Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Deadly Nightshade – Hallucinations, Lightness and the Sensation of Flying

Atropa belladonna L.

The Solanum then engenders madness: a drachma of its roots drunk with wine makes you see certain vain images, although very pleasant to the senses: drinking it in double the quantity makes the person out of himself for three days, and in fact it kills him if the quantity is multiplied by four. (...) This then must be (as I think) the virtue of the ointments that witches usually rubbed to their skin.

Dioscorides, P. 1651. A cerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos (Translated, illustrated and annotated by Dr. A. Laguna)

Like mandrake and henbane, deadly nightshade (belladonna) is intrinsically linked to witchcraft; on Walpurgis night, it was thought that the spirit of the deadly nightshade emerged while witches were preparing their covens.

Deadly nightshade belongs to the Solanaceae family and the genus Atropa, which includes three species native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. There are few archaeobotanical records of this species, although fossilised seeds have been found in sites from the Iron Age and from Roman times in Europe.

Along with other species, deadly nightshade was used in the preparation of ointments that, when absorbed through the skin, caused hallucinations, lightness and the sensation of flying. The active ingredients of this plant are hyoscyamine, atropine, atropamine, belaplomine and scopolamine, present in the whole plant but with higher concentration in the leaves. These toxic substances cause euphoria and hallucinations and, in high doses, disorientation, memory loss, coma and even death.

During the Renaissance, the species was used as a beauty product in Italy; women applied drops prepared from the plant to dilate their pupils, making them appear more attractive. The name of this species derives from this practice - belladonna means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian. Atropine drops are still used today to dilate pupils for eye examination and eye operations.

Atropine has several other medical applications. It is used as an antispasmodic to treat epilepsy and intestinal colic, it minimises rigidity and tremors in Parkinson´s patients, it is used as a bronchial dilator to treat asthma and is also used as a stimulant for some heart conditions. It has also been utilised as an antidote in cases of poisoning, and was used to treat patients poisoned with nerve gas in the Gulf War.