It is the late 8th century BC. Midas, King of Phrygia, gazes out from his capital city of Gordion and is faced with a daunting sight: an army of nomadic Cimmerians at his gates.
The situation is hopeless and the house of Midas must fall. He has not the soldiers to defend his city from the invaders, and although he has cultivated many connections with the Greeks and especially the Assyrian King Sargon II to his west, they are too far to assist. There is nothing to be done.
At least, nothing to salvage the situation. However Midas does have an escape route, at least for himself. His retainers have prepared for him a draught of deadly poison to ensure he will never be captured.
And so it was. King Midas drank the bull’s blood, and died as his city fell around him. Gordian was sacked by the Cimmerians, burned to the ground.
We know this is true, from the archaeology. Gordion was indeed destroyed and burned around 800 BC. Midas is attested by Herodotus, and his death by poisoning by Strabo. But what we cannot know for sure is what this poison actually was.
A Deadly Drug
That is not to say that there are no theories as to what poisoned Midas. Most scholars believe that the “bull’s blood” was some compound of arsenic, most likely the red-colored arsenic sulfide known as realgar.
This poison was known to the ancients, and indeed the Greek physician Nicander wrote about the death caused by what he called “bull’s blood”, a harrowing description which matches our understanding of arsenic poisoning. But the story of King Midas may not be as simple as all that.
Descriptions survive which do not seem to match realgar. Midas, in preparation for his death, had a bowl of bull’s blood prepared. It was required that the liquid be set out for a period of time, after which it would be transformed into a deadly poison.
Realgar is a powder, but this is no problem: it is easy enough to mix it with some wine. However arsenic needs no time to become deadly, but is poisonous from the get-go.
There is another possibility which fits the facts, however. There was a widespread belief which persisted throughout the ancient era that the actual blood of a bull was poisonous. Could Midas have literally been drinking the blood of a sacrificed bull to commit suicide?
This makes a surprising amount of sense. We know that the arsenic-based realgar “bull’s blood” was familiar to the Greeks and later the Romans, where it was used from everything from leatherworking to paint. But we are less certain that it was a common compound in Midas’s Gordion.
There are other parallels in the ancient world as well, where we often see the drinking of sacred liquids as part of funerary rites, although not always poisonous ones. The neighboring Hittites, for example, had centuries before drunk the “soul of a dead king” in the belief that their virtues would be passed on.
Furthermore, the preparation of the poison makes sense if it was the actual blood of a bull. Gordion is in the arid heartlands of Anatolia, near the modern-day capital of Turkey, and if the blood of a bull is left in the sun for a period of time it would indeed transform.
The blood would develop botulism after only a few hours of exposure to the heat of the day, a poison every bit as deadly as arsenic. The king need only drink the blood and his death would be assured.
Could the later Greek “bull’s blood” be something that doesn’t refer to arsenic, which is what the Greeks used? Could Strabo here be referring to the actual blood of a bull?
Top Image: Could the poisonous “bull’s blood” drunk by King Midas have literally been the blood of a bull? Source: Antonios / Adobe Stock.
By Joseph Green