Solanum: The Poison Plants of Witchcraft

Once a long time ago when humans still communed with plants, the spirits of the dead, and the gods, the people learned of the Solanaceae genus of plants  – of both their great powers and their dangers. Those who knew of the secrets of these plants, later branded as witches and poisoners, were greatly feared and cast out of society as the power of the Solanaceae could bring armies and kingdoms to their knees. And they did, many times, when those who knew their secrets used them against invading armies as the first chemical warfare. Those who are most famous for their knowledge of the Solanaceae may sound familiar: Circe, Medea, Hecate; great  sorceresses and a great queen each known for their skill with poisonous plants. The Solanaceae are belladonna, datura, henbane, mandrake, and tobacco which are related to the more familiar sweet and hot peppers, potatoes, tobaccos, and tomatoes.

If these sound familiar it is because the former can all be found in ancient and modern flying ointment recipes and the latter can usually be found on dinner plates around the world. Plants are neither good nor evil in their nature. It is humankind that sets a plant toward a good purpose for healing, or a bad one for killing or cursing. Belladonna, Datura, Henbane, Mandrake, and other nightshades were all commonly found in medicines of ancient times. They were respected for their dangerous powers, but in regularly using them the people of the times found them to also be the most potent of medicines. Only in the last century have extracts of these plants been used in modern medicine. For example atropine, which is derived from Belladonna, Datura, and Mandrake, is listed as a “core medicine” on the World Health Organization’s “Essential Drugs List” as it is used for heart, lung, nervous system problems as well as resuscitation after heart failure, and it is also an antidote for different types of poisoning. All of the plants in the Solanaceae family should never be taken internally due to the compound tropane found within them. The body can build up a resistance to tropane, but the heart cannot and even just one instance of ingestion can cause permanent heart damage and multiple ingestions can result in death. If one is a healthy person, they could get away with drinking properly dosed mandrake infused wine or henbane beer every now and then, but I would completely avoid ingesting belladonna or datura as the dangers and the damage wouldn’t be worth it.

"Witch and the Mandrake" by Henry Fuseli, 1812

The art of poisoning’s association with witchcraft can be found in the Greek word pharmakos, used to refer to herbal remedies,  spell-potions, and poisons and eventually became synonymous with the sorcerers, herbalists, and poisoners who crafted them. Pharmakos of course being the root of the modern words pharmacology and pharmaceutical. The great goddess Diana, who is linked to the ancient Greeks’ goddess Artemis, apprenticed her daughter Aradia (Herodias) in the arts of poisoning as part of her training in witchcraft and then instructed her to teach it to peasants that they may free themselves from slavery and oppression with poison as the slaves did during the Haitian Revolution to win the land they were being forced to work for themselves.

Diana to Aradia from Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches of Italy:

And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
An thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul with witchcraft;
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and terrible thunder,
And with the hail and wind…

Belladonna- Poisonous in the wrong hands, medicinal in a healers hands.

Belladonna

Other Names: Atropa belladonna, Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade, Dwale, Death’s Herb, Sorcerery’s Berry

Ruling Deities & Spirits: Atropos, Dionysus, Hecate, The Moirae, The Valkyries, Freyja, Odin

This plant is named after Atropos one of the three Fates whose name means “inevitable” as she was the one who cut the thread of life causing death for all humans. Some believe the name of this plant is a play on words of a Greco-Roman phrase meaning “do not betray a beautiful woman”, but I believe it simple means “beautiful lady of death” referring to the goddesses who rule this plant. Belladonna is a traditional plant of transvection having been used in shamanism well before its same use in witchcraft to open the doorway between worlds and to leave the body hence its use in traditional flying ointments.

Bittersweet Nightshade

Bittersweet Nightshade

Other Names: Solanum dulcamara, Bittersweet, Felonwort, Garden Nightshade, Scarlet Berry, Snakeberry, Staff Vine, Woody Nightshade

Ruling Deities: Hermes, Hecate

This nightshade is found all over Europe, Asia, and also North America and is most common in forests, hedges, and marshes. It is noticeable by its brilliant purple flowers and its vines which closely resemble that of a potato plant. It has bright red berries and the whole plant is toxic and no part of it is a hallucinogen. It is used externally as a medicine to heal bruises, swelling, sprains, corns, and sores – especially when combined with chamomile.  Not to be burned as an incense or ingested, but it can be used as a ritual ointment or offering for the listed deities. The berries also make a good offering for the spirits of the dead.

