Notes from Diane's Garden
Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster
Yule 1988: Henbane
[deja vu all over again--vw]
The Goddess Must have Something in Mind but I can't Figure it out Dept.
So here I sit with the post-election pre-inquisition blues again mama, just trying to make sense of the universe and why George Bush (or George Shrub as my friend Bruce calls him) is now prez. Well, just remember "The White House is a Crack House." (Credit for that one goes to the other Dharma Dumpling in my life, Miles).
The Compost Coven "Thirteen Years of a Good Thing" Reunion took place on October 23 at my house. In attendance were all the original members that could be found; Starhawk, Jo, Amber, Beth Thundermeadow, Marv, Arden and yours truly plus Valerie as first of the next generation. Everyone kissed and made up for the animosities that had developed before the group broke up, which was what I'd hoped for. I must say that the Compost Coven is still HOT SHIT and we can still raise a mean cone of power.
I finally made it to a performance of the Spiral Dance at the Women's Building on October 29. (I tried to go to the first one in 1979 at Fort Mason but got there late and was told no room at the inn.) My favorite part of this ritual was when Baron Samedi nearly caught the whole place on fire in a fit of overzealous flame charging.
Going to group rituals like the Spiral Dance brings to mind some thoughts on the subject of what it means to be a witch. People frequently ask me this question and I find that my answer has evolved as my understanding of the Craft and of my own inner being has deepened. For me, the process of becoming a witch is a symbolic journey of Self-discovery (the Self in a Jungian sense of the guiding center of the psyche). When starting out on that journey, group ritual is often the first step in establishing a connection to the Craft. This is an important beginning experience however, since it opens ones' eyes to the Goddess and all her possibilities. One's spirituality at this stage is involved in a type of participation mystique1, a means of creating an identity through the group experience. But as one moves further along, there comes a point where a connection must be found to one's own inner guides so that a unique brand of spirituality is created by each individual. There are no hard and fast rules.
Each person must leam to listen to their own voice and develop the confidence to act on what they feel inside. No one can give this voice to you, you must find it for yourself with a lot of soul-searching and hard work. That is why I object to people like Lynne Andrews advertising to initiate people into her "shamanic tradition" for $325. Money doesn't buy magical connections.
The finding of one's voice is a difficult task for a great many people in this culture with it's prevalent patriarchal religions which do not recognize the value of individual experience, especially feminine experience. That is why so many people seem to be seduced into believing the connections can be given to or bought by them. But our inner beings are crying out for just this sort of connection to the Self. Witness the wholesale alienation that is manifest in the products of our society.
Sibylle Birkhauser writes in relation to Jungian processes which to me are very akin to the workings of Craft, both stemming from the same source, the unconscious:
"... for the human need for meaning and spiritual orientation is so deep-rooted that it is impossible to do without them for long. This is a major problem for many people: they have to find the way toward their own helpful ideas. Religion could help one here, but many people today can no longer accept traditional religious ideas; they must take a different way from that of simple belief in order to reach the source, where religious images and ideas actually originated. They must find a way of approaching the unconscious, for that is where spiritual images, and not only the drives, are
That is the appeal of the Craft to me. It is a Cauldron of Inspiration and Regeneration where one can flnd a personal meaning to life and death. The Craft is in a sense a religion of Solitaries even if one is working within a coven. Individual inspiration should be encouraged since the Goddess and the God reside in each of us.
So come together and celebrate "all acts of love and pleasure" for they are the rituals of the Goddess, but remember that the creation of one's own personal witchcraft, magical development and relation to the Goddess is just as important a ritual as celebrating with a group.
Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, is what I have in store for you this month. It is another plant in the Solanaceae family, along with potatoes, tomatoes, mandrake, belladonna and datura.
The generic name is a variation on the Ancient Greek hyoskyamos, which means pig bean. The German herbalist Otho Brunfels (1488-1534) believed that the name refers to the fact that pigs get cramps if they eat Henbane. But in Greece the folklore holds that the name is derived from the episode in the Odyssey where Circe tumed Odysseus' men into pigs. It is believed that she used a magical potion containing Henbane to achieve those results. Homer does not actually state that Henbane was the active ingredient but only that Circe's drink contained "the juice of magical herbs". Yet it is interesting to note that this herb contains alkaloids that can produce the sensation of having been turned into an animal. There's room here for speculation on the origins of shape-shifting amongst shamans and witches. Perhaps Henbane was used to intensify the natural identification with the animals.
