Poison damsels

The Poison Damsels of ancient Indian mythology were assassins who could kill someone with a look or a touch.

सुबोध पाठक [CC BY-SA]
I came across this topic while reading about mad honey and Mithridates, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

The Poison Damsels, in Hindi the Visha Kanya or Vishakanya, feature in the Arthashastra (a text that is sometimes compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince), the Sri Kalki Purana (a book of Hindu prophecy), and the Śukasaptati (Sanskrit stories and fables). Descriptions of these woman vary quite a lot, but that’s probably because they have entered the popular cultural lexicon in India – like vampires and cowboys have for a Western audience. The Arthashastra, for example, merely alludes to their abilities in a list:

When in the interior of the harem, the king shall see the queen only when her personal purity is vouchsafed by an old maid-servant. He shall not touch any woman (unless he is apprised of her personal purity); for hidden in the queen’s chamber, his own brother slew king Bhadrasena; hiding himself under the bed of his mother, the son killed king Kárusa; mixing fried rice with poison, as though with honey, his own queen poisoned Kásirája; with an anklet painted with poison, his own queen killed Vairantya; with a gem of her zone bedaubed with poison, his own queen killed Sauvíra; with a looking glass painted with poison, his own queen killed Jálútha; and with a weapon hidden under her tuft of hair, his own queen slew Vidúratha.

The Visha Kanya were poisonous servants of rulers, assassins that were sent out to deal with the king’s political enemies. In some versions of the myth, simply touching or being touched by a Visha Kanya was enough to kill you. They were supposedly raised on tiny doses of poison until they built up an immunity. Full of poison to which they were immune, it nevertheless seeped out of their very pores. Touch, sex, or anything in between was fatal. The myths around the Visha Kanya grew until a look from them was enough to kill someone.

Now, I’m pretty sure poison doesn’t work that way. The touch and look part, that is; the act of micro-dosing poison to build up an immunity has a long history. Mithridates, the king who benefited from that poison honey, supposedly built up an immunity this way. He even developed a potion to aid the process. (I’m going to write about the potion in another blog post, because it deserves more attention.) Supposedly snake handlers do this today to build up immunity to snake venom. And of course there’s iocane powder.


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