Monkshood (Aconitum napellum)
Aconite, more commonly known as Monkshood or Wolfsbane, is an extremely poisonous perennial, sometimes grown as a garden ornamental for its rather attractive hooded blueish purple flowers. Unlike many of the rest of the herbs mentioned so far in this article, Wolfsbane is from the ranunculaceae family and is the most poisonous plant in the British Isles. It has a fairly substantial amount of folklore surrounding it, unsurprising given its decidedly sinister appearance. One of the earliest legends mentioning it mention its use on the isle of Chios, in eastern Aegea, in the Greek era, where it was apparently used as a form of enforced euthanasia for those unfortunates who had become senile in their old age. Another legend associates it with the saliva of Cerberus, the decidedly intimidating three headed hound of Hell, who guarded the gateway to the underworld. Aconite grew where the drops of Cerberus’ saliva touched the ground when he was stolen by Hercules during one of his labours, and brought to the surface. A different version of this story mentions that it is taken from the name of the hill ‘Aconitus’ in Pontica, where Hercules fought Cerberus, the drops of the three headed dog’s saliva generating the plant when it touched the ground. Medea used the herb to poison Theseus after he deserted her. (The ‘woman scorned’ seems to crop up quite a bit in these legends!) The Anglo Saxons dipped the heads of their hunting arrows in the juice of the plant when hunting wolves, hence the alternative name of Wolfsbane, although this may also come from the myth that it can be used to cure or ward off werewolves – this depending rather a lot on personal opinion. The plant was another of the infamous ingredients of the traditional ‘witch’s flying ointment’ as the juice when applied to the skin provides a tingling sensation, followed by numbness. Considering that general consensus is that this is one of the most dangerous plants in the British Isles, this is a singularly foolish use of the plant, although not greatly surprising given the other herbs also associated with ‘witches’ (emphasis put on this word as these are the cackling, evil witches of fairy stories I am talking about!). Another tale linking this herb to the traditional ‘evil witch’ mentions that it was painted onto chips of flint which were thrown at the intended target. The smallest scratch would be enough to make the victim sicken and die. The name ‘Monkshood’ comes, not only from the appearance of the flowers, but also from the monks, who used to grow it in their gardens and use it as an addition to rubs to relieve joint aches and pains.
Aconite is a hardy perennial and generally grows in damp and shady places in mountainous and hilly regions, reaching up to 2 metres tall in height. It has deeply divided, palmate leaves which are a glossy dark green above and silvery below, and blue violet coloured flowers formed in tall spikes, which appear between May and June each year. The root is often black in colour, another symbol tying it quite effectively to the Underworld. It is associated with Hecate, Cerberus and Medea, and probably by extension with Cerridwen as another of the Crone / Witch associated Goddesses.
As with many of the herbs associated with witchcraft, Aconite first stimulates the nervous system and grants pain relief, but later on leads to paralysis, vomiting, stomach pains, diarrhoea and finally death. I wouldn’t recommend anyone uses this herb for medicinal purposes or even for magical uses. There are plenty of safer options out there without toying with a plant that is, after all, associated with the very darkest face of the Goddess!
Mandrake (Mandragora officinalis)
Last, but most certainly not least, is the venerable Mandrake, a plant that has a huge amount of folklore, myth and legend associated with it. When you think of witchcraft, this is perhaps the first plant that springs to mind, such is the nature of the lore associated with it. Mandrake, also known as Satan’s Apple, Herb of Circe, Mandragora, Womandrake, Sorcerer’s Root, Witches Mannikin and Dragon-doll amongst other names, is a perennial plant growing to approximately 1 foot high, native to south east Europe and America. The huge root that generated much of the lore associated with this plant is gnarled and substantial, sometimes reaching as deep as 3 feet below the ground. The large, dark green leaves are roughly ovate, with white, bell shaped, strongly fragrant flowers and apple shaped fruits. They begin a greenish colour and ripen to a deep yellow, with a smell resembling that of the pineapple. Frustratingly enough, there are quite a few plants referred to as ‘Mandrake’ – European Mandrake and American Mandrake being the two most commonly known. Some of the plants referred to as ‘Mandrake’ of one sort of another are not part of the Mandrake family – for example Bryony (Brionia dioica) which is sometimes referred to as ‘English Mandrake’ due to the appearance of the root.
There are a number of theories about where the names for this plant originally derived, one of which being from the Greek ‘mandragorus’, which comes from two Sanskrit words meaning ‘sleep bringing substances’. The Greeks dedicated it to Aphrodite. Mandrake dates back to the Egyptians, roughly 1700BCE, and has been found in some of the pyramids. Theophrastus mentioned it as being an aphrodisiac, in the 4th century. In Pliny’s era, it was used to induce sleep and deaden pain before surgical procedures, and it was also made into a wine to give on a sponge to those about to be executed. On the other side of the coin, they were used as a general good luck charm. The Germans named the charms made from the root ‘alraunes’, after a famous sorceress from the country, named the Alrauna Maiden, who made and used charms of this nature. One of the most well known pieces of folklore associated with the Mandrake is the belief that uprooting the plant would cause it to scream violently, a noise that could kill anyone close enough to hear it. In order to avoid the lethal screams, a dog would be tied to the plant and urged to pull it up, using raw meat to encourage the dog’s movement. Mandrake also has a legendary reputation as a fertility aid, as well as increasing the sex drive. It always intrigues me how many of the plants used to promote fertility and boost the sex drive are also highly associated with the devil! I’m sure many of my readers can draw amusing parallels here between ancient Christianity’s strong antipathy towards sex and fertility and the immediate association between plants that encourage this and the devil’s presence.
Medicinally, Mandrake is not really used much these days to the best of my knowledge, given that the roots are powerfully emetic and purgative. The ancients used it as an anodyne and soporific, to treat rheumatic complaints, while larger doses of it can cause delirium and madness, typical of many of the Underworld associated plants. The leaves are – according to Mrs Grieve – quite harmless, although I’m not sure I am overly convinced by this, so better not experiment with it just in case!
Have you enjoyed this series of articles? You may also be interested in the following books:
The Charmed Garden – Diane Morgan; Findhorn Press – Scotland
What’s Your Poison? Volume 1 – The Garden of Hades; Tina Tarrant; Capall Bann – Somerset
Herb Craft : A Guide to the Shamanic & Ritual use of Herbs; Susan Lavender & Anna Franklin; Capall Bann – Somerset
Plants of Mystery and Magic – Michael Jordan; Cassell & Co – London
Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons & Herbcraft- Dale Pendell; Mercury House – San Francisco
Pharmako/Dynamis – Dale Pendell; Mercury House – San Francisco
Pharmako/Gnosis – Dale Pendell; Mercury House – San Francisco