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Image Copyright Steve Hawkins 1989


by Caroline Tully

This series of articles is a result of Caroline's research into traditional herbs found in many flying ointment recipes and is intended to be shared with other plant historians.  Caution: Shadowplay does NOT recommend or advocate use or consumption of any of these herbs. (Improper use can kill you - hence the warning).



"Atropa Belladonna" is the Latin for this unusual plant. The great naturalist, Linneaeus, named it this; he is reputed to have been so familiar with the nature and properties of plants that he was almost always able to find amazingly appropriate names for them.

Atropa Belladonna is a good example of this because the generic name refers to the Greek Fate Atropos, the inflexible one, who cuts the thread of life. The species name is somewhat debated about; "Belladonna" is Spanish for @#145;beautiful woman@#146; and also means the same in Italian. It most probably refers to the fact that ladies in the Spanish court used the juice of the plant which contains atropine, dissolved in water, and ingested, to dilate their pupils to make them look more dreamy and beautiful.

Christian Elling, in his book "Shakespeare, an insight into his world and its Poetry", 1959, says "The name Belladonna originates from the fact that the said drops give to the woman who desires to please, the eyes of a Medusa, large, staring and hypnotic".

Before Linneaus@#146; time, deadly nightshade was included in the genus Slanum, and it was known under a number of specific names, some of which almost amounted to abuse, which indicates the reputation the plant had gained in the course of time. Here are some of them: furiale @#150; raving, mortiferum @#150; fatal, laethale @#150; lethal, hypnoticon @#150; hypnotic or spellbinding and somniferum @#150; soporific. The common names were of the same kind, such as Sorcerer@#146;s cherry, witches@#146; berry, murderer@#146;s berry and Dwaleberry.

Dwaleberry is an extremely old term and is an English medieval name for the plant and as the word dvale (trance) is of old Norse origin, it is conceivable that this plant was in use in the North before Scandinavian migration to England took place.

John Gerard, an Herbalist, wrote that the name Belladonna referred to the fact that ladies used a solution of the juice to remove redness from their cheeks. Another source maintains that the reddish-purple juice was used as rouge to return red to the cheeks.

A popular tradition has it that the plant is called Belladonna because it is a magical herb which sometimes changes into a beautiful lady who unfortunately is mortally dangerous to meet. It has also been claimed that the Romans dedicated the herb to the goddess Bellona, whose priest drank the juice of deadly nightshade before the rituals connected with her worship. With the advent of Christianity the goddess was forgotten and the name was corrupted from Bellona to Belladona

Julus Michelet, who wrote so understandingly about witches, was of the opinion that the name was coned because deadly nightshade was the herb of "the good ones", "the beautiful women", that is of the wise women and the witches.

Deadly nightshade is a perennial herb with a sturdy branched stalk which can brow up to about three feet tall, with elliptical oviform leaves of a medium green colour and brown-purple bell shaped flowers. Its shining black berries are about one centimeter round and contain a large number of seeds and a dark, inky, very sweet juice. All parts of the plant are poisonous. The main alkaloid is hyoscyamine and the herb also contains small amounts of atropine and belladonnine, which have somewhat different effects. The sweet- tasting berries are a great temptation to children and animals and can be fatal if they eat a few too many.

The affects of ingesting the herb are, in mind amounts, a happy feeling and the same sense of timelessness and philosophical thought going on in your mind similar to the first stage of intoxication through hashish. Next comes a sleep which is accompanied by erotic dreams. A medium dose of deadly nightshade would produce a dry mouth and itching and irritation, followed by nausea and dizziness, followed by a deep sleep. Severe poisoning causes paroxysms of rage, blindness and paralysis and then coma occurs, usually followed by death from paralysis of the respiratory system. One would have to eat quite a number of berries to get to this stage.

The herb is effective whether dried or fresh, however the hysoscyamine in the fresh plant turns into atropine when the plant is dried. However, the difference between the two alkaloids is so little that it cannot be expressed in chemical formula.

