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A Witch and Her Poisons: A Look at the Toxic Herbs Used by Witches in Past Centuries

Updated on July 20, 2015
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Kitty has been fascinated by witches since she was small. She has studied the folklore and history of witchcraft for the past sixteen years.

Who knows what malevolent poisons are brewing in the witches' cauldrons tonight...
Who knows what malevolent poisons are brewing in the witches' cauldrons tonight... | Source

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.

Witches flying to a sabbat, no doubt by using the poisonous plants in the solanaceae family.
Witches flying to a sabbat, no doubt by using the poisonous plants in the solanaceae family. | Source
The Datura flower, part of a plant used in flying ointments.
The Datura flower, part of a plant used in flying ointments. | Source

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

A lovely woman holding a glass of absinthe (containing wormwood).
A lovely woman holding a glass of absinthe (containing wormwood). | Source

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.

Fly Agaric was used by people in centuries past to go on visual "journeys".
Fly Agaric was used by people in centuries past to go on visual "journeys". | Source

Fly Agaric

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.

A witch at her cauldron, being guided by "beasts" and probably using a poison or two...
A witch at her cauldron, being guided by "beasts" and probably using a poison or two... | Source

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

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  • WhiteOwl87 profile image

    WhiteOwl87 19 months ago

    I was actually hoping for a more in depth look at Amanitas and witches. I think I'll write one!

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 19 months ago from the Ether

    WhiteOwl87 - I have another hub on the topic of mushrooms here

    https://hubpages.com/education/List-of-Poisonous-M...

  • WhiteOwl87 profile image

    WhiteOwl87 19 months ago

    Very entertaining research you've presented here!

    I love Amanitas. Such fascinating little things with much power and wisdom to offer!

    Did you know Norse warriors used to ingest Amanitas to induce a berserk trance? Something tells me Vikings learned a lot from witches at one time.

    If you know of anymore Hubs on the subject of Amanitas I would love to read them.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 19 months ago from the Ether

    hazeltos - They might have been! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 19 months ago from the Ether

    Cee-Jay - LOL!

  • Cee-Jay Aurinko profile image

    Cee-Jay Aurinko 19 months ago from Cape Town, South Africa

    Cool post Nicole. If I ever see somebody holding a mandrake plant in his/her hand, I'll know what to do - run! ^_^

  • hazeltos profile image

    Susan Hazelton 19 months ago from Summerfield, Florida

    Fascinating hub. I love learning anything about the use of plants, medicinal and otherwise. I agree with Poetryman6969 it sounds like they had self medicating in hand.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 19 months ago from the Ether

    Lee Tea - So cool! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge on the subject matter. Finding and identifying local plants is one of my favorite things to do. :)

  • Lee Tea profile image

    Lee Tea 19 months ago from Erie, PA

    I dig it up, but I get more and more belladonna growing behind my shed every year. Fly agaric isn't one to pick and eat no matter how adventurous your are - there are others, psilocybes (cubensis, cyanescens) but amanita isn't a psilocybin experience - it's not just "poison" as in psychoactive, it's more along the line of a deadly - which may be why they were consumed after the body had processed them once. Now that's some flying reindeer! Witches too... you don't necessarily have to leave the ground to get to higher perspectives. Fly agaric's usually depicted red but we find them more commonly orange here in NW PA - anyway don't eat those ones. I really enjoyed reading of the sidhe and Norse being so seamlessly linked into herbalism as that is the lore I was brought up in and the path along which I continued to follow, I know folklore accounts vary but this story felt like home. The plants and the language surrounding them offer so much useful, tangible, free knowledge about the world we live in - if any of this piques your interest, grab a field guide for the herbs, plants, and mushrooms of your region and start learning! Don't let the idea "witchcraft" scare you off - they've been made out to be ugly, you've seen the cartoons ... call it "which craft", answer "all of them!" and get to learning something useful :)

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 19 months ago from the Ether

    StarryNight80 - No, thank you!!!

