By Ina Woolcott
An ancient and powerful witching herb
All continents, apart from Antarctica, have seen Belladonna and similar alkaloids used by shamans, witches and sorcerers for thousands of years, who take advantage of the sensations of leaving their bodies, to access alternate realities to gleam wisdom, to fly through the air or to shapeshift into an animal by a shift in consciousness. It has been suggested that this is where the witches riding on brooms legend was started. The shamans and others who used Belladonna throughout the centuries were not looking to get high – they wanted to leave their minds and/or bodies and travel on a different path that few people are able to handle, either physically or mentally.
The word nightshade stems from the Medieval practice of some Italian women using eye drops made from this plant to dilate their pupils, and give the eyes a bright, glistening appearance. Large pupils at this time were considered a sign of feminine beauty, because dilated pupils were considered more attractive as pupils usually dilate when a person is aroused, thus making eye contact much more intense than it already is. This is where the name bella donna, beautiful woman, comes from. It had the side effect of making their vision a little blurry and making their heart rates increase. Prolonged usage was reported to have resulted in blindness. The juice of the berries was used to stain the skin a dark purplish colour.
This plant species is also named after the Greek word Atropos, the name of one of the three mythical fates controlling when humans died. She was considered the most fierce and inflexible of the 3 fates, her sole purpose being to cut the threads of life with the shears she always carried with her.
The ancient Greeks knew of the psychoactive and sensory effects of this plant, and it was believed to have been added to the wine of Bacchanals to give it a legendary potency. The maenods of the orgies of Dionysus would take Belladonna, either throwing themselves at male worshippers or tearing them apart and eating them
It can be deduced, theoretically, from the extensive references to the use of herbs, belonging to the nightshade family, in medieval texts, that these were frequently used to induce hallucinations and for recreational purposes.
Belladonna is one of the most important hexing herbs of days long gone. It was one of the main ingredient in witches brews during the Middle ages, often being associated with aggressive female sexuality. A flying ointment was made from Belladonna together with other plants. This was then applied to women’s bodies causing them to feel erotic sensations and hallucinate. The ‘witches’ would ‘fly’ to the Sabbath in this condition to participate in orgies with demons. It was thought that the ingestion of Belladonna would give witches the ability to ‘fly’ to far off places. This was probably in reference to consciousness going to alternate realities and experiencing what they found there. Experiments have shown that the sensation of flight, in the mind, is common with subjects under the influence of solanaceous compounds, similar to what seems to have been experienced by ‘witches’.
Legends tell of Belladonna being cared for by the Devil, that every night apart from one he spends tending his plants. He has exclusive rights to planting and harvesting the herb. Yearly on his one night off, Walpurgis night, he leave his herbs to prepare for the witches’ Sabbath.
It has also been suggested that the original witch hunts were brought about by the increased use of these herbs by those deemed peasants, and the decline in the churches control over the populace.
Belladonna was used during the middle ages to torture people until they confessed. The victim would be weakened and confused, not sure of what was real or fantasy, what they had really done or had simply imagined. Many false confessions were given because of this, with a lot of innocent people being convicted of crimes they had not committed.
This plant has a long history of being used as a poison, being called dwale. This name was either a derivative of the French word deuil, for grief or sorrow, or from the Scandinavian word dool, for delay or sleep.
During the time of Duncan I of Scotland’s reign ( around A.D. 1035 ), a whole army of invading Danes led by King Sven of Norway were poisoned and defeated by Belladonna. There are contradictory tales as to whether the Danes were poisoned by eating a meal that had been laced with Belladonna, or by drinking a liquor containing its infusion. In earlier times still, the troops of Marcus Antonius were apparently poisoned by Belladonna during the Parathion wars.
Roman priests were known to have ingested Belladonna before praying to Bellona, their Goddess of War, for a victory in battle.
A veneficae, someone who specialises in botanical drugs ) frequently uses belladonna as an ingredient in poisons giving their black art the name of veneficium.
Belladonna was listed in several pharmacopoeias, until 1788 when is was removed. It was added again in 1809. Up until 1860 it was used medicinally in England as an anodyne liniment, a fluid capable of soothing or eliminating pain.. During this time it was also used as an antidote for opium overdose, or for chloroform or Calabar bean poisoning.
A liniment, salve/cream or plaster was used to help ease the effects of gout and rheumatism and to counter neuralgia. Angina was treated by applying a plaster to the chest area, as well as being smoked to relieve asthma. It is reported that children were frequently given large doses to oppose the effects of whooping cough and false croup without adverse reactions.
Belladonna was also used as a cure-all, before antibiotics were discovered. It was used to treat pneumonia, sore throat, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, infection and even cancer. A concoction of lead, Belladonna and salicylic acid was used to treat sprains, as well as being a cure for bunions and corns. Atropine is very fat soluble and was frequently used in salves and plasters applied to the skin.