Folklore: Witches, Henbane and Brooms

Henbane is a toxic herb whose history has become inextricably linked with witchcraft. This post reviews some of the history of henbane as an herbal medicine; some of the folklore around the herb; and the relationship between herbalists, wise women and witches. It is inspired by a song, and the full moon.

Botanical & Medical History

Henbane botanical illustration

The botanical name for Henbane is Hyoscyamus niger. It belongs to the family Solanaceae. The herb is also called Hog’s bean; its botanical name Hyoscyamus "derives from the Greek hyos and cyamos, signifying the bean of the hog, which animal is supposed to eat it with impunity."1 Henbane is a common name perhaps because the seeds were thought to be fatal to poultry.

The herb has a long, and controversial, history of use as a medicine. "Dioscorides (c. 40-90 A.D.) used it to procure sleep and allay pains... Pliny (c. 23-79 A.D.) declared it to be 'of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding'... Culpepper (1616-1654) says: Take notice, that this herb must never be taken inwardly; outwardly, an oil, ointment, or plaister of it is most admirable for the gout..." Gerard (1545-1612) states 'The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient.'"2

Although the herb was left out of multiple editions of the London Pharmacopoeia, it was included in the 1809 edition; according to Baron Storch, it was useful for treating epilepsy and other nervous and convulsive diseases. Mrs. Grieve states that "it is poisonous in all its parts, and neither drying nor boiling destroys the toxic principle."3


Henbane dried flower pods

In Greek mythology, the dead who walked along the river Styx were crowned with wreaths of henbane flowers. The herb made them forget the memories of the lives they had. Ritual use of henbane has been traced back to the Neolithic period, beginning around 10,000 years ago.4

woodcut c. 1750 Witches riding broom

Henbane has long been associated with witchcraft, and is often cited as an ingredient in mythical flying ointments. According to legend, witches made an ointment including henbane and other psychotropic herbs, then rubbed the ointment on the handles of their brooms, which allowed them to fly. The herb's toxicity can cause hallucinations and delirium, either from ingestion or topical absorption. It is theorized that use of the herb led to flying hallucinations.

"The herb was used in magic and diabolism, for its power of throwing its victims into convulsions. It was employed by witches in their midnight brews, and from the leaves was prepared a famous sorcerer's ointment."5

illustration: The Murder of King Hamlet

Some scholars of Shakespeare believe henbane may be the herb that was used by Claudius to poison King Hamlet:

"Sleeping within mine orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,

With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of mine ear did pour