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

Mithridates | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Mithridates VI (Louvre). Image: Wikimedia Commons

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

Bezoar | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Fæ/CC BY 4.0/Atlas Obscura

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.

Bezoar | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

A collection of natural bezoars. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Schtone/CC BY-SA 3.0/Atlas Obscura

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

Ambroise Paré | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Ambroise Paré. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Assassin’s Creed

Bezoar | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

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?