruciating slowness.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can spot ‘poison’ in a list of 43 words.
Perhaps more disturbing than the existence of such a potent super poison, is the story of how it was made. Legend says that the Miao would place various venomous animals into a pot – like snakes, centipedes and scorpions. Then, they would close the container and let the animals devour each other, until only one remained. This sole survivor was deemed to be the most venomous of them all – it would then be ground up and used as a poison.
In Chinese folklore, the gu was so potent, it could be used to attack enemies, manipulate loved ones and even transform people into various animals, like worms and frogs.
Poison has long been used, across human history, in weapons, espionage, and as part of chemical warfare. The earliest reference to toxic weapons can be traced back to Greek mythology. The hero Heracles, for instance, used the venom of a monster called Hydra, to poison his arrows. Fast forward to the 15th century, and you could see Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci proposing the use of poison in maritime battle. His idea was to create a vessel containing a mix of sulfide, arsenic and verdigris, that could be thrown at enemy ships – when the rising fumes were inhaled, sailors would experience abrupt and immediate mass asphyxiation.
Many famous historic figures also saw their deaths at the hands of poison. Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra supposedly killed herself with a bite from a venomous asp. Classical Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth and flouting the laws of the state – and he took his own life by drinking a potion of hemlock.
Even as poisons have been at the centre of murder and intrigue in the past, you can literally walk into a garden full of poisonous plants in this day and age. Aptly called the Poison Garden, it’s located at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, UK. Behind black iron gates, the small but deadly area is filled exclusively with 100 toxic plants. Ivy-covered tunnels and flame-shaped beds create interest and intrigue, even as the most dangerous plants are trapped in cages. While visitors are prohibited from smelling, touching or tasting any plant, they can go on guided tours in the Poison Garden. However, people have been known to occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while ambling around the area.
The deadly garden is said to be inspired by the legendary botanical gardens in Padua, Italy, where the Medici family once “plotted the untimely, frothing ends of their enemies,” according to Atlas Obscura.
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