Solanum: The Poison Plants of Witchcraft

Once a long long time ago when humans could commune 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. But those who knew of the secrets of these plants were greatly feared and cast out of society as the Solanaceae could bring entire kingdoms to their knees. And it did, many times, when those who knew their secrets used them against enemy kingdoms and 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 Atropa Belladonna, Datura, Henbane, Mandrake, Nightshades, but also 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 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.

"Witch and the Mandrake" by Henry Fuseli, 1812

The art of poisoning being associated with witchcraft is found in the Greek word pharmakos which originally was used for a sacrificial scapegoat to take on the bad luck and sins of a community, but was afterward transfered as a title of herbal remedies,  spell-potions, poisons, and eventually sorcerers, herbalists, and poisoners themselves. Pharmakos of course being the root of the modern words pharmacology and pharmaceutical. The great goddess Diana, who was originally known to the Greeks as 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…

Atropa Belladonna

Other Names: 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

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

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 boiled 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

Other Names: 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 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 much more safely to break hexes and reverse curses back to the sender.

Henbane

Other Names: Hyosycamus 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 as well. However, this plant is also highly toxic and hallucinogenic and like the other Solanaceae is better only used externally. For witchcraft it can be added in proper dosages to flying ointments or in an aphrodisiac massage oil.

Mandrake

Other Names: 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 do not turn into a raving lunatic! 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. Mandrake roots also have a long history of being used as mannikins or alrauns – carved dolls 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.

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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.

* The first two books are the only ones I’ve seen with instructions for use given – innocuous as the covers seem, Miller really did his research both chemically and ritually.

Comments

12 Responses to “Solanum: The Poison Plants of Witchcraft”

  1. Pombagira says:

    excellent article yay..

    *beams*

  2. Basht says:

    Thank you for the information. I actually gave my daughter Nyghtshade as a middle name, after the nightshades (and more particular Deadly Nightshade).

  3. Ivy says:

    Fascinating! I haven’t branched out into learning much about poisons at the moment–still wrapping my mind around healing plants, and that seems a safer place to start for the plant-challenged like myself–but I’m definitely saving this entry to look back on later.

    • Sarah says:

      If it makes you feel better I don’t think every witch needs to learn to work with these plants just because they are associated with witchcraft – there are plenty of powerful plants with the same association like vervain, mugwort, rue, and wormwood for instance. I think if you work with Hecate and her pupils then there would be no avoiding the Solanaceae. I never intended to work with them! But one year some black nightshade grew in my garden – tons of it – I didn’t notice it at first because it had disguised itself among my peppers and potatoes. And the next year I found myself growing almost only Solanaceaes without realizing it and myself realized I had to pay more attention to these plants and learn how to safely work with them.

      I’ll probably be doing more plant entries in the future, less poisonous ones, so that should be fun!

  4. Miaerowyn says:

    Great post!
    Been doing some research on flying ointments lately, and ingredients used. Lots of great info here, as usual! :)

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you very much Miaerowyn! Richard Alan Millers The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs is a must have for those who want to make flying ointments! The original subtitle used to be “a magical text on legal highs”. For some plants he actually gives quantities and for every plant he gives the actual effects of the plant as well as historical and modern ritual use. The chart in the back of hallucinogens and how to take them is also invaluable.

      Slainte!
      Sarah

      • Miaerowyn says:

        This definitely will be something I will have to add to my huge, ever growing book list!
        It is best to be well informed about things like these, especially how much to use, and how to use them properly, otherwise, bad things could be just around the corner. Definitely not something people should just be dabbling in without the proper knowledge and respect for these powerful plants!

        Thanks so much! :)

  5. sara says:

    What a great post :) I have been feeling Hekate’s call for awhile (it got obvious just recently), and in reading your post, I am realizing that I scratched some of that Solanum itch in growing a bazillion different tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers last year. And this year have even more germinated.
    The difference this year is I caved and got some datura seeds so I can grow moonflowers instead of just read about them.

    I expect next year I’ll branch out into the cape gooseberries, groundcherries, and black nightshades.

    I didn’t set out to make a point in my comment, but it looks like my garden is dedicated to Hekate whether I intended that or not, given the toxicity of the foliage of these plants… And their membership in the Solanum tribe.

  6. Richard de Graeme says:

    Dear Sarah,

    I have bittersweet nightshade growing in the garden. How is it prepared and applied for external use?

    All the Blessings!

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Richard!

      You just dry the whole vines sans berries (they’re too poisonous). You can bundle the vines and hang them up to dry in a dark and warm, but not hot, area of your house – or put them in a paper bag and hang them up in the same type of location. Bittersweet nightshade is best used in a salve/ointment not as an oil so you can just follow a basic salve recipe of 1 cup of oil per 1-2oz of dried herbs per 1oz of shaved beeswax. I also use a few drops of an antibacterial essential oil as a preservative.

      Slainte!
      Sarah

  7. AKA says:

    Years ago a friend of mine ate some Jimson weed and after a while he became difficult to deal with, I had to relieve him of the 30/30 Winchester he was playing with. So I can attest to the effects of this weed.
    Another comment, regarding Belladona, is the beautiful woman may have enhanced her eyes by using an extract to make her pupils larger…is used today in opthomlogy for eye exams.

  8. JP says:

    Homeopathic Irishness