Most famous mythological smiths are lame or limp: Wayland (or Wieland, also Völundr) was lamed, while Hephaistos and Volcanos both limped. Ilmarinen and Mimir are also said to have limped – however this is something I could not confirm after looking a bit deeper into mythological sources.
Wayland was held as a slave by King Niðhad (in the Edda: Níðuð), who had his hamstrings cut to hobble him. Wayland took revenge by killing the king’s two sons and raping his daughter, who later gave birth to Wudga (Wittich). Wayland then flew with self-constructed wings. Similarities to Greek mythology, especially to Hephaestus and Daedalus cannot be overseen.
Explanations for Hephaestus’ lameless differ: according to the Iliad (395-405), Hera threw him out of the Olympus because of being born lame; or, (Iliad 590-594), he tried to rescue his mother Hera from Zeus’ advances, and Zeus threw him out of the Olympus. Similar to Hephaestus, Vulcanos, the Roman god, was also lame.
But how might their physical condition be connected with arsenic poisoning? Let‘s examine typical arsenic exposure while producing and working arsenical copper during prehistory.
When heated in air, arsenic oxidises to arsenic trioxide (4 As + 3 O2 → 2 As2O3). The fumes from this reaction have a characteristic odor resembling garlic. Once noted and connected with the material characteristics of arsenical bronze, arsenic-containing ores can be easily detected, since also arsenide minerals such as arsenopyrite emit the same scent when struck with a hammer. This supports the theory of intentional selection of ore for the production of arsenical bronze. The correlation between malleability of the alloy and both the quantity of white smoke appearing during annealing and casting processes as well as the white residues left on the working tool was surely also noted (McKerrell – Tylecote 1972).
The effects of acute arsenic poisoning are well known – just think of the movie ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ from 1944, starring Cary Grant. Furthermore, although arsenic is not mentioned in Umberto Eco’s The name of the Rose, it is generally assumed that the poison in the book was arsenic, even though the symptoms of the monks do not match those of arsenic poisoning at all. However, other spectacular murder cases involving lethal doses of arsenic are known (e. g. the cases of Gottfried Gesche, the Marquise de Brinvilliers or Anna Margaretha Zwanziger). The uncertainty surrounding such cases came to an end in 1836 with the development of the Marsh test which allowed lethal doses of arsenic to be detected in a corpse. Interestingly, some people are also known to have regularly eaten arsenic for various different reasons without showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning (I will discuss this in a future post).
But what effect did the constant exposure to arsenic trioxide have on the smiths and their surroundings? Chronic arsenic poisoning is known as arsenicosis. Also today, a high number of people are affected by arsenicosis: smelters, workers in copper mines (6-10 times greater risk compared to the general population) or people drinking water which contains high levels of arsenic (0.3–0.4 ppm), which results in higher risks of skin cancer. Exposure to arsenic trioxide also causes reproductive problems such as congenital deformations, low birth weight, and a high incidence of miscarriage. The most severe case of arsenic poisoning through drinking water is currently being reported in Bangladesh and India (to name just two), deemed the ‘largest mass poisoning of a population in history’ by the WHO.
First symptoms of arsenic poisoning
Initial symptoms may include: headaches, confusion, drowsiness, severe diarrhea, pallor, rashes, swelling, tiredness;
With increasing poisoning, convulsions and fingernail pigmentation changes (leukonychia) may occur;
Acute arsenic poisoning includes symptoms such as: diarrhea, vomiting (due to the irritation of the lining of the stomach), mees lines, lameless and muscle twitching accompanied by cramps, especially in the feet and calves, Peripheral neuropathy, blackfoot disease, cardiac dysrhythmia; general weakness, blood in urine (hematuria), stomach pain, hair loss, teeth problems and pain, excessive sweating, breath that smells like garlic, and convulsions.
You can find further information about arsenicosis here. The research focuses mainly on long-term exposure to arsenic and the consumption of drinking water rich in arsenic. This year (2015), the Handbook of Arsenic Toxicology was published, which provides a perfect overview on the topic.
Recently, several studies were carried out to determine the quantity of arsenic in human bones from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. However, measurements were not found to be significantly higher than normal, even considering the influence of the surrounding soil and metal grave goods. For further information, see studies on Skeletal arsenic of the pre-Columbian population of Caleta Vitor, Arsenic accumulation on the bones in the Early Bronze Age İkiztepe Population, Turkey, and Skeletal Arsenic Analysis, Applied to the Chalcolithic Copper Smelting Site of Shiqmim, Israel.
Note, I do not plan to take over any lab involved in the project or harm anyone!
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- Özdemira K. – Erdala Y. S. – Demirci S. 2010. Arsenic accumulation on the bones in the Early Bronze Age İkiztepe Population, Turkey, Journal of Archaeological Science 37/5, 1033-1041.
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- Swift J. –Cupper M. L. – Greig A. – Westaway M. C. – Carter C. –Santoro C. M. – Wood R. – Jacobsen G. E. – Bertuch F. 2015. Skeletal arsenic of the pre-Columbian population of Caleta Vitor, northern Chile, Journal of Archaeological Science 58, 31-45. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2015.03.024