Murder, intrigue, assassination. Such are shadowy topics with high mystique among readers of the historical and the speculative. Poisoning in particular has certain shades of finesse and cunning that enthrall. From George R.R. Martin’s numerous poisonings in his bestselling series A Song of Ice and Fire all the way back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whose hero, Romeo, uses poison for suicide when he thinks his wife dead, poisoning is a tried and true method to increase suspense, eliminate characters, and even initiate plots. History and fiction alike are riddled with corpses and mysterious deaths via the subtlest method: poisoning.
How readily poison rings were actually available and how often used in history is debatable. However, a real poison ring was recently unearthed at Cape Kaliakra near the Black Sea by a team of archaeologists lead by Bonnie Petrunova, lending credence to our oft imagined intrigues involving this seemingly innocuous piece of jewelry.
The ring is bronze and thought to have been worn by a man on the little finger of his right hand. It’s designed in such a way that poison could be dropped instantly. Perhaps those food and wine tasters were wise ideas after all, though clearly a potentially deadly profession. If the ring dates back the 700 years that Bulgarian archaeologists believe, it may have played a crucial role in the fighting between Dobrotitsa and Ivanko Terter, his son, in the Dobruja region during the 14th century. It might explain a string of mysterious deaths that occurred around that time. (For full details, see the original article A Medieval poison ring used for political murders on io9.)
Poison, whether delivered via a ring, a stone dissolved into liquid, or a powder shaken into goblets for a contest of wits to decide who gets to kidnap the princess, offers a vast array of possibilities for the fiction author. When swords and pistols seem too upfront and obvious, when a character needs a method to defeat an opponent they have no hope of besting in physical battle, this is an obvious choice. Plus, it can be exceedingly subtle or disturbingly dramatic depending on the substance used. For ideas for designs, Medieval Collectables has an array of poison rings. And a glance through a guide of herbs or a quick search online for ancient, medieval, or fiction poisons contain an abundance of ideas from deadly nightshade the innocent peach pit.
How about you? What do you think of using poison in fiction? Do you have a favorite book or scene where it is used? A favorite method, in fiction of course?