Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

Mabon 1988: Aconite and Belladonna

Hello, my pretties. I hope you all survived your encounter with the first of our poisonous plants? Are you ready for the next two? They also are known to be ingredients in the infamous flying ointments of the Medieval Witches. The first is Aconite, which causes an irregular action of the heart; the other is Belladonna which produces delirium. As the theory goes, these combined symptoms, as well as the properties of the other ingredients, gave a "sensation" of flying. But we all know better, don't we. I mean, what were those broomsticks for anyway?

Aconitum napellus, known as Wolfsbane or Monkshood, is named from either aconitum, which means a poisonous plant, or the Greek akon, a dart, since the plant was used as arrow poison. It is also known as Wolfsbane from the practice that hunters had of injecting bait meat with the juice of Aconite so that the wolves would be poisoned when they ate the flesh. Before the advent of Christianity, the plant was known as Odin's helmet, Thor's Hat, or Tyr's helm, since the shape of the flower reminded people of the headgear worn by the old European Gods. With the arrival of the Benedictine monks with their cowl headpieces, the plant then became known as Monkshood.

As far as the legends go, the plant was thought to have sprung from the drops of spittle of Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld, as Hercules dragged the monster out while performing his twelfth labor. I have also read that the plant was the invention of Hecate, who also made it from the saliva of Cerberus. Since the latter legend predates the Hercules myth, and the poison's connection with Hecate is symbolically on firmer ground, I suspect it to be more valid, the former probably being a patriarchal invention. Also, Aconite was present in the drink that Medea offered Theseus. He threw the drink to the ground where it caused the marble to crack.

Astrologically, the plant is under the influence of Saturn. In Germany, the plant is sacred to the devil. It is also one of the plants dedicated to Hecate, and so would also have a lunar influence. You would do well to place this plant on her altar as an offering to the dark side, especially if entering upon spellwork that calls for a journey to the underworld. I see Aconite as being one of the plants that a shaman would carry in a magic pouch as a symbol for the flight of the soul.

Aconite seeds were useful in one of the charms that the old village wisewomen would concoct. A few seeds of the plant (three, six or nine) wrapped with a lizard's skin would grant the bearer the power to become invisible. In the Language of Flowers, Aconite, with its seedpods shaped like urns, was symbolic of crime. It is one of the most virulent poisons known. All parts of the plant are extremely deadly, cases having been reported in the old herbals of people dying from the ingestion of a few flowers in a salad or a few leaves thought to be that of another species. The juice of the plant was used to poison wells and springs as a defensive action. Among the peasants, it was considered the most suitable means of doing away with one's husband or wife. The aristocracy prefered Hemlock, the drink that killed Socrates, but that story is for another garden note.

So mark my warning well. Use extreme care when handling this plant, especially if you have an open cut on your hand. If the juice from the plant enters the cut, you could experience pains in the limbs, and a sense of suffocation and syncope. To make matters even worse, there is no effective antidote to the Aconite poison, but. as the substance breaks down quickly within the body, if one can artificially keep the respiration process of the affected person in operation until the danger is over, there is a chance of survival.

Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade, is the other plant I wish to introduce to you. The generic name comes from Atropos, one of the three Fates. She is the one who cuts the thread of life, and as such, she is related to Kali, Cerridwen, Lilith and other manifestations of the dark side of the Great Mother. The origin of the name Belladonna, as many of you know, comes from the use that ladies, especially in Italy, made of the plant. The juice of the plant, which contains atropine, was dissolved in water and placed in the eyes to dilate the pupils, making the eyes larger and more lustrous, and the person sexually irresistible. Clearly, this plant would have a use in love spells, but great care must be taken. As the Wicked Witch of the West so aptly put it, "These matters must be handled delicately." Another legend says that the name Belladonna refers to the belief that the plant is the manifestation of a fatal enchantress.

Other common names were Sorcerer's Cherry, Witch's Berry, Murderer's Berry and Dwaleberry. Dwale is Old Norse for trance.

From the descriptions in classical writings, it is thought that the Maenads, followers of Dionysius, drank a little more than just wine before the commencement of their orgiastic ceremonies. I previously reported that Datura may have been one of the ingredients, but from the descriptions of the eyes of the celebrants as flaming and dilated, Belladonna may have been another ingredient. What a hangover these ladies must have had!

In Bohemia, the plant is said to be under the dominion of the devil, who watches over it. He may, however, be lured from the plant on a certain night of the year (not said which one) by releasing a black hen, which the devil will then chase.

The plant is also under the dominion of Hecate, about whom was said that she knows the names of all the herbs and teaches all their special qualities to her daughters. The herb is a perennial plant that grows about three feet tall with brownish purple bell-shaped flowers. The berries of the plant are black and shiny and have a very sweet taste. Unfortunately, this makes them attractive to children and resultant poisonings have occured. The main poisonous alkaloid is hyoscyamine, with traces of atropine and scopolamine. The symptoms of mild cases of intoxication are high spirits and a feeling of timelessness, with the subsequent slumber often producing highly erotic dreams.

Fatal poisonings occur because the breakdown of the poison in the system takes a very long time, unlike Aconite, so it is difficult to keep the patients' respiration going. Gerard, the great herbalist, says of the plant, "If you will follow my council, deal not with the same in any case, and banish it from your gardens, and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleep, wherein many have died."

For the village wisewoman, who knew the exact dosages for all the plants in her repertory of spells, Belladonna was an important ingredient, but for the assortment of witches that we know and love, and who may not be skilled in such matters, Gerard's advice is well taken seriously.


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