Mithridatism is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts. The word derives from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, who so feared being poisoned that he regularly ingested small doses, aiming to develop immunity.
Mithridates V, Mithridates VI's father, was assassinated by poisoning, said to be at his mother's orders. After this, Mithridates' mother held regency over Pontus until a male heir came of age. Mithridates was in competition with his brother for the throne and his mother began to favor his brother. Supposedly during his youth he began to suspect plots against him at his own mother's orders and was aware of her possible connection with his father's death. He then, supposedly, began to notice pains in his stomach during his meals and suspected his mother had ordered small amounts of poison to be added to his food to slowly kill him off to avoid suspicion. With other assassination attempts he fled into the wild.
While in the wild it is said that he began ingesting non-lethal amounts of poisons and mixing many into a universal remedy to make him immune to all known poisons.
After Mithridates' death, many Roman physicians claimed to possess and improve the formula. In keeping with most medical practices of his era, Mithridates' anti-poison routines included a religious component, supervised by the Agari; a group of Scythian shamans who never left him.
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. Mithridatism has been tried with success in Australia and Brazil and total immunity has been achieved even to multiple bites of extremely venomous cobras and pit vipers. Venomous snake handler Bill Haast used this method. Snake handlers from Myanmar tattoo themselves with snake venom for the same reason.
Indian epics talk about this practice too. It has been said that, during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320-298 BCE), there was a practice of selecting beautiful girls and administering poison in small amounts until they grew up, thus making them insensitive to poison. These maidens were called vishakanyas (visha = poison, kanya = maiden). It was believed that making love with vishakanyas could result in the death of their partners, hence they were employed to kill enemies.
The emperor Bindusara was the son of the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya and his queen Durdhara. According to the Rajavalikatha a Jain work, the original name of this emperor was Simhasena. According to a legend mentioned in the Jain texts, Chandragupta's Guru and advisor Chanakya used to feed the emperor with small doses of poison to build his immunity against possible poisoning attempts by the enemies. One day, Chandragupta, not knowing about the poison, shared his food with his pregnant wife, Queen Durdhara, who was 7 days away from delivery. The queen not immune to the poison collapsed and died within few minutes. Chanakya entered the room the very time she collapsed, and in order to save the child in the womb, he immediately cut open the dead queen's belly and took the baby out, by that time a drop of poison had already reached the baby and touched its head due to which child got a permanent blueish spot (a "bindu") on his forehead. Thus, the newborn was named "Bindusara".
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, and thus cannot be used in this way at all.
Mithridatism is used to treat peanut allergies.
Mithridatism has been used as a plot device in novels, films, video games, and TV shows, including Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter", Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll, Dorothy Sayers's Strong Poison, Agatha Christie's Curtain, William Goldman's The Princess Bride (and the movie of the same name), The Borgias, and a Japanese manga called Dokuhime(Poison Princess) by Mihara Mitsukazu.
In Michael Curtis Ford's novel The Last King, on the life and conquests of Mithridates VI, the author clearly depicts Mithridates' efforts to use this technique to protect himself and ensure his safety.
A.E. Housman's "Terence, this is stupid stuff" (originally published in A Shropshire Lad) 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.
- Mayor, The Poison King: the life and legend of Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest enemy p.68
- Mayor, The Poison King: the life and legend of Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest enemy p.69
- McGing, B. C. (1986). The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. p. 43.
- Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. New York, Overlook Duckworth, 2003; p. 148
- Tattoos For Protection. iloveindia.com
- The Dictionary of Modern Medicine, J. C. Segen, 1992
- Wilhelm Geiger (1908). The Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa and their historical development in Ceylon. Translated by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy. H. C. Cottle, Government Printer, Ceylon. p. 40. OCLC 559688590.
- M. Srinivasachariar (1989). History of classical Sanskrit literature (3 ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. p. 550. ISBN 978-81-208-0284-1.