Throughout the history of mankind, we have told fairy tales and myths and legends featuring fantastic creatures, gnarled witches, spooky forests and epic quests. Many of them have featured herbs, in one way or another, such as the sprig of mistletoe that killed the Norse God Baldur, and the Nightshade that seasoned the apple that sent Snow White into an enchanted sleep. Many of these herbs are still used today, including a lot of the herbs previously grown in the traditional and misunderstood witch’s garden – Hellebore, Henbane, Thornapple, Opium Poppy, Bittersweet, Deadly Nightshade, Wolfsbane, Foxglove and Mandrake. Names to conjure with! These are the herbs traditionally associated with Hecate, Goddess of Night and Death, Crone of wisdom and change. Think about them for a moment. These plants, with their dark leaves, and often purple or white flowers, conjure up clear images of wizened old women, evil curses, magic performed in the dark and never spoken about. They are the plants that grow outside the gingerbread cottage, that are often ruled by Saturn and Mercury – chancy planets, which rule plants that can have unpredictable effects. These are the herbs that must be used cautiously, with crone wisdom and clear sight, for small doses can bring about huge amounts of change, and larger doses can kill. Lets take a closer look at some of these mysterious and often deadly plants.
Belladonna (Atropa Belladonna)
Many of us will recall the popular fairy tale of Snow White, which was converted into one of the first Disney movies. Who could forget the tale of the young girl, with hair black as night, skin white as snow and lips red as blood, who so infuriated her father’s new wife that she attempted to have the girl killed in a number of unpleasant ways, the last and most successful of which concerned giving the girl an apple liberally seasoned with Deadly Nightshade – known commonly these days as Belladonna. The name ‘Belladonna’ comes from the Roman practice used by fashionable women of the era, of putting drops of Belladonna in their eyes to make the pupils widen and therefore enhance their beauty. Belladonna – ‘beautiful woman’. Perhaps not the most intelligent idea this use of the herb caused glaucoma in the long run!
The first half of the plant’s Latin name refers to the eldest of the three Fates, Atropos, she who cuts the thread of life. The herb is also associated with the enchantress Circe, a chancy, tricksy character according to legend, as well as with the Underworld. Already we begin to see the dangerous connections that this herb has! Belladonna has quite the reputation, including an association with the devil, and as a component of the infamous witches’ flying ointment. Some legends say that Belladonna is so beloved of the devil that he refuses to leave the plant, leaving it unattended only on May Eve, when he was attending the witches sabbat. The war Goddess Bellona drank an infusion of belladonna before invoking her Goddess self.
Belladonna has a decidedly sinister appearance, with mid green, large, oval leaves, and flowers that are a dusky purplish red in colour. The berries are about the same size as cherries and are highly poisonous. The plant is quite rare in the UK these days which is probably a good thing, as the whole plant is extremely narcotic to the touch and is only used medicinally in minute doses. Overdose causes hallucination, confusion, irritability and drunkenness, followed by coma leading to death – the whole plant is a central nervous system depressant. It is still used medicinally by qualified herbalists, in extremely small doses, to treat nervous complaints such as Parkinsons disease and epilepsy, as well as in mixtures to treat moderate to severe pain.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
Like Belladonna, Henbane has a long standing reputation as a poison and all round dangerous herb. Some of its more colourful nicknames include Devil’s Eye, Black Nightshade and Poison tobacco, indicating its dangerous nature. The plant is associated with crone aspects of the Triple Goddess, unsurprisingly as it certainly takes crone wisdom to know how to use this plant without killing anyone!
Folklore surrounding this herb mentions that the plant was used in wreaths to crown the souls of the dead when they descended to Hades. The Celts used it as a poisonous coating for their arrows, and it later became associated with witches and witchcraft during the medieval era. Apparently witches used the herb to cause convulsions in their victims, as well as in their flying mixtures. It was also combined with the welcome cup at witches sabbats – one can assume at this point that the witches in question were evil witches, because no sensible witch would drink Henbane willingly if it wasn’t as part of a medicine! The herb was used by poisoners if they couldn’t get hold of aconite. A traditional spell involving the use of Henbane dictates that the practitioner should go to a dark, enchanted forest and burn an incense of Henbane, Fennel root, Frankincense, Coriander and Cassia in a censer on a stump surrounded by black candles – the candles will go out once the spirits have arrived.
I’ll dare to have an opinion contrary to that held by most reviews of this herb, and state that I think this plant is actually quite attractive in an unusual, unobtrusive way, covered in fine hairs, with large, lobed leaves that are a dull mid green in colour. The flowers are fascinating, pale creamy coloured with dark veins and a darker throat, and are usually 6 petalled, appearing on tall flower stems above the main plant. The plant grows to approximately 30 inches tall and is biennial, and easily cultivated from seed. Apparently the plant does not smell at all pleasant, although I can’t say for sure as I haven’t grown it myself. I do, however, agree with the general assessment that this plant has a decidedly sinister appearance, much like many of the plants associated with witchcraft.
In both old and modern medicine, Henbane has been used to treat pain, as in small doses it is a very effective painkiller. It is also narcotic and hallucinogenic, and gives visions and deep sleep in suitable sized doses. The plant is sometimes used to treat the tremor caused by Parkinson’s disease in modern medicine. In larger doses it can kill very easily so its best not to use it, and to leave it up to a qualified herbalist to prescribe this plant.
Part two will be posted next week!