Tuesday 31st March 12:46 pm
Did arsenic poisoning make gods limp?
Tuesday 31st March 2015 12:46 pm
Vulcan was the big and muscly Roman god of fire and metal workers. Just like most of the gods (and many metal workers) he was impressively built. But all the legends describe him as walking with a limp.
Some industrial health workers now think that Vulcan got his limp from possibly the first known industrial disease — arsenic poisoning.
The human species (as we know it) has been on the planet for about 200,000 years, but we have been forming and using metals only for the last 11,000-or-so years.
We started with copper, because back then, you could find lumps of it on the ground. It is one of the few metals that occurs naturally.
The working of raw copper began about 11,000 years ago, in the Middle East. And it was only about 5500 years ago, in the early Bronze Age, that smelting became widespread, and the early metal workers refined a fairly pure copper.
But the trouble with copper was that it was too soft — it wouldn’t keep a sharp edge. It was fine for a cup, but useless for a sword. The early metal workers soon found out that if you beat the copper with a hammer, it would become a little harder and so hold its edge longer — but it still didn’t make very good swords.
Then the metal workers discovered that if they added a small amount of arsenic to the copper during the smelting process, they got a ‘bronze’ that was very much harder.
But they had to be quite exact — if they added more than two-and-a-half per cent arsenic, the bronze became more brittle.
In the heat of battle, you wouldn’t want your sword to splinter just like glass. These ancient metal workers were able to keep the level of arsenic around the two per cent mark — this was an incredible achievement 5500 years ago.
Even though it was an effective technique, the ancient metal workers added arsenic to copper for only about 400 years — a very short time.
Then abruptly, throughout the entire European and Middle Eastern world, the metal workers swapped arsenic for tin. If you add around six-12 per cent tin to copper, you get a bronze that is easier to cast, more resistant to salt water corrosion — and stronger.
The ancient metal workers didn’t have unions, but they did have their own individual patron gods of metal work to stick up for them.
The Romans worshipped Vulcan, the Greeks praised Hephistos, the Germans feted Wieland, the Scandinavians idolised Wolunder, and the Finns revered Ilmarinen. To show respect, these ancient metal workers would beat a holy picture of their particular patron god into copper or bronze and hang it on the wall — and every single one of these gods is shown as lame, as having a limp. It’s incredible that this condition could spread so quickly among the gods — even across continents.
Limping is a known side effect of arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic is a nasty poison. Murderous acts and sly spies made it famous — a single dose of less than a quarter of a gram will kill most people. Pope Alexander the V1, one of the horrible Borgas, poisoned himself accidently by eating arsenic-laced food that was destined for his unwanted guests.
But if arsenic doesn’t kill you with a single large dose, repeated small doses can leave you with dermatitis, a hoarse voice, loss of weight and appetite, irritability, cancer — and even a god-sized limp. Yep, arsenic can damage the nerves, especially the peripheral ones.
Besides getting a burning sensation on the soles of your feet, you can also get foot drop — here, some of the leg muscles are paralysed so that you can’t lift up the front of your foot. Hence the limp. So while the ancient metal workers were forging a new-generation cutting-edge technology — sharp-edged swords — they were also breathing in fumes loaded with toxic arsenic.
It seems that our bodies actually need a tiny, tiny trace amount of arsenic — and that’s true for some animals. Farmed pigs and hens that are given an arsenic tonic put on about three per cent extra weight. And when it comes time to slaughter the animals, the farmer lets them enjoy a few arsenic-free days to rid the poison from their bodies.
And maybe that’s why they still keep chooks in tiny, cramped cages — so you can’t see them limp, like the ancient gods of panel beating.
It seems that foul play is at work for chooks and gods alike …
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
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