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Overcoming Fear: Personal Impressions of Plagues and Poisonings

Reading morbid history can be enlightening.

Lucrezia Borgia,accused of being a poisoner.

It sounds bleak, but let's face it: There are so many ways to die. It can require mental skill and determination to not be afraid. One of the ways one could go? Death by poison. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, actually. 

For example, in Ancient Rome (331 B.C.), the historian Livy wrote of matrons poisoning an unknown number of men. Apparently, 170 of these women were ultimately arrested, though many details are quite unclear. However, Livy stated that their actions "suggested madness rather than felonious intent."

Whatever the cause, such acts link with our general fear of death. In fact, if we are paranoid enough, it seems anyone can poison us at any time. In fact, pollution is no doubt poisoning people's lungs as I write this. The trick is to be aware of this, but not overly paranoid and depressed. So, as I write these morbid things, know that I'm not trying to frighten you. I'm just writing about reality.

Ironically, one way I overcome fear is by immersing myself in it. I watch true crime shows, and read similar books and news articles. Rather than simply depress me, it often makes me feel prepared for anything. For me, this stuff has become so familiar that I don't fear it much anymore. I don't necessarily shrug it off, but it doesn't weigh heavily on my shoulders, either.

Take the good with the bad.

In fact, I see a relaxed attitude towards death as an instance of my being mature. I see it as nature running its course, in a way, although we can take steps to fight things off. Also, people should take the good with the bad. While death and disease aren't good unto themselves, they can give us resolve, build our characters, and provide determination and knowledge. They really can!

For example, some of the most harrowing, inspiring ordeals involve disease, and they become legendary. Much like poisonings, they have a powerful influence on human society. One can look at the mid-1300s, when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote this about the plague in his city of Florence: "The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching."

Pretty gruesome stuff, right? Well, his bleak experience does have a bright side. It influenced him to write The Decameron, which likely influenced Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. So, as you can see, there is already some positive aspect to this madness—at least for fans of literature.

Meanwhile, although the plague lacked "felonious intent," it no doubt inspired people to fight it as an enemy. People certainly sought ways to combat such diseases, and gradually demystified the process. Rather than blaming it all on witches, demons or assorted sorcerers, we came to understand germs. In fact, some were quicker than others in that regard. For example, before germs were widely known, the Roman statesman Marcus Terentius Varro wrote: "Note also if there be any swampy ground...because certain minute animals, invisible to the eye, breed there, and, borne by the air, reach the inside of the body by way of the mouth and nose, and cause diseases which are difficult to be rid of."

Now, thanks to generalized medical knowledge, we can read official documents about "infection signs and symptoms, diagnosis and monitoring, vaccination, medical treatment, infection control, environmental decontamination, and more...." In other words, hardship has made humans generally smarter over time.

While it's unfortunate that anyone died (and still dies) of germ diseases, there are at least things to learn from them. Indeed, if death offered nothing but corrosive material to the social fabric, we would have all died a long time ago! Instead, it's something we should understand as calmly as possible, and not approach it with blind fear or hysteria. This brings me back to the phenomenon of poisonings (intentional or otherwise)—a very similar, fairly common phenomenon in historical, which we ought to understand calmly.

Understanding the Roots of Poisoning

Not only is poisoning common, but it can be a fashion accessory. Poison rings can be worn stylishly on one's finger. As their name suggests, they feature secret, little compartments for storing poison for potential use on one's enemies (or targets). In 2013, a 600-year-old poison ring was found in Bulgaria, which gained a little media attention. It's believed that some nobles and aristocrats were likely poisoned by this method, after an enemy surreptitiously spiked their drinks.

In fact, in Italy it's still considered offensive to pour wine a certain way. They call it “traitor’s way pouring.” So, undeniably, the power of the poison ring has not vanished. Bonnie Petrunova, of the National Archaeology Institute and Museum, said of the Bulgarian ring: “I have no doubt that the hole was deliberately inserted and the ring was worn on the right hand intentionally,”

Poisoning has many other incarnations, of course. The ancient Sumerians worshiped Gula, a goddess of poisons. In Greek mythology, Medea tried to have her stepson Theseus murdered by poisoned wine. You also have Socrates, sentenced to drink poison hemlock for challenging the notion that "might makes right" in Athenian politics. Then there's the Italian Lucrezia Borgia, forever known as a poisonous "femme fatale."

In fact, any comprehensive list of famous poisonings would be pretty lengthy. It could include certain Nazis who poisoned themselves, rather than face punishment for war crimes. It could mention the 900 people who "drank the Kool-Aid" in Jonestown (Guyana). And why leave out the Heaven's Gate crowd of mystical comet-hoppers, who killed themselves in 1997, hoping to ride a comet to heaven? They even wore Nike shoes, because the "swoosh" design resembled a comet. As morbid as it is, I still laugh about that.

It's not over yet.

As history is an ongoing, running stream, I'm fascinated by how little death has actually changed over the years. Disease and intentional poisonings (and other murders) are always possible in this world. In fact, the issues function remarkably well as windows into world history. There are practically endless ways in which these things impact human existence—our politics, media, religions, languages, etc. Diseases and poisonings have changed history forever, and will likely continue doing so. The past never truly relinquishes its influence.

You should read about these fascinating things sometimes. If you do, your initial feelings of being morbid may eventually even wane. You might see that this stuff is simply interesting, no matter how one slices it. Life leads to knowledge, but so does death, so read on while you can!

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