Guest Post – Bezoar: The Princely Stone

Pratibha Rai is an Oxford University graduate and she has been a Harry Potter partisan since 2001. Her research today mostly concerns the sociology of collecting in early modern Europe. She enjoys finding parallels between Harry Potter and history of art — and you will enjoy reading what she has discovered about that life-saving short-cut antidote, the Bezoar!

Bezoar: the Princely Stone

For today’s lesson, we descend to the shadowy dungeons of Hogwarts to “learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making”. As Philosopher’s Stone describes, it is “colder here than up in the main castle and would have been quite creepy”. Among its steaming cauldrons and apothecary jars, Harry Potter learnt of the power of potions under the watchful eye of Professor Snape. In the first ever Potions class in chapter 8 of Philosopher’s Stone, Snape teaches the class about the unusual Bezoar stone, which has the ability to cure the victim of almost any poison (except Basilisk venom). In order to chastise Harry for not paying attention in class, Snape quizzes Harry: “where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?” Only to answer the question himself: “A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.” We know that bezoars were stocked in the Potions classroom cupboard and in the hospital wing of Hogwarts (both mentioned in chapter 18, Half-Blood Prince). The Potions textbook Magical Drafts and Potions by Arsenius Jigger also contains a recipe called ‘The Antidote to Common Poisons’, which uses ingredients such as Bezoars, mistletoe berries, and ground unicorn horn. Though Harry had not shrugged off the mysterious antidote in his first Potions class, his life at Hogwarts was to be particularly shaped by it.

The Bezoar becomes an important actor in The Half-Blood Prince. In one of Harry’s N.E.W.T. antidotes classes, Professor Horace Slughorn presents the class with individual phials of poison, to which they must create a respective antidote. While everyone is busy kindling their cauldron, Harry wittily brings a bezoar from the classroom cupboard to show Slughorn as the remedy to the poison, earning him ten points to Gryffindor for Harry’s “sheer cheek.” Harry excelled in Potions class this year because of a particular book that arrived to him by chance. When Slughorn was newly reinstated, he loaned Harry an old book left behind by a previous student. Though the annotated scribbles in the book initially irked Harry as it made the original instructions difficult to read, he eventually found that trying this student’s methods achieved even better results than Hermione Granger’s. This book was of course the personal copy of Advanced Potion-Making, belonging to Snape when he was a student at Hogwarts, signed under his alias the “Half-Blood Prince”. Advanced Potion-Making authored by Libatius Borage is a textbook used in the N.E.W.T level Potions and contains various recipes for potions. The future Potions Master, Snape, being a talented student, improved many of recipes for better effect. He even scribbled notes in the margins with several spells he had brewed himself, such as Sectumsempra, Langlock, Levicorpus, and Muffliato. Harry even ironically mused, “On the other hand, the Prince had proved a much more effective teacher than Snape so far”. In fact, he grows so attached to the book, that when he gets a new copy from Flourish and Blotts, he decides to swap the front covers and gives Slughorn the new one.

Harry Potter brewing a potion, using the Half-Blood Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion-Making

Harry’s study of the Half-Blood Prince’s marginalia served him well – particularly one instruction that the Prince had scribbled in the list of antidotes: “Just shove a bezoar down their throats.” Without the Prince’s instruction, Ron Weasley would have not lived to see book 7. On Ron’s birthday, 1 March, 1997, he had drunk some poisoned oak-matured mead, which was intended for Dumbledore. Remembering the Prince’s instruction, Harry rushed to retrieve the bezoar he had given to Professor Slughorn and forced the stone down Ron’s throat, thereby, saving his life.

Blimey, it was lucky you thought of a bezoar,’ said George in a low voice.

Lucky there was one in the room,’ said Harry, who kept turning cold at the thought of what would have happened if he had not been able to lay hands on the little stone. (Chapter 18, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)

If Hermione were present, she may have told us about the history of the bezoar stone in the Muggle world but since I conveniently wrote about the bezoar stone in Renaissance Europe as a graduate student, I hope to show how bezoars were used to counter poisons by muggles long before. In the muggle world, namely between the 16th-18th centuries, bezoar stones were believed to possess curative abilities against poisons and were privileged objects set in ornate containers and gold filigree. These stones originated from concrements found in the guts of animals such as cows, elephants, but most effectively, from the ‘bezoar goat’. According to the 1694 source l’Histoire générale des drogues by the French apothecary Pierre Pomet, the strength of the stone was contingent on the animal of origin, so bezoars taken from cows, “have nothing near the good Qualities” compared to the bezoar goat. In the early modern period, medicinal preference was given to bezoars from wild goats from what we now know as modern-day Iran, Northern India, and Afghanistan. These goats lived in mountain pastures and consumed salubrious fodder such as the saffron crocus, which grew in exotic highlands. These ingested herbs were believed to be aromatic and healthful, adding to the therapeutic properties of the stone. This explains why medical sources from this period refer to the stone as ‘lapis bezoar orientalis’; Oriental bezoar. This illustration from Pomet’s l’Histoire displays the early modern enchantment with the bezoar, as the stone’s genesis is shown in an animated goat in mid-leap among rocky cliffs. The goat leaps over the bezoar, which appears as a geode, exhibiting its efficacious source. Pomet believed that such a bezoar, produced in high-leaping wild goats found in the East Indies, promoted sweat and assuaged malignant humors.