  • StarryNight80 profile image

    Cassandra 19 months ago from SoCal

    Love it! Thank you

  • RJ Schwartz profile image

    Ralph Schwartz 22 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

    Nicely done and very informative - hopefully it will bring a more sophisticated understanding of witches to the world.

  • Melissa Cavazos profile image

    Melissa Cavazos 22 months ago

    I am so obsessed with all your writings.Loving the means and information.

    As always a big Thank You for your guidance. Melissa Jo Cavazos

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 23 months ago from the Ether

    Thank you, Anne. Agreed!

  • Anne Harrison profile image

    Anne Harrison 23 months ago from Australia

    A fascinating hub, and congratulations on HOTD. Often there is such a fine line between medicinal and poisonous. Voted up

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 23 months ago from the Ether

    DzyMsLizzy - Very good points. Oh yes, the peyote. Same kind of concept, right? And you're right about the foxglove...I'm actually growing some from seed right now...don't plan on using it tho. LOL. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    Nicole Canfield 23 months ago from the Ether

    heidi - Thanks, lady!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 23 months ago from Oakley, CA

    Congrats on HOTD!

    Very interesting, indeed. "Flying ointment" LOL. I have read about shamans and the like indulging in hallucinogens...or smoking peyote for the same reason.

    Foxglove--if I am not mistaken, is the source for digitalis, a heart medication. But it is dangerous as well. Today's pharmacopeia has a plethora of dangerous drugs and chemicals--so are we really so different from "witches" of old?

    Voted up +++

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 23 months ago from Chicago Area

    Always interesting stuff, Kitty, and worthy of Hub of the Day! Congrats and blessings!

  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 23 months ago from Northeast Ohio

    Kitty, congrats on HOTD! This was really interesting to know about what the witches use for their poisons in their spells. Voted up!

  • LongTimeMother profile image

    LongTimeMother 23 months ago from Australia

    Wormwood is one of the herbs I grow to feed animals on my small farm as a worm preventative. I wonder if they've been hallucinating ...

    I haven't noticed any odd behaviour to date. :)

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 24 months ago from the Ether

    Genna - Oh, yes. They can do both. I have had experience with healing from herbs but do not want to experience the latter. Thanks for reading!

  • Genna East profile image

    Genna East 24 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

    Herbs can both heal and harm. Any time a mushroom has bright colors...it means one thing: Don't touch! So that's what Belladonna looks like. Interesting article, Kitty.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Kildare05 - LOL! So true!

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Nell - LOL, good! Now you know which berries to never eat! Thanks for reading. I always enjoy writing about witches. :)

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    Kildare05 2 years ago

    Great hub Kitty! I didn't know Mandrake was a red plant. Two points to J.K. Rowling for doing her research. Lol

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

    I never knew what belladonna looked like so this is good to know! lol! interesting stuff, good witch bad witch! you just never know which way they will go! fascinating read as always, nell

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Oztinato - LOL true.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    frankcofrah - Often people are scared of the things they have no experience with or don't understand. Good point though!

  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    poetryman - Very good points! And they could very likely hold some weight, historically. Thanks for bringing that up!

  • Oztinato profile image

    Oztinato 2 years ago from Australia

    The rare male leaders of covens were often the rare few who could withstand all the constant poisonings of errant males!

  • frankcofrah profile image

    frank nangame 2 years ago from western

    Then,those witches were good herbalist. However, they used their skills in this field wrongly.

    I really fear any act whose involvement is basically witchcraft. I would rather roll my tail down as sacred dog than witness or become a victim of witches and their craft deeds.

  • poetryman6969 profile image

    poetryman6969 2 years ago

    It looks to me that "witches" just wanted to get high! I have never done any research on the matter so this is pure speculation but if men tended to keep the liquor to themselves then women might still want to self medicate given that pregnancy, child birth and other concerns women had a great deal more regular pain to deal with than men. This desire on the part of women and their ready access to plants could have led to women using plants for other than food and medicine.

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