Fantasy Tip from the Past: Poisons and the Bezoar
Since July, my epic fantasy series, Pearseus, has had a new intro: the scene where the mysterious Whispers hand Styx the poison that will make her justice. Once again, the inspiration for this was taken from history, specifically from Mithridates, King of the Pontus.
A Hard Man to Kill
Mithridates VI (d. 63 BC) was not an easy man to kill. And God knows enough people wanted him dead. According to Roman historian Justin,
During his boyhood his life was attempted by plots on the part of his guardians… When these attempts failed, they tried to cut him off by poison. He, however, being on his guard against such treachery, frequently took antidotes, and so fortified himself against their malice
Yes, being king of Pontus on the southern shore of the Black Sea was a dangerous job. And Mithridates concocted one of the most well-known antidotes in antiquity (possibly with the help of his court physician Crateuas). Experimenting with different formulations and trying them out on condemned prisoners, he compounded various antidotes to produce a single universal one, which he hoped would protect him against any poison. Pliny (XXIX.25) attributes to Mithridates another antidote with fifty-four ingredients and remarks that the king drank poison daily after first taking remedies to achieve immunity.
A hundred years after the death of Mithridates, Celsus recorded the formulation, which comprised thirty-six ingredients, all of which are derived from plants, except for honey to mix them and castor to enhance the aroma. The concoction is estimated to have weighed approximately three pounds and to have lasted for six months, taken daily in the amount the size of an almond.
Such was the success of this antidote, that when Pompey defeated him, Mithridates tried to take his own life by imbuing poison. According to Appian’s Roman History, his the attempt was a spectacular failure:
Mithridates then took out some poison that he always carried next to his sword, and mixed it. Two of his daughters, who were still girls growing up together, asked him to let them have some of the poison first, and insisted strenuously and prevented him from drinking it until they had taken some and swallowed it. The drug took effect on them at once; but upon Mithridates, although he walked around rapidly to hasten its action, it had no effect, because he had accustomed himself to other drugs by continually trying them as a means of protection against poisoners. These are still called the Mithridatic drugs.
Can the origins of the bezoar be found in this story?
The Bezoar – aka a Hairball
As The Straightdope explains, The original bezoars (also called bezoar stones) came from the wild goats of Persia as well as certain antelopes and other cud-chewing animals. They were believed to offer protection against poison and for that reason were highly prized during the Renaissance by the Medicis, presumably for when they had the Borgias over. If you were too poor to afford a bezoar of your own, you could work around it—alchemists were known to rent them out for general healing.
Bezoars were later obtained in the New World from Peruvian llamas, but these were held to be of inferior quality — although it’s gotta take a sharp eye to tell a good hairball from a bad one. A gold-framed bezoar was listed in the 1622 inventory of Elizabeth I’s crown jewels; make sure you look for it on the palace tour.
As to their healing properties, it was believed that you could either ingest some crushed-up bezoar or, more commonly, drop a bezoar into a drink that was suspected of being poisoned. Alternatively, tiny slivers of the fist-sized balls would be shaved off and mixed into drinks to thwart assassination attempts or cure sickness.
As one might expect, however, the stones themselves were also seen as status symbols. Taking advantage of this, a group of Jesuit monks in the small Indian state of Goa begun in the 17th century manufacturing artificial bezoars to sell to wealthy English patrons and royalty. The polished balls of crud were made of all sorts of strange ingredients including narwhal horn, amber, coral, and crushed-up amethyst, emeralds, and other precious gems, to name a few. Sometimes they would even include bits of naturally occurring bezoar.
Paré the Killjoy
As Atlas Obscura reports, the most famous use of a bezoar was probably an experiment by the 16th-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré, who set out to prove that they were not actually the cure to all poison. A cook sentenced to be hanged agreed to be poisoned instead, just so long as he could be administered a bezoar immediately after, to be set free if he lived. The cook died just hours later, and Paré’s experiment had proved that the power of the bezoar was not quite what it seemed.
