faun100.jpg (2378 bytes)  

 splayvert.jpg (5901 bytes)



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. (Misuse can be fatal).

Although any kind of drug is really a shortcut to an altered state of awareness or a mystical experience, I still feel inclined to investigate the vegetable drugs that witches traditionally used to help them achieve these states of consciousness. I feel that these plants were used in their own way to achieve a specific result at certain times.

Recently I discovered that what I had always thought was Wild Carrot growing in our garden was actually Hemlock. This came as a pleasant surprise to me, as it is extremely prolific and I had previously been wondering where I could possible get it. And here, lo and behold; I@#146;ve got it everywhere!

Wild Carrot which is used for urinary disorders, a source of vitamin A, B1, B2 and C, sugars and pectin, and also used as a diuretic, carminative and digestive aid, is so similar to Hemlock, that correct plant identification is essential if one wants to eat it and live to tell the tale.

It is not really too hard to tell them apart. They both have feathery foliage, white flowers which are arranged in dense umbrels and a long spindly taproot. However, the Wild Carrot is a shorter, squatter plant and its leaves are distinctly hairy as opposed to Hemlock, which has smooth, ribbged stems which also have spots and blotches of crimson on them. These are quite apparent, especially near the base of the stem. The fruits differ too. Hemlock fruit is ribbed and smooth, whilst Carrot fruit is surrounded by little spiny hooks. Hemlock also has a smell similar to the kind of smell of pet mice @#150; sort of foetid and mousey, whereas Wild Carrot has a distinctive carroty smell.

Hemlock@#146;s Latin name is Conium Maculatum and there is also a Water Hemlock which is called Cicuta Virosa, but this is far more dangerous than Conium Maculatum because of a poisonous element called cicutoxine which has a painful spasm-producing effect.

Hemlock (plain) is also poisonous but much less so than its watery sister. It is probable that Socrates drank Hemlock juice mixed with laudanum and wine when he died in 399 B.C. Diogenes Laertius, a writer of around the third century A.D. states explicitly that Socrates@#146; cup contained Hemlock juice.

According to Pliny, this combination which killed Socrates was the usual means by which the Greeks did away with criminals condemned to death. Only the absolutely worst prisoners were forced to drink aconite which produced a much more painful death.

Hemlock has also been used as a medicinal herb; it was used by surgeons to give a local anaesthetic to patients previous to amputations and was also widely renowned for its ability to cure @#145;ignis sacer@#146;, St Anthony@#146;s Fire, the result of ergot poisoning, which was one of the worst scourges of the middle ages.

It was a pre-Christian custom to let Hemlock grow outside the front and back door of any home so that it might absorb any poison that may have been floating about and keep the family of the house healthy.

The spread of the Hemlock plant has been attributed to the gypsies; it is said that it was they who carried the trade in Hemlock seeds in the market places outside the towns and as they were renowned chicken thieves, they may have used hemlock to help them, because, if one steeps corn or any other grain in a mixture of wine and hemlock juice and then feeds it to the chickens it makes them lose their strength and become intoxicated; therefore very easy to pick up, and still all right to eat.

Hemlock appears to have been cultivated in every hospital or monastery garden, as a medicinal herb and for another very interesting reason @#150; to subdue the lusts of the flesh in monks and nuns. Discordes states that Hemlock plasters weaken the sexual parts and, when monastery and convent life was at the height of the self-denial and self-mutilation fad, it is quite believable that they would use the plant in this way.

Discordes also writes that Hemlock pounded in a mortar and applied to the testicles, "doth help wanton dreamers and seed shedders". According to Pliny, when used on women@#146;s breasts, Hemlock dries up the milk and also prevents virgin@#146;s breasts from becoming too large.

Two thousand years later, Simon Paulli in "Flora Danica" says "girls breasts that are rubbed with the juices of this herb do not grow thereafter but remain properly small and do not change the size they are". I do not encourage rubbing the juice on one@#146;s own breasts or sexual parts if you do not want to damage them. Also I know some flying ointment directions for use that say to apply it there because it is easily absorbed into the blood.

It has often been the case where witches were acccused of depriving a man of his "secret member". This could have been the masculine fear of impotence behind the accusation, but it also could have had its basis in truth. One could easily make a man unconscious with wine and then smear his testicles with Hemlock juice if one felt so inclined and I don@#146;t doubt that this might have happened on some occasions.

In Greek antiquity, Hemlocks were dedicated to Hecate. Both normal and water hemlocks were used as ingredients in flying ointments. It is the poison coniine that produces the flying effect. My own experiments have proved that small does of Hemlock juice rubbed into the wrists and hands have produced a sensation of falling or dropping and it works extremely quickly, about one or two minutes after it is applied.

Fools parsley, Aetusa cynapicum, contains coniine in less concentrated form and this would be safer to take internally, whereas only minute (mico) doses of hemlock can be taken (and the amount of coniine in each plant varies, increasing the risk of accidental poisoning). It is much better and safer to use it on the outside of the body, rather than the inside, to avoid poisoning.

Hemlock is a very cosmopolitan herb and grows in most places around the world that are not too hot and dry. It probably came to Australia as a seed in imported soil, on someone@#146;s shoe or in an animal@#146;s coat. It is an attractive plant that looks very much like a fern; it grows quickly, however, intensive cultivation of land and the use of chemical weed killer have combined to make it an increasingly rare wild plant.

Published in Australia  1984 - 1990
In Seattle & Sydney 1990-1994 - and Sydney/Seattle Webzine 1999
Copyright Shadoplay 2000. All rights reserved. 
WebDesign: Rhea - Page last updated October 2000