Humans are generally a superstitious lot. Take the case of the bezoars displayed in our local museum, where I volunteer a couple of days a week.
The provenance of the largest one is: ‘Ball found in stomach of horse 1885: clay ball, extremely heavy, found in stomach of horse who lived his natural term of life, but was deformed in consequence. Mr Giggens, of Dungarubba, noticed the farm horse and when it died examined its remains. Mr Giggens was an owner of many well-known trotting horses. The ball has shrunk an inch since it was found.’
It weighs 3.3 kg and is 12 cm across – poor horse! Such an object is known as an enterolith, which is composed of minerals – primarily magnesium, ammonium and phosphate. The stone starts to form when a foreign object (say, a small piece of wood, twine, wire, sand or a piece of hair) is swallowed and becomes wrapped, through the internal muscular contractions of the stomach, in concentric rings of minerals.
The other four are trichobezoars, more commonly called hairballs, from a pig (the rectangular one) and some cows (the spherical ones). Those of you with cats will be familiar with them. Cattle are susceptible to getting hairballs in their stomachs because, unlike cats, they do not vomit. People who chew their hair a lot can also get bezoars.
The word ‘bezoar’ originally comes from the Persian, meaning ‘antidote’. They were found in sacrificed animals, and across many cultures were believed to be a cure for leprosy, measles, cholera, depression and other ailments. Part of one could be worn as a charm, ground into a powder and consumed, or dropped into a drink suspected to contain poison.
So how about it – want to try one next time you’re feeling poorly? ‘Hair of the dog’ or cat – in the form of a bezoar – just might fix you up. But I wouldn’t recommend it!