Henbane was also known as Herba Appolinaris in ancient times, connecting it with the sun god Apollo. Perhaps the priestesses of the Delphic Oracle prophesied under the influence of the buming vapors of the plant. The plant is also associated with Belenus, the Celtic Sun God.
It is known as belene or belune in Anglo Saxon, bilse in German, belisa in Old High German, bielun in Polish, belend in Hungarian and belena in Russian. All these words being derived from the same source and in the Celtic language it was known as belinuntia. So here we have a tantalizing connection between Belenus and Apollo, both solar deities, and the Henbane herb that was associated with both of them.The priestesses of Belenus may also have used Henbane in their rituals. Belenus (or Belinus), the God of Light, had a dark double or tanist known as Bran, the God of the Underworld in Celtic mythology, who alternately conquered and was conquered by him.
This theme, which runs through the mythology of many cultures, represents the altemation of night and day or winter and summer. The old king is killed by his young successor but is reborn again. What this all means is that there also seems to be a connection between Henbane and the Winter Solstice, it being the time of the birth of the Sun. Since this is the Winter Solstice issue, synchronicity is at work once again.
Tracing the etymology back even further, we find Belili, Belit, Beltis and Baalith as names for the Great Goddess from the area of Syria, Canaan and the Nile delta.
How can we connect all these threads together? Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that in Athens, at the Winter Solstice, there was a festival called the Lenaea (festival of Wild Women) where the death and rebirth of Dionysus was re-enacted using a yearling kid to represent the young God. In the original myth, nine wild women, the representatives of the moon goddess Hera, tore the child to pieces and ate him.
But this myth of death and rebirth goes back even further. Graves also tells of an Aurignacian cave painting depicting a version of the Lenaea which shows nine women surrounding a young male figure (Dionysus) who had huge genitals. The women represent the New, Old and Full Moon triads. I speculate that Henbane was used in these rituals, first being associated with the wild Goddess who came to be known as Belili, then as religious emphasis shifted to the male God, the plant became associated with Belenus. Remember that Henbane causes a sensation of being turned into an animal. Why not a wild ferocious animal, capable of tearing the God apart so that he may be rebom?
Another possible weaving of this story may deal with Henbane's traditional use as a pain-killing drug for those victims due to be tortured and executed. Perhaps the god Belenus or his earthly representative in the Lenaea was given a narcotic drink laced with Henbane to numb him to the pain of dismemberment, and so the two became associated with each other.
It is also said that Henbane was used to crown the dead as they wandered hopelessly by the river Styx.
Henbane also has the capacity to bring oblivion or the feeling that anything that has happened or may happen is of no importance. One sinister use for this is reported by the Anti-Slavery Society (an organization for the prevention of white slave trade) which states that narcotics containing hyoscyamine, a derivative of Henbane, are used by slave traders.
Culpepper says that some astrologers call Henbane an herb of Jupiter, but he disagrees with this and states that he proves it by an argument. He reasons that the herbs that delight to grow in Saturnine places are Saturnine herbs hence Henbane, which delights to grow in ditches and near places where they empty the common urinals, is an Herb of Saturn.
Gerard states that:
"The leaves, the seeds and the juice when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkeness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causeth sleep."
The leaves and roots if eaten produce maniacal delirium. Even the odor of the fresh leaves can produce giddiness and stupor.
Culpepper tells us that:
"The remedy to help those that have taken Henbane is to drink goat's milk, honeyed water or pine kemels, with sweet wine; or, in the absence of these, fennel seed, nettle seed, the seed of cresses, mustard or radish; as also onions or garlic taken in wine, do all help to free them from danger and restore them to their due temper again."
This will be the last plant of this series on the dark herbs that go into flying ointment. It seems fitting that it being the Winter Solstice, we move to lighter things as we welcome the return of the newborn Sun.
1 A state of unconscious identification with the gods. It is a term taken from the
anthropologist Luden Levy-Bruhl. C.G. Jung defines it further by saying that: 'lt denotes
a peculiar kind of psychological connection... in which the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity." (Psychological Types, Collected Works 6)
2 Sibylle Birkhauser,The Mother (Toronto, lnner City Books, 1988)
The Prime Mover of the Universe