Here’s what I said on Friday, just before 7am:
[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:
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.
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 AbsoluteAstronomy.com] – 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.