Fish Otoliths and Folklore: A Survey

By Duffin, Christopher John


The folklore associated with fish otoliths is traced from classical times to the present day for the first time. Otolithomancy involved divination of maritime weather conditions by consulting the properties and morphology of the “stones.” In folk medicine, they were employed in the treatment of renal problems, malarial fever, nose bleeds, jaundice, pain, and swellings in the groin. They were also believed to act as aphrodisiacs. Modern applications include the treatment of urinary tract infections in Turkey, fever in Spain, and asthma and back pain in Brazil.


Animal Stones

A brief look at classical literature, especially Pliny’s Natural History, reveals a fascination with stones and concretions, some real but many fabulous, believed to have been produced in the bodies of living organisms (Kunz 1915). Most were credited with amazing powers, depending primarily on sympathetic magic, resulting in a surprising diversity of application, especially in medicine.

While some of these stones are difficult to identify with certainty and have a fairly short literary pedigree, others claim a long publication lineage, sometimes persisting into early modern times. Thus, we have stones such as the Hyaenia (formed in the eye of a hyaena), bezoar, Aetites or the “Eagle stone,” Crab’s eyes, Saurites from the bowels of a green lizard, Kenna or “stag’s tears,” Chelonites from the eye of the turtle, Limaceus (the “snail stone”), Pantheros from the panther, Quirinus from the nest of the Hoopoe or Lapwing, Lyncurius (solidified lynx urine), Chelidonius or swallow stones from the mouths of nestling swallows, and Alectorius (the “cock stone” from the gizzard of a capon). In addition to these is a group of stones believed to have been formed somewhere in the head of the host animal. There is, for example, the Toad Stone or Bufonites (Duffin 2003; 2005), Vulturis from the brain of a vulture, Doriatides from the head of a cat, and Cinaedia (fish otoliths), which form the subject of this paper.


The fish inner ear is, in some ways, similar to that of man (Platt and Popper 1981). There is a complex of three semi-circular canals arranged at right angles to each other in three different planes (Figure 1b). These canals detect turning movements by the fish. Each semi-circular canal is connected at both ends to a balloon-like body, the utriculus, which is the main gravisensory organ. Two further sacs, the sacculus and lagena, complete the sensory complement of the membranous labyrinth, and are concerned mainly with sound detection. The sensory functions of the inner ear complex are maintained by the interactions of ciliated epithelia with calcareous structures called otoliths. Each of the three chambers of the labyrinth contains its own distinct otolith; in order of decreasing size, the saccular otolith is called the sagitta, the utricular otolith is the lapillus, and the lagenar otolith is known as the asteriscus. There is a complex of three semi- circular canals arranged at right angles to each other in three different planes (Figure 1a, 1b). Each individual fish will therefore possess a total of six otoliths, with the exception of hagfishes, which have only two, and lampreys, which have four. Sharks and rays do not possess otoliths at all. Instead, they have small calcareous staticonia that may be loosely aggregated and resemble a cluster of sand grains.

Otoliths have a distinctive morphology that is taxonomically useful; it is possible to identify fishes to species level by means of otoliths. This has proved useful, for example, in reconstructing diets from the stomach contents of marine carnivores such as seals, and food preferences of earlier cultures from midden contents. Each otolith is composed of the mineral aragonite together with a small amount of organic material. It grows incrementally, which means that age data can be obtained for the parent fish. Although stable, aragonite may convert to its polymorph, calcite, which renders it very durable under conditions of burial. Indeed, otoliths have proved to be important biostratigraphic tools in geology (Nolf 1985).

Classical Records

The ancient Greek philosopher and polymath, Aristotle (384-22 BC), was a prolific writer. Included amongst his works is his History of Animals, a treatise of ten books that is concerned largely with long descriptions of animal habits and anatomy. In this volume he introduces the idea that certain fish have a cranial sensory system, at the centre of which lies a stone (B. viii. c. 19; Thompson 1910; Balme 1991):

Fishes do not thrive in cold places, and those fishes suffer most in severe winters that have a stone in their head, as the chromis, the basse, the sciaena, and the braize; for owing to the stone they get frozen with the cold, and are thrown up on shore (Thompson 1910).