Of course, it might also be that the very bezoar killed the poor cook: a rise in the sale of artificial bezoars, possibly including Goa stones, contained poisonous minerals like mercury.
Even with Paré’s deadly experiment disproving the bezoars’ efficacy, they were not so easily defeated. The makers of the Goa stones still believed in their usefulness as a cure-all, as did the rich recipients who purchased them for as much as 10 times their weight in gold. The use of the stones only waned around the 1800s, although they are still as healing items in Chinese herbology.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0/Atlas Obscura
So, next time you have an assassin poison the king in your epic fantasy, be sure to spare a thought for Mithridates. And – who knows – perhaps even have the king survive thanks to his bezoar’s magical properties. Whether he then dies from mercury poison or not is another matter altogether…
If you enjoyed this post, why not continue reading with more posts in the History category?
Sorry I missed you on the 13th as I was traveling. Sorry I missed you on the 15th as I was travelingI love history and this was such a fascinating post. Thanks so much!
Thank you, Linda, and welcome 🙂
Very interesting! Didnt Harry Potter use a bezoar on Ron Weasely when he drank some poisoned wine intended for Dumbledore?
Yes! Well remembered 🙂
Not bad for a woman of little memory… whats there is quite leaky and full of holes, but writing lists help. ?
Sigh… Fading memory – tell me about it… Sorry, what were we talking about?
You know having babies kills brain cells, but I thought that just applied to the mom…
Depends on whether dad is getting any sleep, I guess… 🙂
There is that. My experience is that Dads always sleep well. ?
I knew I was doing it wrong!
Good Sunday Morning, Nicholas! I’m sorry I missed commenting yesterday, but I am glad I visited today! Your site is visually stimulating and informative. I loved the story of Mithridates VI and his daily ingestion of poison. Reminds me of what scientist say is happening to us today with antibiotics. Anyway, I can see from the comments that you had a wonderful Party! Best of sales to you!
Thank you so much, Linda! Interesting parallel to the antibiotics. Love how you turned that whole story on its head 🙂
I did, didn’t I. Sorry! I still enjoyed the history!
Wow! Very impressive post! Glad I stopped.
Thank you! 🙂
I know I left a comment early today, but for the life of me, I don’t see it now. Nich, hope your day was fabulous and tons of fun!
It was great! Sorry for the delay in responding; for some reason your comment ended up in the Spam folder instead of the Pending one 🙁
Very interesting post. I enjoyed it and didn’t know some of the history here.
Thank you so much, Lori, and welcome 🙂
Hi Nicholas, I posted on this on your blog and thought it would come here too. That’s what I get for ‘thinking’. To reiterate, I loved this post and now know what the Bezoars my family threatened me with getting if I ate watermelon seeds really are. I love your interesting historical little known facts. Enjoy your tour.
You’re a star, Micki! Thank you so much 😀
Absolutely absolutely fascinating (if bizarre) information! Imagine a hairball displayed prominently in someone’s home… Disgusting!
Thank you so much, Cheri, and welcome! Yes, I look at my cats in an entirely different way now… 🙂
Great info! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much, Sandra, and welcome 🙂
Fascinating. I always laugh when researching poisoning for books, hoping I never get arrested. 🙂
Lol – yes, I do hope no one ever checks my browser history 😀
Always fascinating findings at your place here Nicholas. Lol, I think I have almost all of your books already. It’s just that dreaded big fat TBR till I get there, so please give my entry to someone who doesn’t have any of your wonderful books. 🙂
Thank you so much, Debbie! You have all of my books?? Wow! A huge, huge hug to you 😀
Oh yes, I keep track of you and enjoy your books. The only problem is trying to be fair and getting to some of my other author friend’s books on the dreaded TBR. I’ll be back to another of your books, a couple more down the reading pipe. 🙂
I can so identify with that 😀
This must be another Greek Mythology? Weird but interesting story. I enjoyed your post and learning new things. Congrats on your books.
