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Part of the The Power of Poison exhibition.
Countless fairy tales and legends from around the world include tales of illness, enchantment, and death caused by poisons. Some of the most unlikely tales often contain a kernel of truth.
The Witches of Macbeth
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble....
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.”
In a famous scene from William Shakespeare’s dark tragedy Macbeth, three witches circle a boiling cauldron. Chanting a long list of gruesome ingredients, they drop them in the pot: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog….For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
For centuries, many people have grown or collected plants with the power to heal or harm. Poisonous plants were certainly available to those who wanted to “speed their inheritance,” so it’s no surprise people feared anyone with dangerous botanical knowledge.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!”
In the classic children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice encounters a tea party hosted by a nonsensical and irritable hat maker. His first words when meeting Alice are curiously impolite: “Your hair wants cutting.” Convinced that time is stuck at 6 pm, the Hatter presides over a never-ending tea party.
Author Lewis Carroll had a fantastical imagination. But the hatter character had a basis in reality: many hat makers did behave strangely, leading to the term “mad as a hatter.” What caused their odd behavior? Mercury poisoning.
Some hat makers in the 1700s through the early 1900s really did behave as if insane or “mad.” Long-term exposure to mercuric nitrate, a poisonous compound used in hat making, was the cause. Symptoms included tremors and extreme irritability. This tragic occupational hazard gave rise to the expression “mad as a hatter” in the 1800s.
Charms and Amulets
All over the world, the very real fear of poisons led people to seek charmed objects to keep them safe. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of objects people hoped would protect them from poison.
Celadon: Celadon dishes were said to break or change color if poisoned food was put on them, according to Asian and Middle Eastern legends.
Hornbill Spoon: According to Malaysian legend, hornbill spoons (like the one above) and buttons would change color in the presence of poison. They are made from the beak of a large bird, the helmeted hornbill.
Agate Cup: Stone cups made from striped agate, colorful rock crystal, or jade were prized in Europe because they were said to free any wine inside them from poison.
Amethyst: Jewelry bearing the gemstone amethyst was worn to protect against poison. The ancient Greeks also thought amethyst could reduce the intoxicating effects of alcohol, so they drank from amethyst goblets; in fact, the word amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, or “not drunken.”
Fossil shark teeth: Centuries ago, when Europeans found fossilized shark teeth, they thought they were the tongues of dragons. These “tongue stones” were worn as charms and dipped into food to purify it of poison.
Agate Eyes: Striped stones known as agates would be ground up and drunk in wine to cure poisoning, or applied to the skin to cure snake, spider, or scorpion bites. Agates that resembled human eyes (left) were thought to provide special protection.
Ammonite fossils: Ammonites are extinct marine invertebrates related to a modern nautilus. Their spiral-shaped fossils were known as “snakestones” because of their coiled shape, and were thought to have curative powers. Some artisans even carved snakeheads on them to enhance the resemblance.