Friday mystery object #7 answer

Here’s what I said on Friday, just before 7am:

Just posted the Friday Mystery Object. Not a skull, no options and just one clue (for now): You’ll never get it! #FMO

[PaoloViscardi on Twitter, Friday 4th September]

Of course, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but Gimpy managed to prove me wrong in record time (about an hour). So well done to Gimpy, although I now can’t help but hate you just a little bit for ruining my fun… (is this how the woo merchants feel?). Clearly the clue I left was far too much of a give-away (I should have listened to Melissa).

The question was “what is it and what’s it made of?” and it referred to this:

Scale in cm

Scale in cm

If you read the comments you probably worked out that it is indeed a bezoar, which is a fancy name for a ball of indigestible matter that has accumulated in the gastrointestinal tract of some poor beastie. More correctly this is a trichobezoar, since it is made of hair – in this case I expect it is from a cow, although I can’t be certain. Bezoars can get pretty big, sometimes causing a gastric obstruction. In humans, teenage girls get them more often than most people, usually because they chew and swallow their hair.

Historically, bezoars have a reputation for being an antidote to all poisons (a myth seized upon by J.K. Rowling for use by Harry Potter) – meaning that they were considered valuable gems. They would be made into rings, lockets and amulets or be embedded in sword handles as protective talsimans. Some bezoars were kept in intricate gold cages that could be placed in cups of wine to remove any poison – useful for people in positions of power, for whom assassination was a constant fear. In truth bezoars are not a universal antidote, but they have been reported to be effective against arsenical compounds:

Since then, science, as it is sometimes wont to do, has turned the magic of the stones to chemistry. About ten years ago, Gustaf Arrhenius of Scripps Institution of Oceanography showed that the stones are made of a mineral called brushite, or sodium hydrogen phosphate. And, indeed, by the less-than-romantic process of ion exchange, the brushite will switch phosphate for arsenate in solution, thus “absorbing” the poison. But arsenate is only one form of the poison; arsenite is the other. Now, Andrew A. Benson, also of Scripps, adds the final scientific blow: The sulfur in the protein of the partly digested animal hair picks up the arsenite like a “chemical sponge.” So much for magic stones.

[Susan West. 1979. Science News, Vol. 115(12), p. 189]

Poisons aside, bezoars are still used as an ingredient in various traditional medicinces. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is also still a market for all manner of bezoar stones or “animal pearls” as gems that act as magic talsimans. It is interesting that a “fraudulent” bezoar was at the centre of a legal case in 1603 that gave rise to the rule of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) that dominated consumer law until the nineteenth century [Chandelor v. Lopus, 79 Eng Rep. 3, Cro. Jac. 4, Eng. Ct. Exch. 1603 via] – after all, what kind of idiot expects a magical purchase to actually do what it claims?  Perhaps that same caveat is still implicitly applied to people buying other magic items and forms of quackery? One for Jack of Kent methinks.

Needless to say, the world is full of the oddest people and superstitions.

10 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #7 answer

    • It’s pronounced “trick-o-be-zoar”.

      Tricho- is from the Greek for “hair”
      bezoar is derived from pâdzahr, which is the Persian for “protection from poison”

    • Well, they might work if the medicine is an anti-arsenical. However, in Chinese medicine they’re used to treat painful gums and as a treatment for hyper-tension.

      Since they are chemically active they may be useful, but I severely doubt they’ve been properly tested.

      • One day our reductionist-based medicine will look as terrible as Culpeper does to us, as the Galen-based College of Physicians did to Culpeper, as the other Greeks did to Galen … and Chinese traditional medicine will doubtless still be in pursuit of whatever hapless beast is next up for extinction.

      • Of course not. I was musing on the tube on the original quote and how things we take for granted would look to someone from even the 19th century. Electrical and electronic products would indeed look like magic to your great-great-grandfathers. So I’m helping to train the next generation of magicians.

  1. Pingback: Friday mystery object #36 answer « Zygoma

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