Black Nightshade

Black Nightshade

Other Names: Two varieties – Solanum nigrum (European) and Solanum americanum (North America)

Ruling Deities: Hecate, Isis, Saturn, Hades

Found wild in the woods, desolate spots, hedges, and wastelands, this nightshade is also poisonous, but the well-ripened berries are okay in very small amounts. Black Nightshades are not hallucinogenic. When cooked, the berries become safe to eat and black nightshade can be found as a food plant in India and Ethiopia. A clever witch could make a jam or liqueur of the well-ripened berries along with sloe plums from the blackthorn tree for an offering to be used for communion with the underworld spirits and gods. This berry is also found in ancient Kyphi incense recipes as well as salves and incenses for Hecate, but make sure to only use the ripened berries when using for incense as the leaves and roots emit toxic fumes when burned.

Datura Inoxia, Devil’s Trumpet

Datura

Other Names: Datura stramoniumDatura inoxiaDatura wrightii, Angel’s Trumpet, Devil’s Apple, Devil’s Trumpet, Jimsonweed, Sorcerer’s Herb, Stramonium, Thorn-apple

Ruling Deities: Hades, Hecate, Saturn

This large plant is found mostly in North and South America, but smaller varieties can be found in other parts of the world, including Europe. Datura is dangerous even to touch so be very careful when even handling this plant whether live or dried.  It has many healing properties but is rarely used due to its toxicity and its habit of causing severe unpredictable hallucinations that can last hours or days with the person who ate or smoked it usually having to be tied up to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. In South America the seeds of the tree datura (or brugmansia) were once powdered and mixed with pig’s fat to form an ointment used for healing and also by shamans for their out of body travels to the spirit world – however even then it was usually only used in times of great need such as for a soul retrieval or to reverse a great curse caused by the ancestors. In folk magic it is used to break hexes and reverse curses back to the sender.

Henbane, Black Nightshade, Poison Tobacco

Henbane

Other Names: Hyoscyamus niger, Black Nightshade, Devil’s Eye, Henbells, Jupiter’s Bean, Poison Tobacco, Stinking Nightshade

Ruling Deities: Apollo, Belenos, Hades, Hecate, Jupiter, Thor, Zeus

The Henbane plant is found in the Northern U.S.A. and throughout Canada as well as Europe. In European folk magic it was used by men to attract love and/or a wife and it was also burned outside to cause rain. In ancient Greek medicine it was used as a sedative and in Greek folk magic Henbane was used for divination and it can also be found in incense recipes for raising shades up from the underworld. It was also used as an aphrodisiac and in love potions to force someone into love. Henbane was commonly found as an ingredient in beers and wines up until the Middle Ages, however, this plant is toxic and hallucinogenic and, like the other Solanaceae, is better used externally. For witchcraft it can be added in proper dosages to flying ointments or in an aphrodisiac massage oil.

Mandrake, Brain Thief, Witches’ Mannikin

Mandrake

Other Names: Mandragora officinarumAtropa mandragora, Alraun, Brain Thief, Circeum, Circoea, Djinn’s Eggs, Golden Apples of Aphrodite, Mandragora, Mandragor, Mannikin, Sorcerer’s Root, Witches’ Mannikin, Womandrake,

Ruling Deities & Spirits: Aphrodite, Circe, Hathor, Hecate, Medea, Prometheus

In ancient Greece Mandrake was once powdered and added to wines as well as various love-philtres. It was well known for making humans act like beasts and is believed to be one of the plants responsible for the legends of werewolves and shapeshifters. Mandrake is hallucinogenic, and although it contains less tropane than its relatives, it should only be ingested rarely in one’s life. As a hallucinogen it is best ingested as a tea or infused in wine, but it is much more common to find Mandrake being used in flying ointments such as the magic salve of Medea which she learned to make using Mandrake roots from the Titan Prometheus. Medea made this salve for the hero Jason so he could infiltrate Hecate’s garden and steal the golden fleece. If you should choose to ingest or apply a tincture or salve of Mandrake externally be sure to be careful of your dosage first so you don’t poison yourself Mandrake has been used for millennia in folk magic for fertility and love magics. When ingested it actually decreases libido, so the root is used sympathetically for these purposes. When used externally it acts as a euphoric and aphrodisiac making ointments the best choice for sex magic. Mandrake roots also have a long history of being used as mannikins or alrauns – carved dolls imbued with a spirit and used for luck, healing, and prophecy. These Mandrake dolls were usually kept wrapped in cloth or stored in a small coffin-like box and hidden from the view of anyone but the owner. They were considered a great responsibility to own and had to be fed in order to remain potent. Such mannikins were passed down through families for generations before they were outlawed by the Church in Europe.

_____________________________________

Recommended Reading:

  1. Miller, Richard Allan. The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs. Destiny Books, 1993.*
  2. Miller, Richard Allan. The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs. Destiny Books, 1993.*
  3. Müller-Ebeling, Rätsch, & Storl. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Inner Traditions, 2003.
  4. Pendell, Dale. Pharmako Series. North Atlantic Books, 2009.
  5. Schultes, Hofman, & Rätsch. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press, 2001.
  6. Thompson, C.J.S. The Mystic Mandrake. University Books, 1968.

By Sarah   May 10, 2010

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