The word ‘Bezoar’ derives from the Persian term for antidote; bād-sahr. The value of bezoars resided in the belief that they could be taken to prevent poisoning or after being poisoned. Furthermore, it was also taken as a psychological cure as Robert Burton (1577-1640) in his seminal work The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) advises that the bezoar be used for its “especiall vertue against all melancholy affections” as “it comforts the heart and corroborates the whole body.” Thus, it was also used as a remedy for melancholy and epilepsy until the 18th century. Arab authors such as Avenzoar (1090-1162) who wrote about bezoar stones were revisited again in the West during the 16th and 17th centuries (although earlier Medieval recipes for bezoars can be found in works such as: the Picatrix, Tractatus de Venenis, and Breviarium but Avenzoar’s Liber Teisir provided a guide for using bezoars as ingredients in experiments). The Englishman James Primrose for example probably read the edition of Avenzoar’s book printed in 1490 since he refers to the Liber Teisir: “Avenzoar in his booke Theisier , saith that he saved one that had taken most deadly poyson, with three grams of Bezoar, dissolved in five ounces of the water of Gourd.” Primrose indicates that by the early modern period, bezoars were not only valued as antidotes against poisons, but also as prophylactics. You can still see bezoars today as they have survived in our museums out of the collections initially built in the milieu of courtly ‘art and curiosity cabinets’, or the Kunst-and Wunderkammern in German-speaking circles.


Bezoar from Emperor Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer, an emerald, gold crown set to close the structure and supported by ornamental lions, 16th century,
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The bezoar soon became a metonym for magic through collectors such as Emperor Rudolf II who ruled as Holy Roman Emperor between 1576-1612 during the pinnacle of the European Renaissance called the Mannerist era. Rudolf indulged in astrology, arts, and magic at his court. He was obsessed with his cabinet of curiosity or Kunstkammer, which held more than twenty bezoar stones. In 1609, the Tuscan ambassador even observed about Rudolf that, “he himself tries alchemical experiments and he himself is busily engaged in making clocks, which is against the decorum of a prince.” Several advancements in alchemy and magic occurred during Rudolf’s reign. Rudolf’s Prague was itself a magical arena; filled with renowned botanical gardens, collection of curiosities, and live-animal menageries. The emperor was interested in the cryptic skill of ars magica, which was believed to have power over human beings but could not be detected by the senses. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth’s former court magus, John Dee and his assistant, Edward Kelley were also in Rudolf’s Prague, exploring thaumaturgic paths to the truth, i.e., the ability of a saint or magician to work miracles or magic. They practiced what was then known as “white magic” by searching for natural laws in both science and alchemy. Furthermore, the first edition of Faustbuch authored by Johann Spiess’s was published during Rudolf’s reign in 1587 Prague, this work would later impact Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604).

To amplify the already ‘Princely’ connotation of the bezoar stone in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, bezoars only belonged to princely figures in the early modern period because of its (i) rarity (ii) expensiveness and (iii) the threat of poisoning amongst noblemen. The earliest extant bezoars date from the 16th century, coinciding with the Portuguese establishing trading posts in Goa, from where they exported bezoar stones to Europe. Everyone who was anyone in the Renaissance would have owned a bezoar. The prevalent belief in their curative powers, and the anxiety over poisoning, resulted in sizeable numbers of bezoars entering the collections of Europe’s kings, dukes, and other royal figures. In 1617 Mantua, Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga (1527-1626) owned an entire cabinet of curiosity stocked with bezoars, as did the family of the Wittelbacher. Queen Elizabeth I owned a silver ring set with a bezoar stone. The dread of being poisoned in early modern Europe cannot be overstated, particularly by one unsuspecting substance: arsenic. When added to food or drink, arsenic poisoning mimicked symptoms similar to common food poisoning. Without colour, taste, or odour, arsenic was difficult to detect and thus, was the early modern assassins preferred chemical weapon. The poisoning scandals of the Borgias and the Medicis are well documented, but perhaps one of the most infamous incidents of arsenic poisoning was through a cosmetic product called Acqua Toffana. Around the mid-seventeenth century, Giulia Toffana sold a beauty lotion containing arsenic known as Acqua Toffana. She then instructed women on how to use the lotion for gradually and imperceptibly poisoning unwanted lovers or husbands, as a result of which six hundred are believed to be victims of an untimely death. Bezoars were considered to remedy arsenic poisoning, which was a popular means of eliminating European nobles.

