A Witch and Her Poisons: A Look at the Toxic Herbs Used by Witches in Past Centuries
Witches and Poisons Go Together Like...
History and folklore tell us that witches and poisons go together like peas and carrots...like milk and cookies...like death and decay...like...well, you get the picture. That turned morbid very quickly, didn't it? Our few written accounts of the Witch Trials in the Dark Ages and Early Modern Period give us a glimpse (though most likely a distorted one) into the lives of the men and women once accused of diabolical magic. Often this included the use of potions, brews and things that would poison people the witches did not like. But others claim these poisons were actually used by witches in order to induce meditative and trance-like states of consciousness. In this context, witches could very well have been practicing a more ancient practice...one that shamans from various cultures have used for centuries in order to connect with the spiritual world.
In this article, we will dive into what history and folklore tells us are the various poisonous herbs used by "witches" in the past...and even by witches today.
The Traditional Poisons: The Solanaceae Family
For as long as there has been talk of witches, there's been talk of witches using various poisons from the solanaceae family of plants. You might not have heard of the scientific names, but you might have heard some of their common names: belladonna (deadly nightshade), mandrake, and datura. These three in particular are doused in folklore and have aided the witch in her wiles for centuries. The solanaceae family of poisons include chemical constituents such as atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine; these ingredients have various effects on the human nervous system (amongst other bodily systems).
Atropa Belladonna, also known as nightshade and deadly nightshade, is a poisonous herb that has been used by witches in creating flying ointments since at least the ninth century. In reality, it has probably been used for a lot longer, but we can only go off of what is written. You may have heard of belladonna in a movie (like Practical Magic) or book or even a song (Belladonna by Stevie Nicks). Did you know just how deadly Belladonna can be? It contains ingredients that will speed up your heart and can be fatal if consumed by mouth. If taken in lower quantities and applied to the skin, it will cause hallucinations but will not be fatal...and this is why witches were thought to have used this poisonous herb in centuries past. By using the Belladonna herb in ointments to be rubbed on one's skin, the witch would then have visions of "flying" to coven meetings (also called sabbats). There has also been stories of witches using the deadly berries from the Belladonna plant to trick and poison his/her enemies.
The mandrake plant, also known as mandragora, is another poison from the solanaceae family often used by witches and sorcerers in their practice. Folklore tells us that the mandrake plant was thought to have roots in the shape of a man (hence the name man-drake), and when it was pulled from the ground it would shriek. The shriek was so powerful it was said to kill all of those who heard it, unless you took specific magical measures to protect yourself. This plant contains many of the same ingredients as the belladonna plant, and it is also said to have been used in witches' flying ointments and poisonous brews. It is also mentioned in the Harry Potter series, to cite a pop culture reference.
Datura, the third of the solanaceae family I will mention, is beautiful and deadly. It has been called the devil's trumpet because the flowers are shaped like that of the fore-named instrument with little "horns" on the edges of the petals. Although the oldest of the written flying ointments do not usually mention datura, it has been used by modern day witches in their modern flying ointments and no doubt by those in the past as well (as it contains the same chemical compounds as belladonna and mandrake).
My Video Showing American Nightshade Plant
Wormwood - The Herb of Artemis
Historically, the herb known as Wormwood has had quite the reputation. Most of you have probably heard of the alcoholic drink called absinthe. Absinthe's "poisonous" ingredient is wormwood, an herb that when consumed is said to cause hallucinations. This drink became very popular in the eighteenth century and was beloved by artists and writers worldwide. It has a very high content of alcohol and it tastes like black licorice. Absinthe's nickname "The Green Fairy" was said to have come from the fact that it is often green in color and brings visions to those who consume it.
Naturally, witches have been aware of the potent power of wormwood since before absinthe was concocted. Wormwood's "poisonous" chemical component is called thujone, and researchers noted that when taken in large quantities this component could cause hallucinations and seizures. Wormwood's scientific name artemisia absinthium is named after the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis. The Roman form of this widely-venerated Goddess was Diana, a goddess who has been said to have been worshiped by Italian witches for centuries. In the classic book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, written by Charles Leland, a group of Italian witches worship Diana as their main Goddess. So in this way, one could see how wormwood would be sacred to "witches" throughout history.
Wormwood has been used by witches in necromancy, burned to "wake the dead". It has also been used in medicinal ways as an anti-parasitic and to stimulate digestion. Some sources say it has been used to prevent malaria, as well. Some have been known to drink it as a tea, but this has been warned against.
Amanita muscaria, also called Fly Agaric, is the "poisonous" mushroom commonly seen in children's books and as decorative lawn ornaments. It is a mushroom with a bright red cap and white spots found in various places in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere.
There is much folklore surrounding the history of Fly Agaric, and it is well known for being a favorite amongst the sidhe (fairy folk). Often when we see pictures of fairies in old story books, we will also see the ubiquitous red mushroom - amanita muscaria. Probably because of the association with the fay, fly agaric is also associated with witches. Where there were fairies, there were also tales of witches in the old days. Perhaps this is also due to the fly agaric's entheogenic qualities? Fly Agaric is said to be poisonous, but many claim that is simply has a hallucinogenic effect and has gotten a bad reputation over the years.
Fly Agaric was a favorite of the shamans from the Norse culture in ancient times. It was so well loved that these people would consume the mushrooms, then save their urine (disgusting, I know) and drink it to acquire more of the chemical compounds filtered out from the body. There are also tales of people drinking the urine of reindeer who have been found eating mushrooms from a fly agaric patch.
Wrapping It Up - More Poisons?
These are just a few of the poisonous plants used by witches in folklore and historical documents. Let's not forget that there are dozens of poisonous plants in the solanacaea family of plants that I did not mention, including: henbane, foxglove, petunia, and tobacco. Other poisonous plants steeped in witchcraft folklore include: hemlock, wolfsbane, and poppy.
Today there are those who practice modern day witchcraft and walk what they call the "poison path", meaning they focus their practice on poisonous plants used by witches in centuries past. Obviously this is a very dangerous method of "the craft", and shouldn't be taken lightly by anyone. Much research and study must be done if one is to delve deeply into the world of poisonous herbs. Take caution if you are planning on studying the poisons. And beware of the witches who lurk behind each mandrake plant!
© 2015 Nicole Canfield