+Black Henbane (Hyoscyamus nigra)+
Ethnobotanist Wolf-Dieter Storl has conjectured that henbane has been in use for ritual and shamanic purposes in Eurasia since Paleolithic times. Black Henbane is the most widely distributed species of all. It grows from Europe to Asia, from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia. It has now become naturalized in North America and Australia.
It was used as a ritual plant by the pre-Indo-European people of central Europe. An urn of henbane seeds along with bones and snail shells was unearthed in Austria from the Early Bronze Age. It was believed, according to Carl Ruck, that henbane, known as hyoskyamos, was sacred to Deo-Demeter-Persephone due to her sacred animal being the sow, for one translation of henbane’s name was derived from the term “pig bean”.
It was used elsewhere in Europe as well. In Celtic regions, the plant was belinuntia “the plant of the sun god Bel”. The Gauls poisoned their javelins with a decoction of henbane, while the Medieval Anglo-Saxon herbals mentioned its medicinal uses. Albertus Magnus, in his De Vegetabilibus (ca. 1250) stated that necromancers used the smoke to invoked the souls of the dead, as well as demons. Henbane takes a more erotic turn in the Medieval bathhouses of the Late Middle Ages, where the seeds were strewn over hot coals to incite, how do we say, titillating feelings.
The associations between henbane and witchcraft as we know them today began in the Middle Ages,
“The witches drank the decoction of henbane and had those dreams for which they were tortured and executed. It was used for witches ointments and was used for making weather and conjuring spirits. If there was a great drought, then a stalk of henbane would be dipped into a spring and the sun baked sand would be sprinkled with this” (Perger 1864, 181).
It was especially associated with divination and love magic. After monkshood, it was also a favorite of poisoners. It was also believed that carrying the root on one’s person would render them invulnerable to the witchcraft of others. Fight poison with poison perhaps? The smoke of the leaves was used to make one invisible, and it was smoked in a pipe to achieve this purpose. Oleum hyoscyamin infusum (henbane oil), was made by infusing the leaves on gentle heat in oil. This made for a fine erotic massage oil or therapeutic treatment for soreness. As we shall see, if any plants were truly used in witches ointments, it would most likely be henbane.
Henbane was also used as an ingredient in psychoactive beer, which ended with the Bavarian Purity Laws in 1516. Even though it’s use in ritual was namely as an incense (seeds), the Germans loved their henbane beers so, they planted gardens of henbane just for this purpose which were under the protection of Woden/Odin, father of Donar. These henbane gardens have left their mark on Germany’s history with place names like Bilsensee (Henbane Lake) and Billendorf (Henbane village).
The seeds were used by the Assyrians as well, combined with sulfur to protect against magic. Persian visionaries also undertook astral journeys under the influence of henbane wines and concoctions. The Celts knew black henbane as beleno and burnt it as an offering to Belenus, the god of oracles and the sun. Druids and bards also inhaled the smoke to travel to the realms of the Fae and Otherworldly beings.
The Vikings placed considerable importance on henbane, which we know due to hundreds of seeds found in graves. A woman known as the Fyrkat woman was unearthed in Denmark wearing a pouch of henbane seeds. The earliest known record that mentions Germanic uses of the plant come from the time of Bishop Burchard von Worms who passed in 1025. It describes a confessional in great detail that illustrates a rain ritual,
“...they gather several girls and select from these a small maiden as a kind of leader. They disrobe her and take her out of the settlement to a place where they can find hyoscyamus, which is known as bilse in German. They have her pull this out with the little finger of the right hand and tie the uprooted plant to the small toe of the right foot with any kind of string. Then the girls, each of whom is holding a rod in her hands, lead the aforementioned maiden to the next river, pulling the plant behind her. The girls then use the rods to sprinkle the young maiden with river water, and in this way they hope to cause rain through their magic. They they take the young maiden, as naked as she is, who puts down her feet and moves herself in the manner of a crab, by the hands and lead her from the river back to the settlement.”
The seeds served as fumigants for necromantic arts, and to conjure the dead for Renaissance magical practitioners, as it does today. Foundational occultist Agrippa writes in 1531,
“So, they say, that if of coriander, smallage, henbane, and hemlock, be made a fume, that spirits will presently come together; hence they are called spirit's herbs. Also, it is said, that fume made of the root of the reedy herb sagapen, with the juice of hemlock and henbane, and the herb tapsus barbatus, red sanders, and black poppy, makes spirits and strange shapes appear; and if smallage be added to them, the fume chaseth away spirits from any place and destroys their visions.”
-Henry Cornelious Agrippa p.137
The root was also used as an amulet. Alexander of Tralles (CE 550) frequently prescribed a mixture of an amulet and wise words designed to create magical protection. He was a follower of Gnosticism, a complex religious movement which flourished in the pre- and early Christian era. One of his prescribed amulets was henbane root hung about the neck of a patient for magical pain relief. Then again for gout, some henbane, when the moon is in Aquarius or Pisces, before sunset, must be dug up with the thumb and third finger of the left hand, and it must be said,
“I declare, I declare holy wort, to thee; I invite thee tomorrow to the house of Fileas, to stop the rheum of the feet of M. or N. and say, I invoke thee, the great name, Jehovah, Sabaoth, the God who steadied the earth and stayed the sea, the filler of flowing rivers, who dried up Lot’s wife, and made her a pillar of salt, take the breath of thy mother earth and her power, and dry the rheum of the feet or hands of N. or M. The next day, before sunrise, take a bone of some dead animal, and dig the root up with this bone, and say, I invoke thee by the holy name Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eloi, and put on the root one handful of salt, saying, ‘As this salt will not increase, so may not the disorder of N. or M.’ And hang the end of this root [henbane] periapt on the sufferer."
So intimately tied was this plant with thoughts of witchery, that possession of it was enough to convict one of witchcraft. There are many mentions of it in 16th 17th and century witch trials as proof of malevolent intent. With the advent of the Bavarian beer purity laws, henbane fell from popular usage to await rediscovery by those hungry for magic centuries later.
*Overdose of henbane can lead to dryness of mouth, locomotor disturbances, farsightedness, coma, respiratory paralysis and death. The lethal dose is not known*
The entire plants contains tropane alkoloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane.
Few people today know as much as Cody Dickerson about henbane today, and last year at Viridis Genii Symposium I had the pleasure of listening to his lecture about this mysterious and lovely plant. I can't wait for my 3rd trip to the West to see my colleagues and beloved friends at this amazing conference on all things folk magical botanical.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. The Philosophy of Natural Magic. L. W. de Laurence ed. 1913. Originally published in 1531-3, De occulta philosophia libri tres, (Three books of Occult Philosophy) proposed that magic existed, and it could be studied and used by devout Christians, as it was derived from God, not the Devil. Agrippa had a huge influence on Renaissance esoteric philosophers, particularly Giordano Bruno.
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