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
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
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
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
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
The leprous distillment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body."
Hamlet, Act 1 scene 5, William Shakespeare
Others believe that this hebenon actually refers to the Yew tree. The therapeutic dose of Henbane is 2-5 drops of tincture; it is likely that ingesting a vial full of the herb could indeed lead to coma and death by asphyxiation.6
Science & Chemistry
Hyoscyamus contains the alkaloid hyoscyamine, as well as hyoscine and scopolomine.
Hyoscyamine is considered a tropane alkaloid: "Highly toxic, a prominent feature of the tropane alkaloids is their ability to produce hallucinations and delirium…
Hyoscyamine is an anticholinergic* agent that helps control gastric secretions, visceral spasms, hypermotility in spastic cholitis, and abdominal cramps. In Parkinson’s disease, it is used to reduce rigidity and tremors.” 7
*inhibiting the physiological action of acetylcholine, especially as a neurotransmitter.
“Alkaloids pose major cultural issues because of their properties. This group of constituents provides humanity with challenges such as nicotine, heroine, and cocaine, as well as the profound gift of entheogens*, such as psilocybin and mescaline. Some alkaloids are extremely toxic, such as coniine and strychnine, while other, including atropine, codeine, morphine and vincristine, are used as pharmaceuticals.”8
*psychoactive plants or chemical substances taken to facilitate the religious experience
Francis Brinker describes the poisonous effects of Hyoscyamus niger: in The Toxicology of Botanical Medicines:
Acute - Skin redness, facial dryness, dry mouth, increased pulse rate, dilated pupils, indistinct vision; nausea, vertigo, dull headache, faintness, sleepiness, muscular weakness; reduced peristalsis, constipation, elevated temperature, paralysis, giddiness, spasms, cramps, convulsions, difficult urination; restlessness, mania, delirium and hallucinations, coma, and death due to asphyxiation.
Chronic - Macular rash that is dry and itching.”9
And returning to Mrs. Grieve:
"The chief constituent of Henbane leaves is the alkaloid Hyoscyamine, together with smaller quantities of Atropine and Hyoscine, also known as Hyoscine...
The leaves have long been employed as a narcotic medicine. This drug comes under Table I of the Poisons Schedule. In poisonous doses Henbane in any form causes dimness of sight, faintness, delirium, and sometimes death...
Hyoscine, in combination with other drugs, has of late come into use in the treatment known as Twilight Sleep. This is on account of its sedative action on brain and spine, causing loss of recollection and insensibility."
(Remember, her Modern Herbal was published in 1931. Twilight Sleep was later found to have negative side effects, especially when used in childbirth.)
Who Should Use Henbane, & How?
Henbane, or Hyoscyamus, is a toxic herb. It does have some legitimate medical uses, but the dosage must be carefully measured, and administered by a skilled practitioner. The practitioner assesses whether this is the right herb for the client and their condition, or whether a milder herb would work just as effectively. There is a long history of use for this herb, both successful and harmful.
There are several cautions in discussing a low-dose herb like Hyoscyamus. (Low dose meaning it must be administered in small quantities, to avoid adverse effects.)
1. The dangers are underestimated. This falls into the category of "Plants are natural, therefore it must be safe". We know such statements are logical fallacies.
2. The dangers are overestimated. This falls into the category of "Someone died! This plant must never be used by anyone ever again." We know this is an exaggerated reaction.
3. The qualifications of a practitioner are unclear. Can trained herbalists safely use Hyoscyamus niger? Or does the herb need to be controlled in a laboratory, derived into the isolated alkaloids, and only administered by medical doctors?
This last item touches on a much larger debate in the field of health care.
The long history of wise women using this herb for pain would indicate that the answer is yes, this herb belongs in the materia medica of trained herbalists. And the long history of wise women also reveals that thousands of women were burned at the stake for such knowledge and use. Any time we discuss herbs and witches, we need to acknowledge the dark history of persecution.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English outlined this history very clearly in their 1973 booklet, advocating for women to take their health care back into their own hands:
"Women have always been healers.
They were unlicensed doctors and anatomists of Western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counselors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging secrets of their use. They were midwives, traveling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities...
The wise woman, or witch, had a host of remedies which had been tested in years of use. Many of the herbal remedies developed by witches still have their place in modern pharmacology. They had pain-killers, digestive aids, and anti-inflammatory agents...
Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright...
How did one particular set of healers, who happened to be male, white, and middle class, manage to oust all the competing folk healers, midwives, and other practitioners who had dominated the American medical scene in the early 1800s?
The stakes are even higher today (1973), when total control of medicine means potential power to determine who will live and who will die, who is fertile and who is sterile, who is “mad” and who is sane."10
As of this writing, the health care debate rages on. Women still struggle for agency over our bodies, for the right to make our own decisions about our health care, across race and class. The history of persecuting witches, wise women and herbalists is an important lesson that we should not forget.
Henbane has been used to alleviate pain, and it has been mis-used as a scapegoat, a cause of inflicting pain. The plant itself is not at fault. It deserves our respect; Mother Nature deserves our respect. The legacy of wise women and herbalists is one that we can be proud of.
Here are the song lyrics that inspired this post. Enjoy!
Girls Night Out
by George Holper
I told me mum I was goin’ out
She asked what I was on about
I asked if I could take the broom
I’m goin’ to meet the girls!
Oh the moon is waxin’ high
Don’t you like the fellas?
I prefer the girls tonight
I’m goin’ to ride the wind
Cuz it’s the girls’ night out
Away you merry lasses (Away, away)
Get your brooms get ‘em out
We’ll ride the wind tonight
2. My sister is so bold and free
She asked if she could come with me
I’d like to ride the wind tonight
I’m goin’ to meet the girls
3. As we were goin’ out the gate
We met our dear old mother
A-ridin’ a broom and hummin’ a tune
I’m goin’ to meet the girls
We’ll ride the wind tonight!
1. A Modern Herbal Mrs. M. Grieve, 1931
4. Journal of Archeological Science, vol. 26, issue 1, January 1999: Black Henbane in the Scottish Neolithic... http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440398903089
5. A Modern Herbal Mrs. M. Grieve, 1931
6. The Toxicology of Botanical Medicines by Francisc Brinker, 2000
7. Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman, 2003
9. The Toxicology of Botanical Medicines by Francisc Brinker, 2000
10. Witches, Midwives & Nurse by Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English, 2nd ed. 2010