Hercules Invented the First Biological Weapon

Roundup: Talking About History

Bryn Nelson, writing in Newsday (Jan. 13, 2004):

The superhero and the serpent waged a battle of mythic proportions. Mythic, of course, since the protagonist was Hercules and his opponent was the many-headed hydra, a venomous sea monster that had left the inhabitants of southern Greece utterly terrified.

As recounted by Homer in the eighth century BC, Hercules finally prevailed, but only after cauterizing the serpent's neck wounds to prevent its multiple heads from regrowing, and only after burying its immortal central head under a boulder. Then Hercules did something that may have proven much more profound: He dipped the quivers of his arrows in the deadly hydra poison, opening up "a world not only of toxic warfare, but also of unanticipated consequences."

So writes classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor, whose declaration may come as something of a surprise: "Hercules, one of the great heroes of Greek myth, actually invented the first biological weapon."

From Hercules' poisoned arrows to early germ warfare and attacks with scorpion bombs and red-hot sand, she contends, cultures around the world have grappled with the revulsion and justification of using these unconventional weapons ever since they began creating their own myths and recording their histories. Mayor has compiled a slew of examples in her new book, "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World" (Overlook Press).

The image of the hydra in particular has become a potent symbol of the age-old dilemma over unconventional weaponry, Mayor says.

"It's a proliferating monster, and that's why we use the hydra to symbolize a difficult problem," she says. "I think it's a great symbol of the practice of biological warfare. Such weapons start taking on a life of their own, and they start proliferating and there's no way to get rid of them."

In a similar vein, Mayor says the account of Hercules burying the immortal central hydra head in many ways foreshadows the geological solution to containing radioactive nuclear waste by burying it underground.

Implicit in the enduring hydra analogy are theancient moral quandaries over the use of unconventional arms. Although vehement criticism did exist in the ancient world, Mayor says her research shows that it did not prevent armies from using these weapons to gain the upper hand and then justifying their actions afterward. Despite the nostalgia for an age of relative innocence, she says, "there probably never was a time or a place that was innocent of biological tactics. It's sort of a Pandora's box that was opened millennia ago."

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