You guys, I’m so frustrated.
It all started innocently enough. I was playing Words with Friends with my Dad (because we’re awesome like that) and he messages me an odd question:
Believe it or not, this isn’t something I had heard before – but how awesome is that?! Using venomous stingray spines as a means of ancient anesthetic! Also horrifying. But also awesome!
Of course, this little factoid had to be investigated and shared, so I hit up the font of all knowledge: Google.
And I found lots of interesting stuff that the ancient Greeks had to say about stingrays.
For instance, speaking of venomous beasts of the deep, Pliny the Elder writes of the stingray:
“…but there is nothing that is more to be dreaded than the sting which protrudes from the tail of the trygon, by our people known as the pastinaca, a weapon five inches in length. Fixing this in the root of a tree, the fish is able to kill it; it can pierce armour too, just as though with an arrow, and to the strength of iron it adds all the corrosive qualities of poison.” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.72)
Again, this is why I love Pliny the Elder – he is claiming that the venom of the stingray (or pastinaca or often seen in Greek as τρυγὼν) is powerful enough to kill a tree or corrode metal – not sure I want my dentist using that!
Stingray venom was enough to take down the famed Odysseus, who was killed by his son Telegonus wielding a spear dipped in it. This event is alluded to in the Odyssey, wherein Tiresias makes a prophecy about the hero’s death:
“But when thou hast slain the wooers in thy halls, whether by guile or openly with the sharp sword, then do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order. And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee. In this have I told thee sooth.” (Homer, Odyssey 11.119-135)
In true prophetic style, that vague death by the sea wasn’t a shipwreck or a sea monster, but rather stingray venom. This story was told in more depth by Sophocles in his Odysseus Acanthoplex but unfortunately this text hasn’t survived. Which is sad – because it sounds like it would be a great read and an even better play!
Odysseus wasn’t the only epic hero who felt the sting of the ray – I’m sorry, I had to – Hercules, too, suffered the ray’s wrath, but not quite so dearly. According to legend the demigod lost a finger to the bite of a stingray, rather than the venom of it’s spine.
But none of this, however awesome, has anything to do with ancient dentistry. I’ve searched and searched, and put in every variation of the word stingray, and while I could find the factoid repeated (and repeated on fairly reputable sources like this National Geographic page), none of these yahoos are citing their dang sources! I don’t know if this is something that we’ve learned from classical sources or from archaeological evidence or what. So. Frustrated. I suppose that’s the interwebz though.
I was able to find one classical source talking about stingrays and dentistry; however, it takes a slightly different slant. In his work De medicina, the Roman encyclopedist Celsus writes:
“But if pain compels its [the tooth’s] removal, a peppercorn without the tegument [covering], or an ivy berry without the tegument is inserted into the cavity of the tooth, which it splits, and the tooth falls out in bits. Also the tail spine of the flat fish which we call pastinaca, and the Greeks trygon, is roasted, pounded and taken up in resin, and this, when applied around the tooth, loosens it.” (Celsus, On Medicine 6.9)
So according to Celsus, you can powder up the spine of a stingray and use it to loosen up a decayed tooth that needs removed. Which kind of makes sense with Pliny the Elder’s account of the corroding properties of the venom.
There you have it. I couldn’t completely confirm that the ancient Greeks used stingray venom as an anesthetic. But, according the Celsus, it was used in tooth extractions and I also learned some extra interesting stuff about stingrays in antiquity. Now I just need to find an oddly specific pub quiz…