Mithridatism is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison
In the context of biology, poisons are substances that can cause disturbances to organisms, usually by chemical reaction or other activity on the molecular scale, when a sufficient quantity is absorbed by an organism....

 by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts. The word derives from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus
Pontus or Pontos is a historical Greek designation for a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, located in modern-day northeastern Turkey. The name was applied to the coastal region in antiquity by the Greeks who colonized the area, and derived from the Greek name of the Black Sea: Πόντος...

, who so feared being poisoned that he regularly ingested small doses, aiming to develop immunity
Immunity (medical)
Immunity is a biological term that describes a state of having sufficient biological defenses to avoid infection, disease, or other unwanted biological invasion. Immunity involves both specific and non-specific components. The non-specific components act either as barriers or as eliminators of wide...

. Having been defeated by Pompey
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey or Pompey the Great , was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic...

, legend has it that Mithridates tried to commit suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

 using poison but failed because of his immunity and so had to resort to having a mercenary
A mercenary, is a person who takes part in an armed conflict based on the promise of material compensation rather than having a direct interest in, or a legal obligation to, the conflict itself. A non-conscript professional member of a regular army is not considered to be a mercenary although he...

 run him through with his sword
A sword is a bladed weapon used primarily for cutting or thrusting. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographical region under consideration...


In practice

There are only a few practical uses of mithridatism. It can be used by zoo handlers, researchers, and circus artists who deal closely with venomous animals. Mithridatization has been tried with success in Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 and Brazil
Brazil , officially the Federative Republic of Brazil , is the largest country in South America. It is the world's fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population with over 192 million people...

 and total immunity has been achieved even to multiple bites of extremely venomous cobras and pit vipers. Venomous snake handler Bill Haast
Bill Haast
William E. "Bill" Haast was the director of the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, a facility near Punta Gorda, Florida, which produces snake venom for medical and research use. Haast extracted venom from venomous snakes from the time he was a boy...

 used this method. Snake handlers from Myanmar
Burma , officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar , is a country in Southeast Asia. Burma is bordered by China on the northeast, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India on the northwest, the Bay of Bengal to the southwest, and the Andaman Sea on the south....

A tattoo is made by inserting indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. Tattoos on humans are a type of body modification, and tattoos on other animals are most commonly used for identification purposes...

 themselves with snake venom for the same reason.

It has been suggested that Russian mystic Rasputin was able to resist the poison of assassins due to mithridatism, but this was never proven.

Indian epics talk about this practice too. It has been said that, during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya
Chandragupta Maurya
Chandragupta Maurya , was the founder of the Maurya Empire. Chandragupta succeeded in conquering most of the Indian subcontinent. Chandragupta is considered the first unifier of India and its first genuine emperor...

 (320-298 BCE), there was a practice of selecting beautiful girls and administering poison in small amounts until they grow up, thus making them insensitive to poison. These maidens were called vishakanyas
Vish Kanya
The Vish kanya were young women reportedly used as assassins, often against powerful enemies, during the Mauryan Empire...

 (visha = poison, kanya = maiden). It was believed that making love with vishakanyas can result in death of their partners, hence they were employed to kill enemies.

It is important to note that this practice is not effective against all types of poison. While some (primarily natural) poisons, such as poisonous venoms and tree extracts, can have an immunity built up in this fashion, other (primarily synthetic or base chemical) poisons, such as cyanide, will either pass through the system without leaving any lasting immunity or will build up in the system to lethal levels over time. Certain toxic substances, such as hydrofluoric acid and heavy metals, are either lethal or have little to no effect (or may even be beneficial in low doses, but in such a way as to have no effect on later doses at higher levels), and thus cannot be used in this way at all.

In fiction

Mithridatism has been used as a plot device in novels, films, video games, and TV shows including, among others, Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas. It is often considered to be, along with The Three Musketeers, Dumas's most popular work. He completed the work in 1844...

, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer.Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in the city of Salem, Massachusetts to Nathaniel Hathorne and the former Elizabeth Clarke Manning. His ancestors include John Hathorne, a judge during the Salem Witch Trials...

's "Rappaccini's Daughter
Rappaccini's Daughter
"Rappaccini's Daughter" is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1844 concerning a medical researcher in medieval Padua. It was published in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse.-Plot summary:...

", Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Yoshiaki Kawajiri
is a critically acclaimed writer and director of Japanese animation. He is the creator of titles such as Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.-Career:...

's Ninja Scroll
Ninja Scroll
is a 1993 Japanese animated action thriller film set in feudal Japan, written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri who was best known for his previous thriller Wicked City . The character designs were done by Yutaka Minowa. The movie is in homage to the Ninpōchō series, ninja novels by Futaro Yamada...

, Dorothy Sayers's Strong Poison
Strong Poison
Strong Poison is a 1929 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her fifth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.-Plot introduction:It is in Strong Poison that Lord Peter first meets Harriet Vane, an author of police fiction. The immediate problem is that she is on trial for her life, charged with murdering her former...

, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie DBE was a British crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections , and her successful West End plays.According to...

's The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a detective novel by Agatha Christie. It was written in 1916 and was first published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 and in the United Kingdom by The Bodley Head on January 21, 1921. The U.S...

, William Goldman
William Goldman
William Goldman is an American novelist, playwright, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter.-Early life and education:...

's The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride is a 1973 fantasy novel written by William Goldman. It was originally published in the United States by Harcourt Brace, while in the UK it is/was published by Bloomsbury Publishing....

(and the movie of the same name
The Princess Bride (film)
The Princess Bride is a 1987 American film based on the 1973 novel of the same name by William Goldman, combining comedy, adventure, romance, and fantasy. The film was directed by Rob Reiner from a screenplay by Goldman...


In poetry

A.E. Housman's "Terence, this is stupid stuff" (originally published in A Shropshire Lad
A Shropshire Lad
A Shropshire Lad is a cycle of sixty-three poems by the English poet Alfred Edward Housman . Some of the better-known poems in the book are "To an Athlete Dying Young", "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" and "When I Was One-and-Twenty".The collection was published in 1896...

) invokes mithridatism as a metaphor for the benefit that serious poetry brings to the reader. The final section is a poetic rendition of the Mithridates legend:
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

External links

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