It is reported that the maenads of Dionysian orgies with "dilated" eyes cast themselves into the arms of the male worshippers and that, at other times, with eyes "flaming with wildness", they threw themselves onto all the men they met on the way to tear them apart and devour them. This wildness could be indicative of deadly nightshade juice mixed with their wine. They definitely had thornapple juice in the wine, which is another deadly herb.

According to the English doctor and herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) there is a strange example of the plant@#146;s fateful consequences in Buchanan@#146;s "History of Scotland" which describes the destruction of Sweno@#146;s army after it invaded Scotland. This happened because the Scots, in agreement with the armistice conditions, sent mead to the Danes which, however, "was mixed with the juice of a poisonous herb, abundance of which grows in Scotland, called Sleepy Nightshade". The Danes became so drunk on the mead that the scots were able to fall upon and kill the majority of the Danes while they slept, so that there were scarcely enough of them left to bring their king to safety. The Danish King Sweno was in reality Svein Knutson, King of Norway (1030-1035) who tried to win Scotland from Duncan the First. The Scots leader on this occasion was Earl Macbeth the model for Shakespeare@#146;s tragic play of the same name, which has the famous witch scenes with the three weird sisters.

In 1943, when it was discovered by the Allies that the Germans had made a terrible nerve gas that was both odourless and colourless, Atropine, from deadly nightshade was the only antidote against it. Fortunately, they never had to use it because the enemy never used the gas on them.

Deadly nightshade was used in various witch@#146;s brews and particularly in many flying ointment recipes from Germany and France.

The herb grows wild in Australia, however it is often hard to find. I found quite a large amount of it growing in a car park in suburban St Kilda, however, the council took it away eventually. In Guildford, I@#146;ve spied a few plants growing wild on hilltops inside old tree stumps, hiding away from the farmer with his bottles of chemical weed killer.

The herb is best cultivated in half shade on chalky, well fertilized soil which is sheltered from the wind. It tends to wilt in summer so a water spray would do it some good. As the germination percentage is very low, it is most practical to sow the seeds in seed-beds for later transplanting to an area either well-fenced off or hedged in so that no accidental poisoning can occur. Keep away from children and animals - ingestion can be fatal.


Bella Donna (by Rowan)

And so, as always there is only you,
Fata Morgana,
Demanding only total enslavement,
Reaching out to me, once, and I follow, as always
There only ever really was you.

You beckoned to me as I stood on the threshold, you called out to me as I wandered, sadly; through the dry, silent lake-bed, limping through an arid land, through the white fingers of a cruel hand, the skeleton of love.

Beautiful lady without compassion, the raven waits on your shoulder, the eyes of Bella Donna are dark and hard, but the lips of the angel deny it.
Beautiful lady without love, they say, the merlin perches on your perfect wrist, close to your long, white-boned hand.
Reaching to me from your frail fairy-land, rapt in the songs and the love that you promised.

And the birds sing for days in your enchanted forest, and the shades round your eyes that deepen at night, dark like the chasm of limitless sky, with only the glints of the stars to assure us, to guide us back down to the earth.

Beautiful lady, heartless, it@#146;s said that your touch wakens souls in the land of the dead, but the living, they shudder, they are loath to walk blind into total enchantment, through the soft mists of hair encircling your face and the cold bones concealing your mind.

And so, as always, there is only you, Rigantona, riding your pale mare in the fading twilight, that fey, fleeting equinox of bright day and night; that quicksilver flicker of elusive delight. There only ever, really, was you.

Beautiful lady, loveless, they will say when you play games with Fate, with those eyes like black dice, when those fingers like long, bleeding darts deal the cards. Queen of Hearts, Priestess, Black Widow, she too.

There are not only just pictures of fortune or ruin, they are the myriad, emerging and merging as one in the thrice-blessed, bestial beauty of you.

Published in Australia  1984 - 1990 - In Seattle & Sydney 1990-1994
Sydney/Seattle Webzine 1999
Copyright Shadoplay 2000. All rights reserved.
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