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Building a Better Bezoar Collection

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Long before Harry was introduced to Mandrakes, he had learned of another magical item, one that he would later use to save Ron Weasley’s life: “Where would you look if I told you to fi nd me a bezoar?” the intimidating Potions Master asks Harry during his fi rst Potions lesson (SS, 137–138). Harry, who was taken aback at the idea of being expected to remember everything from One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, would not have found an entry on bezoars in such a book anyway, because it is neither an herb nor a fungus. In reality, a bezoar isn’t a stone—although it rather looks like one—and (despite what Snape tells Harry) it is not found exclusively in the stomach of a goat: it is a lump of indigestible material that forms in the stomach of several sorts of animals.

Even in the ancient world, Muggles prized bezoars as very valuable (and thus pricey) commodities. Like wizards, Muggles credited bezoars with magical and healing powers, and their ability to cure poisoning was but one among many abilities these substances allegedly possessed.

The use of bezoars in Europe seems to have begun during the twelfth century, most likely introduced by Arab physicians who knew of their healing powers from both Greek and Persian sources. Medieval bezoars were collected from goats but also from deer and monkeys, which were of the best quality and were reported to derive from the animals’ heads, livers, and even—in repeating an Arabic myth—the eyes.25 When Harry, following the instructions gained from the textbook of Severus “Half-Blood Prince” Snape, presents the bezoar to Horace Slughorn as the epitome of all antidotes, a woodcut illustration from Hortus Sanitatis might have served as the model for Snape’s notes. In this fi fteenth-century drawing, a bezoar is, exactly as Snape describes it rather curtly, simply shoved down the poisoned person’s throat (HBP, 377).

Yet the bezoar’s high-water mark as a status symbol among European Muggles came during the Early Modern period. Despite the doubts about its healing powers that were raised as early as the sixteenth century by some authorities, such as the French surgeon Ambroise Paré, noblemen and rulers spent ridiculous amounts of money to get hold of the famous “stone.” Bezoars helped soothe their constant fear of being poisoned and were also added to their treasuries, often encased in gold and jewels, as objects whose possession greatly enhanced the owners’ prestige.Bezoars were brought to Europe from all over the (then known) world, including the Americas—such as the three-and-a-half-pound bezoar from Peru that was sent as a gift from Spain to Pope Gregory XIII in 1534.

The pope displayed the enormous bezoar to an awe-struck public in Rome.

Had Snape witnessed this incident, he would have had more to regret than simply the ban on the use of Veritaserum on students. During the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552–1612), at the emperor’s residence in Prague, a mixture of wine and a few grains of a bezoar were given to a prisoner who had been poisoned with aconite (also known as wolfsbane or monk’s hood), the deadly poisonous plant that Professor Snape quizzes little ignorant Harry about on his fi rst day at Hogwarts. Snape would have been proved right about the power of the bezoar: the prisoner recovered after a quite unpleasant night (most likely due to his heavy vomiting), and the delighted emperor, himself an avid collector of bezoars, not only set him free but bestowed a considerable reward on him. Even as the trust in its healing powers waned among Muggles, bezoars remained valuable objects up until the eighteenth century and were often worked into amulets

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