As a matter of life or death, the bezoar escalated in monetary and protective value. In 1598, Christoff Hyeble wrote about the importance of placing trust in the bezoar stone at all cost in his advice to a wealthy German banker called Philip Eduard Fugger:

The [bezoar] stone should be held in high esteem and may be used with confidence not only by those facing imminent death, but also in other dangers, be it at home or abroad…For this reason it is advisable for all to obtain a bezoar stone, regardless of how much effort and money it may take, and to have it readily available at all times”

To illustrate how much “money it may take” to acquire a bezoar, we could refer to Beatrice à Luna, the wife of a wealthy Venetian merchant, who paid 130 gold ducats (about ten times the stone’s weight in gold) for a bezoar stone which she bought from the Portuguese viceroy in India. Among the most costly bezoars in the early modern period were those obtained from porcupines of Southeast Asia. Few of these bezoars made their way to Europe, so they were often given as prized gifts such as the pietra di porcospino (porcupine stone) presented to the Duchess of Mantova, Eleonora de Medici by Ferdinando I de Medici in 1608. Thus, the bezoar understandably doubled as a status symbol with fashionable currency among European merchants and aristocracy. In fact, there was even a system whereby one could ‘lease’ a bezoar for those who desired to keep up appearances in high society. Michael Bernhard Valentini (1657-1729) offers us vital evidence of this practice by describing how German druggists mounted stones in gold ‘cages’ before renting them at the cost of one ducat a day. Wearing the treasured stone in a cage of gold filigree around the neck was not just a fashion statement but also, a talisman. It complexly communicated that the person wearing the bezoar was a source of envy because of their social standing and thus, could be the target for poisoning, but it also notified assassins that the individual had taken precautions against poison.

The bezoar’s mystique was heightened by another Renaissance belief claiming that bezoar stones were formed from the tears of a weeping stag, which although not explicitly mentioned in Harry Potter, we can nonetheless pinpoint parallels. In his 1607 work, The Historie of foure-footed beastes, Edward Topsell describes a particular deer that could regenerate itself by consuming venomous serpents. It then dispelled the poison when it submerged itself in water. In Topsell’s words, “The teares of this beast . . . are turned into a stone (called Belzahard, or Bezahar) . . . and being thus transubstantiated doe cure all manner of venom.” The weeping deer evokes an even more ancient tradition as the image alludes to Psalm 42 in the Bible, where a panting deer longs to behold God, illuminating the soul’s struggle on earth. The weeping deer could thus be seen as a foil for the human soul as it seeks to relieve its spiritual melancholy. As it is poignantly felt in the Protestant poet Sir Philip Sidney’s (1554-1586) translation of the psalm:

As the chafèd hart, which brayeth,

Seeking some refreshing brook,

So my soul in panting playeth,

Thirsting on my God to look.

A bezoar-weeping deer and venomous serpents from Hortus sanitatis, Strassburg, corca.1507. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

As we recall, the stag or deer is a significant animal with emotional ties in Harry Potter as it is a recurring Patronus of the Potter family since James, Lily, and Harry Potter all have deer Patronuses. James Potter even accomplished an extremely complex – not to mention risky – transfiguration process at the age of fifteen where he was able to become an Animagus, which enabled him to wilfully transform into a Stag. Furthermore, the ever loyal Severus Snape also had the Patronus of a doe as a sign of his immortal affection for Lily, whose Patronus was also a doe. In 1998, Snape sent his Patronus to guide Harry to the Sword of Gryffindor, which lay hidden within the frozen lake in the Forest of Dean. It is noteworthy then that just as the deer Patronus appears in times of need, so the bezoar stone formed from solidified tears of a deer offers healing in dire times. They both provide a spiritual and physical antidote to cure individuals of physical and metaphysical illness. We could say that both the deer and the bezoar stone in Harry Potter can be seen as saving people from death, in all its proliferate meanings.

Tomorrow: Summary Justice discussion begins! Be here!

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    This is splendid – thank you!

    Your discussions of Pomet’s and Topsell’s accounts remind me of alchemical procedures – have you encountered explicit discussions along that line – goats and harts as sorts of living mobile limbecs naturally producing bezoars analogous in their degree to the Philosopher’s Stone?

  2. Kelly Loomis says

    This is such an excellent example of the incredible detailed and historical symbolism included in Rowling’s work!!! Thank you for illuminating us.

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Fascinating Pratibha.

    I particularly liked the information that ‘Bezoar’ comes from the Persian term for antidote – any possibility that Avenzoar’s name has a related derivation?

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