This idea is repeated by Plinius Secundus (23-79 AD), famous victim of the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny amassed a huge quantity of colloquial belief and local lore in rather a hodge-podge fashion in his monumental Natural History. Book 9, 24 records:

All fish have a presentiment of a rigorous winter, but more especially those which are supposed to have a stone in the head, the lupus, for instance, the chromis, the sciaena, and the phagrus. (Rackham 1947, 201).

Elsewhere in the same work, Pliny also indicates that the fishes called Bacchus (32:32; Jones 1963, 527), Asellus (32:38; Jones 1963, 533), Cinaedius (37:56; Jones 1963, 289) and Synodus (37:67; Eicholtz 1962, 313-supposedly found in the brain) also possess stones in the head. Thus, in all, classical writers identified at least nine different food fishes as possessing stones in the head. The identity of these fish is of some interest. [1]

Folklore Applications

Pliny goes on to associate a number of the stones with cures for specific maladies. For example, the “pebbles” in the fish Bacchus “are excellent treatment for the stone” (32:32; Jones 1963, 527), referring to urinary calculi-either kidney stones or bladder stones (or both). Those found at the full moon in the head of Asellus were “tied on the patient in a linen cloth” (32:38; Jones 1963, 533) as a cure for recurrent fevers.

Cinaedia gets the most detailed comment, however, with a double entry:

“Cinaediae” or “cinaedius stones” are white, oblong stones found in the brain of the fish so named. They have a remarkable effect if only we can believe the statement that they predict conditions at sea, foretelling mist or calm as the case may be (37: LVI, 153; Eichholz 1962, 289).

Lizards too are employed in several ways for eye remedies. Some shut up a green lizard in new earthenware, and with them the pebbles called cinaedia, which are used as amulets for swellings on the groin, mark them with nine marks and take away one daily; on the ninth day they set the lizard free, but keep the pebbles for pains in the eyes (29:130; Jones 1963, 265).

The use of otoliths in Roman times seems to be supported by archaeological evidence. Piques reports the discovery of a thirty millimetre long by fifteen millimetre wide right sagitta belonging to Argyrosomus regius, the Meagre, discovered at the excavations of the Roman Baths at Barzan Charente-Maritime, France (Piques 2003, 503). Argyrosomus is a large (up to 230cm long) marine perciform fish that is still fished commercially, found in inshore and shelf waters of the Eastern Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The otolith from Barzan probably came from a 200 cm long individual, and appears to have been worked for incorporation into a housing, perhaps ultimately for use as a pendant. Piques notes that otoliths of the European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), sometimes elevated to the status of semi-precious stones as “Perles de maigre,” are mounted in a gold band and worn in modern Spain as pendants or on buckles as an anti-febrile prophylactic (Piques 2003, 505).

Compared with other stones believed to be of animal origin, the Cinaedius has a relatively sparse representation in older literature; it does not appear in Anglo-Saxon Laeceboc or in the lapidaries of mediaeval scholars such as Hildegard of Bingen, Marbode of Rennes and Albertus Magnus. The only record I have been able to find from this period is a brief mention by Saint Isidore (570-636 AD), Bishop of Seville, who refers to the ability of the stone to predict the faces of the sea (Lindsay 1911, Liber XVI Caput X, De Candidis 8). [2] Piques proposes the interesting hypothesis that the morphology of the convex outer surface of the otolith might have been the focus of maritime meteorological divination; a roughened area occupying about one-third of the surface area of the lapillus bears a resemblance to the waves on the surface of the sea (Piques 2003, 506). John Jonstonus, however, states that the prediction of storms or calm at sea is a function of “their troubled or peaceable colour” (Jonstonus 1657, 114).

The first incunabular record of the cynaedius is found in the Hortus Sanitatis or “Garden of Health,” published in several editions from around 1483 (De Cuba 1496, leaf Xii verso). Here, a delightful woodcut shows a man collecting shellfish and possibly pearls on the seashore (Figure 2). A conveniently placed, beached fish has the position of the otolith clearly marked by a cranial swelling.

In the ap\proximately contemporary Peterborough Lapidary, otolithomancy has been subtly replaced by the ability of the stone to protect the bearer both at sea and on land:

Cymydia is a stone, & he is found in ye hedd of a fisch; & is longe stone & a wyght. If a man bereth him in his mowthe ther schall no tempest in water do him harme neder by lond, ne he schall neuer be scomfited in were (Evans 1932, 78).

