Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A trial by ordeal could have involved almost anything, it seems, given the right amount of invention and shame. This is what I've learned. Soil and water and plans and imagination, and what looks like guilt subject to change on a whim.

Some cultures favored the trial by poison, in which the accused would be made to eat a calabar bean. The toxins in the calabar bean work like a nerve gas, confusing the communication between nerves and muscles and rendering the accused eventually asphyxiated due to a total loss of control over the respiratory system. Some accounts say that the poison ordeal was the most accurate of them all, that the innocent would tend to swallow the bean quickly and defiantly whereas the guilty would nibble slowly at it, hoping for some outside intervention. The body reacts more completely to swallowing the whole bean, forcing the person to regurgitate it and therefore exposing them to very little of the poison; eating the bean slowly allowed the body to not notice that something wrong was happening until it was much too late.

The antidote to calabar is atropine, which can be taken from plants in the Solanaceae family, most of which are full of toxins of their own--belladonna, mandrake, Jimson weed. Poisons fighting poisons. The antidote isn't always perfect, though, and sometimes the combination of the two poisons will kill a person faster than they would on their own. The prevailing wisdom is that atropine will save a person who has taken three and a half times the fatal dose of calabar poison but will kill them quickly if four or more times the fatal dose has been taken. No account seems willing to explain how the casual observer is supposed to know the difference.

Given all of these variables, it seems to me that quickly is the only way through the ordeal. Poison or no poison. Trials of ordeal are said to have died out over the last couple of hundred years, but I'm not entirely sure that I believe that to be true, at least not here in the kingdom of metaphors.

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