Ancient India's Visha Kanyas Were the Original Femme Fatales
Though current so-called leaders prefer to wage war behind keyboards, there was once a time when rulers used much more subtle and deadly tactics to defeat their enemies.
Ancient Kings of India employed a seductive army of visha kanyas, or poison maidens, who according to legend could take down any adversary with a single kiss. Fed increasing amounts of snake venom from the second day of birth through early age, by the time these girls reached adolescence their blood and bodily fluids were toxic to anyone they came in contact with.
Visha kanyas were selected according to their astrology and a prediction of widowhood. They even had their own designation within the caste system. Over time, they came to embody the archetype we now refer to as the femme fatale. You can find references to these sensual assassins dating from ancient Ayurvedic texts all the way through contemporary literature.
“If she touches you, her sweat can kill. If you make love to her, your penis drops off like a ripe fruit from its stalk.” – Dalhana on Susruta Samhita 5.1.4-6
In the pseudo-Aristotle treatise, Secretum Secretorum (“The Secrets of Secrets”), Aristotle warns student Alexander the Great to beware of lavish gifts from Indian kings. One French version tells a story that when Socrates and Aristotle told two slaves to kiss the girl, they both fell down dead instantly. Other versions have her kill by bite, sexual intercourse, or even with a menacing look.
Visha kanyas also demonstrate the Ayurvedic concept satmya, which translates roughly to “adaptation through gradual change.” Satmya is the reason why you’re not supposed to drink tap water in certain countries, even though the people who live there are able to do so just fine. It posits that when we become habituated to ingesting something impure, we eventually become immune to its negative effects.
While adopting the practices of the visha kanyas might not be realistic or safe in our present-day societies, there’s another lesson that we can take from these deadly warriors. Rather than look outside of ourselves for armor or protection, we can intentionally, over time call in the qualities that might offer us safety. You might take this advice literally and invest in a self-defense class that will help you acquire new skills, or it could be as simple as consciously naming and honoring your boundaries, learning to recognize what “No” feels like in your body, or releasing a tendency to please others. Every day you can imagine that you are taking an elixir of this intention and that it is gradually gaining strength and becoming a larger part of you.
The visha kanyas remind us of the unique resilience women hold and our ability to adapt to almost anything.
For further reading:
The Vish-Kanya or Poison Damsel of Ancient India, illustrated by the story of Susan Ramashgar
Poison-damsels: Folklore of the World by Norman Mosley Penzer and Somadeva Bhatt
Vishkanya: True stories of Famous Women Spies of the World by Yashvant Mehta
Vishkanya by Esa Mehta
Feature Image from the book “Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan” gathered by Franck André Jamme