Camillus Leonardus, physician to Caesar Borgia, finds that there are actually three “Cimedia”:

there are two found in the Head, and a third near the third Joint of the Backbone, towards the Tail; it is round, and of the Length of seven Fingers. Its broad Head being put before the Light, the Spine appears within. Magicians say, that their Virtue is to foretell the Calms and Storms of the Sea and Air. If taken in Drink they excite Luxury in the Day (Leonardus 1502, leaf XXVIII verso; 1750, 89).

The length estimate seems to refer to the whole fish rather than the otolith. The property of exciting “Luxury” is an archaism reflecting aphrodisiac qualities; the owner will be prone to lechery or lust.

Leonardus further extends the list of fishes yielding cranial stones by noting that the “Corvina” is found in the head of the “Cabot” (Bull-Head or Miller’s Thumb-Cottus gobio; Linnaeus 1758)

… and there are always two. The Colour of it is a darkish white, with an oblong crooked Figure in one part, and in the other concave, with a little rising in the Middle. It is extracted while the Fish is yet panting, in the Increase of the Moon, and in the Month of May. Being carried in such a Manner as it may touch the Flesh, it cures the Gripes [a spasm of pain]; and being bruised and taken, it has the same Effect (Leonardus 1750, 89).

This is the only record where such a precise collection time must be strictly adhered to in order to preserve the efficacy of the stone, but recalls similar restrictions imposed on the collecting of the ovum anguinum (at least some of which were fossil echinoids) and the toadstone (fossil fish teeth belonging to the genus Lepidotes). “Bruising” the stone refers to it being pounded and grated in order to provide a powder, which, at least in the case of other mineral materials, was often taken as a draught dissolved in water, milk, wine, beer or various herbal “Waters.” He also notes that the:

Aquilinus, a Lymphatic, is found in a certain Fish, and is beneficial to the Life of Man. For being hung about the Neck, or otherwise carried, it drives off and takes away the Miseries of Quartan Ague (Leonardus 1750, 74).

The Quartan Ague refers to a type of malaria in which a fever recurs every fourth day.

Encelius (1517-83) (Latinised form of Christoph Entzelt) introduces the Lapis Carpionis or Carpstone as a medicinal aid in “colic passion,” and the Gemmae Percae for urinary calculus (Encelius 1557, 217-218; see also Baccii 1603, 218). The carp referred to here is probably Cyprinus carpio carpio (Linnaeus 1758), the Common carp (Order Cypriniformes, Family Cyprinidae), growing to 120 cm long, and found in turbid freshwater.

Robert Lovell further expands the diversity of fish species known to yield cranial stones, noting that Coracinus (“Crowfish”) stones:

… help the nephritick pain or collick, and the jaundice. They help the stone of the reines, by drying up the phlegme, or dryving it out by its weight, like the Jews or Lynces Stone (Lovell 1661a, 193).

The Jews Stone mentioned in the passage refers to the spines of the Jurassic fossil echinoid, Balanocidaris, which were used extensively in the treatment of urinary calculi (Duffin 2006). Similarly, “Lynces Stone,” believed to be the petrified urine of the European Lynx has variously been interpreted as amber or a variety of the mineral tourmaline (Pliny Natural History 36; Ovid Metamorphoses 15, 413-415; Watson 1760, 396; Kunz 1913, 295; Jones 1963; Eicholtz 1967, 108; Melville 1987, 364; Duffin 2006). Fossil belemnites were certainly identified as Lynx stones in the medicine cabinets of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collections formed the core of the British Museum, and the Parisian apothecary Pierre Pomet (1658-99), again for the treatment of urinary problems.

Furthermore, Lovell cites the Perch Stone as helping “the stone in the reines [kidneys], and other pungent griefes in the sides,” while the stone obtained from the Scorpion Fish “helps the stone, So their ashes.” Stones from the skull of the Tench (Tinea tinea) have similar properties to those of the Carp, those from the Umber “help the collick,” and those from the Mullet “help against the Nephritick passion” (renal colic).

Lemnius (1658) notes that many species of fish have “exceeding hard stones in their heads” and that:

… bruised and given in wine, [they] ease the cholick, and break the stone of the reins, not onely by their weight and heavinesse, as some think, but by an imbred property, whereby they discusse and dissipate the collection of humours. The triangular stone of a carp powdred, will stop the blood that runs out of the nostrills, by its great astriction, which you may perceive also by tast (Lemnius 1658, 139).

