October 8, 2014 by ethelfritha
It is tempting to suppose, in the breathless wake of the 24-hour news cycle, that we the living are the worst of men. We kill and maim and terrorize and torture and kidnap and deny justice. We manufacture terrible weapons and either deploy them with abandon or hold them in readiness as a bargaining tool. We do hideous things in the name of all kinds of goods, as justifications to all kinds of ends. We are the worst. Aren’t we?
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you are inclined to look at it), we humans are very susceptible to noise. Just because the internet can bring terrible news from all over the world right into your living room doesn’t mean that terrible things are on the rise. It just means we have a greater capacity to awareness. It may be cold comfort to realize that there is nothing new under the sun, but at least we can assure ourselves that we are not the worst thing mankind has ever produced.
As it turns out, people have been lobbing chemical and biological weapons at each other pretty much since tribe A discovered the existence of tribe B. For instance, the word toxin is derived from the Greek toxon, which means–guess what?–“arrow.” Toxon is itself derived from the word taxon, meaning “yew”–a very poisonous plant.
The Greeks had a long and complicated relationship to chemical weapons and weapon tactics, holding them to be at once clever and necessary (the sly Odysseus is reported in the Iliad to have devised them) and dishonorable. The mythical Hercules uses poisoned arrows and, in grand poetic justice, meets a terrible end enveloped in a poisoned cloak. A sixth-century BC siege of the city of Kirrha ended when someone poisoned the Kirrhan’s water supply with hellebore, a potent and deadly purgative. The Greeks were so affected by this strategy that no fewer than four historians recorded it in detail, although each of them attributed the act to a different person.
But the Greeks were hardly the only ancient civilization to use these sorts of tactics. Belying the name “Greek fire,” the petroleum byproduct naphtha is not found in the Mediterranean, where there are few oil deposits. (Indeed, the term “Greek fire” actually refers to a naphtha-based incendiary weapon developed by the Byzantines, and not to naphtha itself.) Naphtha, a vicious, highly flammable, water-resistant substance, was skimmed from natural oil wells throughout the middle east. The ancient Assyrians were using it in crude bombs as early as the 9th century BC. Alexander the Great experimented with it after encountering it in Asia Minor. Nehemiah, in the 2nd book of Maccabees, discovered it in a pool and used it to light a sacrificial fire. If the word “naphtha” sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s because it’s seen recent use–as napalm.
Perhaps reading about our ancestors’ forays into chemical and biological warfare is a strange way to find comfort in our own generation. Personally, while it erases none of our own guilt, I find it good to know that we are the inheritors, not the inventors, of this terrible legacy.