How the Moriscos of Granada made poison darts

The action sometimes turned a shade Bulgarian during the Granada Wars–at least that’s what one infers from Diego Hurtado de Mendoza in this extract from Guerra de Granada (paras introduced for legibility):

Wounded by two poisoned arrows, Don Alonso [de Aguilar] fought until he fell, disabled by the poison used among hunters since ancient times. As the use of this is being lost, along with that of the arquebus, just as many things are forgotten midst the novelty of others, I will say something of its nature.

There are two fashions, one used in Castile in the Béjar and Guadarrama mountains (called respectively Orospeda and Idubeda by the ancients), boiling the juice of vedegambre, which in the Roman and Greek languages they call black hellebore, until it becomes oily, and curing it in the sun, they thicken it and give it strength; its smell is sharp but not without softness, its colour dark, tending towards blond [presumably in the same sense as beer].

Another is made in the snowy mountains of Granada in the same fashion, but from the herb that is called rejalgar [literally cave powder, for its mineral cognate; used to kill mice, presumably in caves] by the Moors, yerba by us, aconite by the Romans and Greeks, and, because it kills wolves, lycoctonos [ie Aconitum lycoctonum, Alpine wolfsbane]; its colour is black, its smell heavy, it acts more rapidly, injures the flesh greatly: sickness in both are the same, cold, clumsiness, loss of sight, turning of the stomach, retching, foaming at the mouth, loss of strength followed by collapse.

The poison infiltrates the blood wherever it finds it, and though the herb touches blood flowing outside the wound, it will enter with it, whence it will travel with it through the veins to the heart, when there is no remedy; but before it arrives there are all the usual [cures]: sucking it to extract it, although this is dangerous; psyllos they called in the language of Egypt the men who had this job.

Specific antidotes are the juice of the quince, a fruit so hostile to this herb that wherever it finds its smell it takes away its strength; the juice of broom [Cytisus scoparius] whose crushed leaves I have seen enter of their own accord into the wound if they can seeking the poison until they find and extract it: such is the manner of this poison, with whose juice they grease arrows wrapped in flax in order to retain it.

The simplicity of our ancestors who knew no way of killing people but with iron, gave the names of herbs to all kinds of poison: it was used in ancient times in the mountains of Abruzzo, of Candia [ie Crete], of Persia: in ours in the Alps they call Mont Cenis there is a certain herb which is little different, called tora [Aconitum angustifolium], with which they kill game, and another which they call antora [Aconitum anthora] which, like dittany [Origanum dictamnus], cures it.

Very old ladies may recall black hellebore being used in country parts by amateur abortionists. Even older ladies may recall Robert Burton, whose extraordinary The anatomy of melancholy (1621) mentions Pliny’s Melanpodius the shepherd, who used it “to purge his goats when they raved” and then applied it to King Praetus’ daughters, who fortunately survived. It was subsequently used to cure the mad, the sad and the boring, until the Arabs did some cause-of-death maths, leading the emperor Constantine to “attribute no other virtue to it than to kill mice and rats, flies and mouldwarps”, and Solon to use it to inflict diarrhoea and defeat on a city he was besieging by dipping it in the municipal spring. It came back to fashion with the rediscovery of the Greeks, and at the court of the Duke of Ferrara made the merde of mad Melatasta black.

It’s not quite clear to me what the difference is between hellebore and Guinness.

Here’s the original:

Don Alonso herido de dos saetadas con yerba, peleó hasta caer trabado del veneno usado desde los tiempos antiguos entre cazadores. Mas porque se va perdiendo el uso de ella con el de los arcabuces, como se olvidan muchas cosas con la novedad de otras, diré algo de su naturaleza.

Hay dos maneras, una que se hace en Castilla en las montañas de Béjar y Guadarrama (a este monte llamavan los antiguos Orospeda, i al otro Idubeda), cociendo el zumo de vedegambre a que en lengua romana y griega dicen eléboro negro haste que hace correa, y curándolo al sol, lo espesan y dan fuerza; su olor agudo no sin suavidad, su color oscuro, que tira a rubio.

Otra se hace en las montañas nevadas de Granada de la misma manera, pero de la yerba que los moros dicen rejalgar, nosotros yerba, los romanos y griegos acónito, y porque mata los lobos, lycoctonos; color negro, olor grave, prende más presto, daña mucha carne: los accidentes en ambas los mismos, frío, torpeza, privación de vista, revolvimiento de estómago, arcadas, espumajos, desflaquecimiento de fuerzas hasta caer.

Envuélvese la ponzoña con la sangre donde quier que la halla, y aunque toque la yerba a la que corre fuera de la herida, se retira con ella, y la lleva consigo por las venas al corazón, donde ya no tiene remedio; mas antes que llegue hay todos los generales: chúpanla para tirarla a fuera, aunque con peligro; psyllos llamaban en lengua de Egipto a los hombres que tenían este oficio.

El particular remedio es zumo de membrillo, fruta tan enemiga de esta yerba, que donde quiera que la alcanza el olor, le quita la fuerza; zumo de retama, cuyas hojas machacadas he yo visto lanzar de suyo por la herida cuanto pueden buscando el veneno hasta toparlo, y tirarle fuera: tal es la manera de esta ponzoña, con cuyo zumo untan las saetas envueltas en lino porque se detenga.

La simplicidad de nuestros pasados que no conocieron manera de matar personas sino a hierro, puso a todo género de veneno nombre de yerbas: usóse en tiempos antiguos en las montañas de Abruzzo, en las de Candía, en las de Persia: en los nuestros en los Alpes que llaman Monsenis hay cierta hierba poco diferente, dicha tora, con que matan la caza, y otra que dicen antora a manera de dictamno, que la cura.


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Last updated 29/06/2007

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Egypt (9):

Granada (6):

Greek language (0):

Kaleboel (4313):

Moors (89):

Morisco (0): Moriscosˈɾiʃkuʃ]; meaning "Moorish") were former Muslims and their descendants who were pressured heavily by the Catholic church and the Spanish Crown under the threat of death to convert to Christianity after Spain outlawed the open practice of Islam by its sizeable Muslim population in the early 16th century.The government distrusted the Moriscos and began systematic expulsions from Spain's various kingdoms between 1609 and 1614.

Quince (3):

Roman (0): Roman may refer to:

Shepherd (40):

Wolf (3):


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