The property of assuaging haemorrhage is repeated for the Carp Stone by Lovell (1661b, 103).

Thus having become established in the literature through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a number of authors reiterate the supposed benefits of the stones, particularly the Perch Stone and the Carp Stone (for example, Nicols 1652, 176; Culpeper 1657, Book III, Title II, Articles I, IV, III, 5, 10 [page 4] and 8, Point 1 [page 36]; Charleton 1668, 256; Langius 1708, 59, 51; Hahnemann 1793-99, vol. 1 part 1, 178, vol. 1 part 2, 472-3, and vol. 2 part 1, 192). Quoting Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), Culpeper introduces stones from the head of a shark under the name “Tiburones”:

In the Indian sea are caught fish, called Tiburones, being great, strong, fighting fish, and of a terrible aspect, which daily fights with the Sea Wolves; in their heads is found three or four Stones, and sometimes more, very white, great and heavy; so that sometimes one of them weighs two pound; the powder of them cureth the Stone in the Reins and Bladder, and difficulty of Urine, and is of no taste at all (Culpeper 1659, 271).

Lovell (1661b, 98) confirms their application to urinary problems, while Sloane remarks that “The Stones in the Head of this fish are good for those who cannot make water, and for pain in the Liver” (Sloane 1725, 23). Indeed, one of the four existing drawers from Hans Sloane’s medicine cabinet includes an unidentified otolith in one of its compartments (Figure 3).

The first illustrations of otoliths appears to be those by Gesner (1565-66) (Figure 4). The transition from folklore to science was, however, the result of a closely focused review by Klein (1740). Following a survey of hearing in fishes, Klein goes on to assert that three pairs of otoliths, or “ichthyoliths” as he refers to them, are the norm for a wide variety of fishes including sharks (Klein 1740, 10), and gives figures of a range of examples.

The eighteenth-century enlightenment, both with respect to the nature and origin of fish otoliths and the subsequent progressive demythologising of medicinal simples and pharmaceutical items, did not bring fully to a close their use in folk medicine. Although records are sparse, it is obvious that some cultures still utilise otoliths in a pharmaceutical capacity today. Mention has already been made of their use as protective amulets against fever in Spain (Piques 2003, 505). In Turkey, otoliths from the marine perciform Sciaena umbra (Linnaeus 1758)-the Brown Meagre-are finely ground and used as a remedy for urinary tract infections (Frimodt 1995). The same is also true of fishing communities in Iceland during the recent past (pers. comm. Tordur Tmasson 2006). The fishing community of Siribinha Beach, Bahia, Brazil utilise the otoliths of the ocean- dwelling sciaenid perciform, Micropogonias furnieri (Desmarest 1823), or the Whitemouth Croaker. The fishermen boil the otoliths in order to produce a tea, which they then drink in the belief that it provides protection against stings by the same fish (Costa-Neto 2000,3). Fishery reports, however, record universally that the Croaker is harmless. A further application in Brazil involves Barra (near San Francisco, State of Bahia) fishermen roasting the Croaker otoliths, which are then finely ground and the resulting powder dispersed in warm water. The ensuing draught is then used to treat those suffering from asthmatic and urinary problems. Alternatively, the otolith is carried inside a pocket in the clothing in order to ward off and treat back pain (Costa-Neto, Dias and de Melo 2002, 568). Furthermore, during the seventeenth century, Brazilian witch doctors used otoliths both as magic tools and medicines to treat kidney stones (Costa-Neto, Dias and de Melo 2002, 568).

A summary of the uses of otoliths according to classical, late mediaeval and renaissance folklore is presented in Table 1.