Lol – Greek yes, mythology no. Just another example of truth being stranger than fiction 🙂
What a terrific post! My fingers are crossed that I win the giveaway. Lol I hope you enjoy your day on your. ?
Thank you so much, Rhani! Even if you don’t, I’ll be sure to send a little something your way 🙂
This is very interesting, Nicholas. I don’t believe I’ve taken not of a bezoar in any of the Regency Romance novels I’ve read! I shall pay closer attention in the future.
Thank you for supporting RRBC and the Block Party! I hope you have a wonderful day and that you enjoy the rest of the month!
Thank you so much, Patricia, and welcome! It would make for a fascinating addition to a novel, wouldn’t it? 🙂
I love learning new and interesting things. This post is just so informative and enjoyable. I keep looking at my cat with suspicion now. Hair balls anyone? Lovely site, and one I’ll be sure to revisit. Happy rest of your log tour day.
Thank you so much, Suzanna, and welcome. Yes, I now look at my cats in an entirely different way 😀
That’s very interesting. I might use that in a story sometime. Thanks for the nugget of info!!
Thank you so much, Traci, and welcome 🙂
I love researching history for writing fodder – sometimes I get so side-tracked! I have reference books stacked all over my writing desk. Sometime the truth is so much more unbelievable than fiction. Interesting post about poisons and antidotes – thanks.
Lol – yes, I, too, can get lost for hours doing, ahem, research 😀
Great post, cool pictures. Very interesting stuff, Nicholas. Best wishes to you.
Thank you so much, Beem! Lovely to have you here 🙂
Interesting post, Nicholas. I learned something new, even if it was from mythology. Your books sound complex and intriguing. Thanks for having us over. Great party. Uh, I didn’t drink anything…just in case. 🙂
Thank you so much, Jan. Don’t worry, with two cats there are plenty of hairballs around the house 😀
A fascinating blog post Nicholas. I have popped by your blog before as you write interesting content for writers. I will add your books to my TBR list. Shared on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media. Have a great party!
Thank you so much for sharing, Lizzie! 😀
definitely makes history (research is tough for my MS brain) easier to follow 😛
In this case, one might say, easier to swallow 😉
Thanks so much for the fun and informative post; I look forward to checking your books out! Take care and enjoy the rest of your weekend! 🙂 ~Stephanie
Thank you so much, Stephanie, and welcome 🙂
Really informative post today. I’ll have to keep this in mind as I’m reading work as well as when I’m writing future projects. Enjoy hosting the party today!
Thank you, Paul! Likewise 🙂
Very informative stop here from one of my favorite European cities. Thanks for sharing, Nicholas! I enjoyed my visit here. Cheers! S.J. Francis
Thank you so much, SJ, and welcome 🙂
Fascinating post, I really enjoyed it. I’ll definitely be checking out your books.
Thank you so much, Brent, and welcome 🙂
Wow! I am impressed with your research and anxious to read your work. the story sounds intiguing.
Thank you so much, Joann, and welcome 🙂
Such a fascinating post, Nicholas. I have to congratulate you on all your achievements and awards. That’s just remarkable and well earned for sure.
Also, what an outstanding website you have here. In addition to your work, I browsed through the numerous resources you offer to fellow authors. Thank you! Have an awesome day at the party. Cheers. 🙂
Thank you so much, Natalie! You’re too sweet 😀
I first heard of the bezoar in Harry Potter. I never stopped to research its history, though. Fascinating stuff. (And as I’m writing a series with a connection to the Medici, this post could also prove useful to me, so double thanks for posting!)
Thank you, Staci, and welcome! Actually, the initial version of the post featured Pope Alexander VI, whom his successor (and political enemy) accused of dying when he accidentally drank the poison he had prepared for a cardinal. I changed that to feature Mithridates instead, since it’s not proven this was, indeed, the case.
Staci, I thought I remembered a bezoar from Harry Potter too. I thought of you when I saw the Medicis mentioned.
Excellent and interesting post, Nicholas. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Kim 🙂
What a very, VERY attractive site. I found it hard to stop looking at the pictures and reading the info. EXCEPT-the talk about HAIRBALLS! lol Induced my gag reflex….
