[ExI] Viking toxicology (Was: atheists on the elevator)

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Thu Nov 29 23:48:16 UTC 2012

The Vikings did know about poisons - there are lots of references to 
venomous dragons, poisoned wells and suchlike, but the poisons seemed to 
be mostly described as snake venom ("etter"). The berserkers getting 
crazy on fly agaric is likely a myth. But no agricultural society will 
be ignorant about the toxicity of some of the apparently edible berries 
and plants they find around them.

 From my understanding of their culture, poisons belonged to the area of 
dark, creepy magic, "sejd". Proper runic magic was fine: that was all 
about poetry and learning, even if it was used to curse enemies. But 
sejd was underhanded, foreign, shamanic and associated with witches from 
Finland or further east - not the kind of thing a proper man or woman 
ought to deal with (Sure, the gods Odin and Loki knew and used it, but 
they were always a bit suspect... yup, the chief of the gods had a few 
skeletons in the wardrobe)

Generally, Spike is right about the Viking disdain about magic. It might 
be dangerous and worth fearing, but since a proper Viking warrior 
ignores fear, you should charge in anyway. As one of the heroes said, a 
good sword beats most magic.

(I guess we post-Vikings would say a good double-blind randomized trial 
beats most magic.)

On 29/11/2012 22:44, spike wrote:
> Prechristian Viking civilizations learned how to ply the seas almost 
> before anyone, so they were wandering around the globe early in 
> history.  Their particular brand of Paganism had a number of 
> superstitions that greatly influenced the way they did things whenever 
> they encountered a strange new civilization.  They are said to have 
> believed that other civilizations had magical powers, but were not 
> omnipotent.  For instance they had gnomes, elves, faeries and things, 
> all examples of beings with powers but not unlimited powers.  A sturdy 
> Viking lad could defeat them through ordinary might and a strong sword 
> arm, and often did exactly that: come into a village of small people 
> (everyone was small compared to the Vikings), freak out, kill 
> everyone.  Or if they decided the locals did not have magical powers, 
> then two or three would offer to stay behind.  The locals would likely 
> welcome or at least tolerate the sturdy blonde guy, and I can imagine 
> he was popular with the ladies.  This would explain why Viking genes 
> are found everywhere.
> Theory: in the north country, the home of the Vikings, there were no 
> poisonous plants or frogs for instance, so the Vikings never did learn 
> the basic chemistry required to do such things as making poison 
> darts.  The people from the tropics, on the other hand, had plenty of 
> poisons they could distill from their local biota, so they did.  The 
> use of poison darts would appear as magic to a Viking, all of whose 
> biota was perfectly non-toxic.  The whole notion of making a poison 
> from the glands of a tree frog would be witchcraft and magic.  So the 
> Vikings encountered a population who knew how to mysteriously kill 
> proles.  The survivors returned to Sweden with the stories, and this 
> influenced their belief system.  So the later generations of Vikings, 
> not wanting to take a chance there may be dark magic at work, would 
> slay the lot of them whenever possible.
> An ancient Viking, or one with a similar mindset, in the elevator with 
> the zombie girl might attack and seriously injure her, rather than 
> cowering in the corner as these people did.
> Commentary welcome by anyone with knowledge of actual Vikings, or any 
> direct descendants of actual Vikings, Anders
Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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