Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Black Henbane – the Witches’ Favourite

Hyoscyamus niger L.

(...) It makes people crazy and generates very horrible dreams, therefore is considered dangerous to use.

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

The genus Hyosciamus belongs to the Solanaceae family and includes 17 species, black henbane being the most common European species. In ancient times, henbane was one of the most popular plants used for medical and ritual purposes in Europe. Mentioned in the Ebers papyrus (1500 BCE), in the 1st century Pliny and Dioscorides prescribed it as a painkiller and as a sleep remedy.

Known as the ‘witches plant’, henbane had great importance during the Middle Ages, being used by magicians and healers in ritual purifications by smoke as well as in the preparation of concoctions, love philtres and ‘flying ointments’. Atropine, one of the alkaloids found in henbane and other Solanaceae species, can be easily absorbed through the skin when mixed with fat or oil and rubbed to the body. Exposure to this ointment, applied mainly to the armpits or the genital area, produced the sensation of flying. Administered rectally after smearing on a stick or pole, this is reputedly the reason why witches are often depicted as flying on broomsticks.

Species of Hyoscyamus are highly toxic and can cause loss of muscle control, dilatation of pupils, palpitations, hallucinations, delirium and, in high doses, seizures, coma, cardiac arrest and death. They contain several psychoactive alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine and specially hyoscyamine. These are contained in all parts of the plant, although the highest concentration is found in the seeds. In modern medicine hyoscyamine and scopolamine have several applications as an antispasmodic, in treatment of intestinal problems, respiratory disorders, neuralgias and Parkinson´s tremors. Scopolamine is used to relieve nausea and vomiting after operations, to reduce saliva secretion in terminally-ill patients and is also prescribed in form of pills or patches to treat motion sickness.