Lol – sorry about that. Thanks and welcome! If you enjoyed the post, you may also enjoy the rest of my History category 🙂
Fascinating post! I’d never heard of a bezoar before today!
I know, they seem to be largely forgotten nowadays. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that they were still in use as late as the 19th century!
Your research and vast information is quite fascinating. I am very interested in these historical/medical facts even though it is about poison. Thank you for such an interesting blog. Well done.
Thank you so much, Karen, and welcome 🙂
If you enjoyed this, then be sure to check out the rest of my posts in the historical category!
I love the creative ways of killing people! 🙂
Lol – thanks and welcome. Don’t worry, I’ll delete this comment when the party’s over. The cops will never suspect a thing.
I admit I had never heard of a bezoar before but they make for interesting reading…and all kind of story plotting ideas. Thanks for a fascinating post, and have a fabulous party day!
Thank you so much, Mae! Yes, reading about these things is a regular writing prompt 🙂
Hi Nicholas, I really enjoyed visiting your post today?It’s amazing how much such accurate research does for one’s writing and your medieval historical novels, assassins and bezoars stones? – I hope I understood all the significances of the way assassins would go about their grim tasks then. Thanks so much for your wonderful blog?
Thank you so much and welcome! Yes, I do hope the cops never go through my browser history… 🙂
Yum. Nothing like a little hairball shavings in your morning tea! People are strange. These posts are great fun, Nicholas.
I’m so glad you’re enjoying them, D 🙂
Great post – and fab prize 🙂
Thank you so much and welcome 🙂
<3 the Medici-Borgia dinner party crack! LOL 😀 You've outdone yourself with the classical and medieval assassins trivia today Nick – excellent post! 😉
Off to re-blog now 🙂
Aw, you! Thanks 🙂
Actually, the initial version of the post featured Pope Alexander VI, whom his successor (and political enemy) accused of dying when he accidentally drank the poison he had prepared for a cardinal. I changed that to feature Mithridates instead, since it’s not proven this was, indeed, the case.
Well… with the Borgias there’s so many to choose from that if it wasn’t Roderigo, there was always a another contender lining up! 😉
It’s families like that that make me wonder if all of history’s someone’s twisted dream 🙂
Hi Nicholas! Great insight into history and the alchemical arts – I very much enjoyed it. Good luck with your writing and have a great Back to School Blog day! – MikeL
Thank you so much, Mike, and welcome 🙂
Great blog post! Fun to get to know you and your works. Shared! Love the bezoar’s magical properties. I’ll keep my sharp eye open.
Thank you so much, Susan, and welcome 🙂
Always fun to visit a post of yours, Nicholas. There is always something new to learn. (I’ll keep the hairball in mind the next time I have to pass around the Hemlock cup.
Thank you so much, John. Be sure to add some honey to the hemlock, as I hear it’s terribly bitter.
Yes. I like mine with gin. Sorta reminds me of a G&T
Thanks, Nicholas! You learn something new every day! It just goes to show you there have been people scheming since time in continuum. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There’s just recycled old things. Thank you for your enlightening and somewhat disturbing post. 🙂
Thank you so much, Patricia, and welcome! Yes, truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction 🙂
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much, Helena, and welcome 🙂
Awesome post! Great information!
Thank you so much, Lincoln, and welcome 🙂
Very cool post. Can I borrow one of your bezoars for the party route? Maybe they help with hangovers too. I still intend to get to the latest batch of short stories, and I’m making progress that direction.
You rock, Craig 🙂
A bezoar for the party? Now there’s a thought…
Thirty-one days, multiple stops each day. That’s a lot of drinking. Just looking for an edge.
I love your RRBC blog post! So much rich history interwoven in an engaging manner. Bravo to you!
Thank you so much, Mary, and welcome 🙂
I love history and enjoyed learning about the Bezoar antidote. Wow, just amazing.
