Friday, November 7, 2008

The Nightshades

Woody nightshade in fruit and flower Mandrake in fruit Henbane flower

Above, left to right: Woody nightshade in fruit and flower; Mandrake in fruit; Henbane flower.

Among the plants associated with witchcraft in antiquity and the Middle Ages are a number of poisonous and narcotic species that are chemically related to one another, including the mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum and M. autumnalis), henbane, (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura metel) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). All are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae.

The medicinal and psychoactive properties of these related plants derive from the tropane alkaloids that they contain: atropine, scopalamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids act on the central and peripheral nervous systems by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  They are part of the modern pharmacopoeia and are valued as anesthetics, just as the plants from which they are derived once were.  They are also employed in cases of pesticide poisoning and severe allergic reaction, and to suppress motion sickness. They are nevertheless extremely toxic.

The psychoactive properties of the nightshade family were exploited in the famous flying ointment employed by medieval witches. The risk posed by ingesting such dangerous poisons was mitigated by applying them externally to the skin and mucous membranes. Extracts of plants in the nightshade family were incorporated into a fatty base which was then rubbed on the body. Being fat-soluble, the tropane alkaloids were readily absorbed.

The earliest reference to the application of a flying ointment appears in a Latin novel of the first century, The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The hero, who is insatiably curious about magical practices, observes the witch Pamphile as she smears herself from head to toe with a salve and then flies away over the rooftops in the guise of an owl. (The modern Italian word for witch, strega, comes through the medieval striga, from the classical Latin strix, an owl.) As in the Middle Ages, the power to fly was one of the chief attributes of the witch.

Skepticism about whether witches actually flew through the air or were simply deluded into believing they had done so was sometimes expressed in earlier medieval sources such as the Canon Episcopi. More literal-minded and stereotypical accounts in which witches flew on broomsticks to Sabbaths where they engaged in obscene orgies and had sexual congress with the Devil developed over the following centuries. These accounts sometimes made reference to flying ointments; the famous fifteenth-century witch-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum, includes testimony that witches anointed themselves with the fat of unbaptized infants or those unprotected by prayer.

The action and composition of flying ointment aroused the curiosity of natural philosophers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and their views anticipate those of modern scientific researchers into the nature of these preparations.  Giambattista della Porta, in his Magia Naturalis, a work of popular science published in Naples in 1558, surmised that the sensation of flight had a physiological origin, due to the inclusion of soporific plants such as nightshade. He reports that he and his fellow investigators observed a witch who offered to demonstrate the ointment’s powers.  After rubbing herself all over, she fell into a deep sleep. Once the witch was unconscious, she was given a drubbing which failed to wake her from her senseless stupor. As she returned to a waking state, she began to babble of her travels and refused to believe her observers when they insisted that she had never left the place where she had sunk into a trance, despite the evidence of the bruises they had given her.  Twentieth-century investigators using a seventeenth-century formula that included deadly nightshade, henbane, and datura claim to have experienced such wild rides as the witches had taken after rubbing their foreheads with the mixture.  (W. H. Lewis and M. P. F. Elwin-Lewis, Medical Botany, 1977.)

—Deirdre Larkin

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (5)

  1. thea mcginnis Says:

    this is really interesting, esp. the hallucinatory effects. thanks for the info.

  2. sm Says:

    This is a cool blog. Keep it coming!

  3. longing and gardens | Tailfeather Says:

    [...] The line between illness and health is very thin. The nightshades, for example, will kill but they are also medicine. It’s their capacity to lift us up, to change us, that makes them magical. Mandragora. We are [...]

  4. Sueukus Says:

    I am concerned at the platings of the deadly nightshade in the Cloisters Garden. I appreciate the importance of maintaining a medieval type garden. However where children are encouraged to visit the museum and imbibe the exhibits it is concerning that this dangerous plant is within easy reach of even toddlers hands. Even though my children are adults now I remember how quick children can be even under tight supervision. In fact I learned that an innocuous object can be turned into something quite dangerous or harmful by a toddler. The met takes great care in protecting its wonderful collections from harm. I think that you should take the same precautions for visitors.

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Suekus,

    I understand your concern about the presence of poisonous plants in the garden. As you surmise, it would not be possible to have a representative garden of medieval species without including poisonous plants. We have grown these species since 1938. Every precaution is taken to prevent accidental contact or ingestion of these plants, which are relatively few in number. Plants of special concern, like the nightshade, are deliberately placed deep within the planting beds, where no one will casually brush against them, and where it would be difficult for small children to reach. They are also enclosed within wicker cages or trellises, and a 6″ by 4″ label marked POISON PLANT in large type (1″) is placed in front of the protective structure. Ripe berries that might prove tempting to a child are regularly removed before the garden opens to the public. By no means all botanical gardens label toxic plants in their collections, as we do. I have been associated with the gardens here for more than twenty years; to my knowledge, there has never been a single instance in the seventy-five-year history of The Cloisters in which a visitor of any age suffered ill effects. Nevertheless, we take the issue of public safety very seriously.

    The docents and lecturers who interpret the garden to the public, including adults, family groups, school groups, and day campers, make it plain that none of the plants in the garden are to be touched or eaten, whether they are poisonous or not. We provide special small collections marked “Plants to be Touched” to allow visitors to enjoy themselves without damage to the historical plant collection or themselves.

    The garden is an educational space, but it is not a playground, nor do I believe it would be possible to toddler-proof it. Bees and wasps can’t be kept out. Roses are not toxic, but they do have thorns. I do wholeheartedly agree that very young children must be closely watched by their parents or caretakers in Bonnefont garden, and we do all we can to convey this message. I do hope your comment and my response will serve as a caution. I can assure you that we will continue to take great care to ensure the safety of our visitors of all ages.

    Sincerely,
    Deirdre

Comments are closed.