The question arises of whether otoliths have any scientifically proven health benefit to the consumer. I am not aware of any empirical data relating to either positive or negative effects as a result of being treated with otoliths. Urinary calculi are usually composed of either calcium oxalate or, less commonly, the mineral struvite, a hydrated ammonia-magnesian phosphate (Parmar 2004). Kidney stones begin to grow as a consequence of the crystallisation of calcium phosphate (apatite) nuclei by nanobacteria-tiny, intracellular bacteria infecting the kidney tissues. There are many risk factors involved in further concentric growth of the stones, ranging from dietary considerations to variations in renal physiology and the natural balance between intrinsic stone promoters and inhibitors in the cells (Parmar 2004,1420). It could, of course, be argued that the treatment of urinary calculi by otolith ingestion w\as iatrogenic-a case of the supposed cure initiating the disease. Otoliths are calcareous in composition, and their consumption might be expected to raise the calcium levels in body fluids, which could, in turn, exacerbate stone development. On the one hand, otoliths, which range in size up to about one and a half centimetres, would obviously elevate dietary calcium levels. On the other hand, a wide range of intrinsic and other extrinsic factors also have a bearing on the development of urinary concretions. It is doubtful that otolith ingestion was a powerful iatrogenic factor, but its significance might increase when combined with, say, changes in the composition or volume of drinking water, excessive loss of body fluids (e.g. by sweating in hot climatic conditions), and disruptions to kidney and parathyroid metabolism.


Otoliths, the “stones” found in the heads of fishes, were used in folk medicine and meteorological divination from classical times to the mid-eighteenth century, when their appreciation was put on a more scientific footing. They were used in the treatment of a range of diseases including urinary problems, particularly kidney and bladder stones, malaria, jaundice, fever, liver complaints and haemorrhaging, especially from the nose. Certain modern communities still utilise fish otoliths in order to give protection against fever, stings from fishes and in the treatment of infections of the urinary tract.


The author would like to thank the Wellcome Library for access to the many volumes consulted in the preparation of this paper, and for permission to reproduce the figures from Gesner (1565-66) and de Cuba (1483). Adrienne Mayor made a number of helpful suggestions at the review stage. Cristina Lerner-Noy and Martha Richter kindly helped to clarify the author’s inferences from texts written in Portuguese. Tordur Tomasson of Skogar discussed aspects of Icelandic folklore with the author.


[1] The identities of some of the fishes mentioned in classical texts are:

1. The “Lupus” (Wolfperches in German) is probably Dicentrarchus labrax (Linnaeus 1758)-the European Sea Bass. A common food fish, this marine perciform actinopterygian (Family Moronidae) grows to over one metre in length and weighs up to twelve kilograms (Fiedler 1991).

2. “Chromis” is most likely the marine sciaenid perciform, Sciaena umbra (Linnaeus 1758), commonly known as the Brown Meagre. This might well also be the identity of “Sciaena.” This fish reaches lengths of seventy centimetres.

3. “Bacchus” is generally identified as one of the aselli, a Grey Mullet, perhaps Mugil mabrosus or Mugil cephalus (Linnaeus 1758) (Perciformes, Family Mugilidae), the Flathead Mullet (up to 120cm long and weighing up to twelve kilograms).

4. Asellus itself is generally taken to include the European Hake, Merluccius merluccius (Linnaeus 1758) (Order Gadiformes, Family Merlucciidae), plus possibly Phycis phycis (Linnaeus 1766) (Mediterranean Hake or Forkbeard) and P. blennioides (Brunnich 1768), the Fork-beard Hake or Greater Forkbeard.

5. Claudius Aelianus (On the Characteristics of Animals Oi. 7; see Aelian 1959) (c. 175-235) suggested that “Cinaedius” might be the Bass, and thus synonymous with Lupus.

6. “Synodus,” a name indicating direct opposition of teeth in the upper and lower dentitions during occlusion, probably refers to a sea bream, possibly Sparus aurata (Linnaeus 1758), the Gilthead Sea Bream (Perciformes, Family Sparidae), or Pagellus bogaraveo (Brnnich 1768), the Blackspot Sea Bream, both species reaching a length of around seventy centimetres and a weight of around twelve kilograms. Note, however, that the members of the Family Synodontidae are the Lizard fishes or Javelin fishes.

[2] “Cinaedia invenitur in cerebro piscis eiusdem nominis, Candida et oblcmga. Praesagare his ferunt maris signa tranquillitatis vel tempestatis” (Lindsay 1911, Liber XVI Caput X, De Candidis 8).

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Biographical Note

Following a Geology Degree, Chris Duffin gained a PhD in Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy at University College London in 1980. He has published over eighty palaeontological papers and contributions to books, mostly on fossil fishes. He is currently researching the folklore of fossils, particularly their use in folk medicine from classical to early modern times. Working as a school-teacher, he is Head of Biology, Head of Critical Thinking, and Deputy Head of Sixth Form at Streatham and Clapham High School.

Copyright Taylor & Francis Ltd. Apr 2007

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