Thanks and welcome 🙂
It’s incredible to think that an antidote to poisons was discovered so many years ago and yet people still die of poison. Guess the pharmaceuticals of today weren’t around then to grab his formula and market it. Or maybe they were and they have his antidote under lock and key! lol! 😉 I have Perseus downloaded, and it’s on my TBR. I look forward to reading it.
Thank you so much, Yvette! I hope you enjoy Pearseus 🙂
Great information about poison. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks and welcome 🙂
Very interesting. I’ve heard of bezoars in passing, but thought they were a gem of some kind. Have to file this away for future use. Ever wonder what medical practices we have today will look odd and silly in the future?
Oh, the possibilities here are endless 😀
Not counting plastic surgery. Although that is necessary in some situations like accidents.
I know. It was a terrible accident that I was born with that nose.
Odd that you say ‘that’ instead of ‘this’. Are you pointing at someone else over there?
Just Cyrano, staring at me from the mirror.
That man is the envy of all snub-nosed monkeys.
A ha ha ha 😀
Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing. As I live not far from Pontus of those times but a bit more to the western part of the Black Sea, Romania, your post caught my deep interest.
And indeed, there is information here that can be used in a story involving a crime.
Best of luck with your writing!
Thank you so much and welcome, Carmen! I almost took a job in Brasov last year, so I’m fairly well acquainted with your neck of the woods 🙂
Yes, Brasov is a lovely mountain city. and not so far from Dracula’s birthplace.
I live by the Danube. How tight the world is, after all!
Wishing you great sales!
Any time you need a place for promo I will gladly help. My blog
Fascinating place! Thanks for the kind offer 🙂
Great post, Nicholas. I love the history of the Bezoar, and am giggling at David’s suggestion and your reply!! I’ll take that bet and raise you 10 drachmae! lols. I have read all your books and love them. Very best wishes with everything and hope you have a blast on today’s party stop! 🙂
Lol – thank you so much, Harmz! I had no idea you have read all of my books; I’m thrilled and humbled in equal measure. Thank you – and welcome back 🙂
What an amazing blog post! This is the first time I’ve heard of a Bezoar, and I’m intrigued! The photos really add to the story. Nicholas, your research and writing are impressive. What a way to begin the day, wow!
Thank you so much, Gwen! It’s lovely to have you here 🙂
If you enjoyed this, you may wish to see more posts in my History category.
What a vast spread Nicholas! Some of us know how to party. I can see you do. Have a wonderful day, and enjoy your party. 🙂
Aw, you! You’re too sweet! Thanks and welcome back 🙂
Fascinating glimpse of history, amazing what they got up to, isn’t it?
Once again, truth is stranger than fiction 🙂
I found all this poisoning information fascinating. To have to live on guard to that prospect shows some creative solutions. I am glad I could make your dog do a happy dance! I look forward to reading your work.
Thank you and welcome! Yes, Mithridates was nothing if not creative in his approach 🙂
What a post! Homeopathic self-medicated remedies against being poisoned in Ancient Greece, alongside quack goat hairball-inspired cures that are just insane. As if that wasn’t enough, we have a great sci-fi giveaway, and short stories too.
A brilliant start to the weekend, Nicholas.
Best wishes, Pete.
That’s really fascinating. I’ve not given much consideration to poisoning and the lengths people would got to to avoid it. Definitely info to add to the idea bank! Thanks.
Thanks for the history lesson, my dear! It’s just what i needed at 12:35 A. M., to keep me more awake than I already was! LOL Enjoy your stop today, Nich!
Lol – we aim to please 😀
It always leads me to wonder who it was that first suggested an animal hairball as an antidote for poison, and why they would even think anyone would believe it. In pretty much the same way as someone would suggest powdered rhino horn might help as an aphrodisiac. Is there a prize we don’t know about for the most revolting suggestion the ancients could persuade others to swallow (sorry).
Lol – quite right. Probably started as a joke:
– I’ll be you 5 drachmae I can get that guy to swallow a hairball.
– No way, dude! You’re on!