(Blood graphic and bull statue, both Public Domain via Pixabay)
Despite bull’s blood not being innately poisonous—unless laden with bacteria or disease—stories of death by bull’s blood, surprisingly, recurred in ancient sources more than you may initially think. This bizarre bloody method of alleged death continues to baffle historians to this day. Some believe “bull’s blood” may have been a nickname for another poisonous substance. Others propose that the ancients believed the quick coagulation and clotting of bull’s blood would be deadly if ingested while fresh. Perhaps, it was a choking hazard, or the quick thickening of the blood could damage a person’s innards. Still, other historians argue that the whole bull’s blood idea was simply a legend that storytellers loved to repeat because of its immense shock-value and vivid imagery—coagulating, metallic-smelling, warm blood and all that…
Nevertheless, a slew of ancient sources seemed to believe the idea that bull’s blood was deadly. Among these were Pliny, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plutarch and Diodorus. Two stories come to mind about historical figures dying by bull’s blood. One is the Athenian statesman and military leader, Themistocles—many of the aforementioned sources claimed he committed suicide by drinking the blood of a bull after he was exiled from Greece. The other historical figure is Psamtik III of Egypt, who, according to Herodotus, also killed himself by drinking bull’s blood some time after Egypt fell to Cambyses II of Persia, near the end of the 6th century BCE.
Modern commentators, however, all seem to agree that bull’s blood would have been largely useless and ineffective as a poison. Yet, the bizarre idea of death by ingesting bull’s blood continues to fill our imaginations with odd and grotesque mental imagery, just as it must have for the many ancient sources that kept the peculiar legend alive.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.