HERBAL LORE / RITUAL POTIONS 2
More articles that may be of interest to those who simply love herbal lore…
Mandragora Officinarum has become surrounded, throughout the ages, by so much mystery in folklore that it was eventually regarded not only as the most powerful but also the most dangerous of all the magical herbs. It came to represent everything that is mysterious and enticing in the strange world of plants.
The Mandragora species, which contain the alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscyamine, were originally indigenous to the countries in and around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is still very common around there in uncultivated wastelands and stony, uninhabited places.
The ancient Persians and Egyptians knew of the healing properties of the yellow or golden-red berries and, in particular, of the root and certainly used both parts of the plant as aphrodisiacs. Pieces of mandrake root have been found together with other burial artifacts in the royal burial chambers of the pyramids and the mandrake is discussed among other medicinal plants in the famous Ebbers Papyrus from the period 1700-1600 B.C. The mandrake is also discussed in the Old Testament of the Bible. In Genesis XXX,14-16, Rachel bartered for them with Leah so that she might become fruitful with their aid, and in the Song of Solomon VII, 11-13, the lovely young Shulamite invites her beloved to go out with her into the country where she will give him her love where the mandrakes give forth their perfume (Obviously hoping that the Mandrakes will make her lover ardent in the act of love).
It may be mentioned, as a curiosity, that an English writer Hugh J. Schofield has a theory that there is a hidden reference to the Mandrake in the story about Jesus hanging on the cross – When Jesus was given the sponge of vinegar to drink, while on the cross, it was full of mandrake juice as well, which was to have produced in him a condition resembling death so that he might sooner be taken down and then with the aid of doctors, be brought back to life. The plan miscarries when one of the soldiers unexpectedly stuck a lance into his side. Make of this what you will.
There are various ways of harvesting this mysterious plant. The Greek doctor Theophrastus (c.370-328 B.C.) says that first, three circles must be drawn around the plant with a knife, with one’s face to the west the top part of the root can be cut off, then more of the root is uncovered, but before the last bit is cut free, one must dance around the plant, reciting as much as one can remember about the mysteries of love.
Pythagoras, born about 582 B.C. is said to have called the Mandrake an anthropomorph, a herb resembling a human being, and with little effort it is quite easy to imagine the root of the plant could be a little human. Not until the Roman Empire were the dangers of the Mandrake rumored. Direct contact with the plant was dangerous and so it was said that to get it out of the ground it should be tied to a dog and when the dog tries to walk away up comes the Mandrake and the dog dies; then the dog’s master can safely possess the plant. This method was complicated but well worthwhile as the plant had the property of being able to drive out demons if it was merely brought into the vicinity of a possessed victim.
Elsewhere, it is stated that the dog does not have to die. Only if it enters the first of the previously mentioned circles is its fate sealed. However, later it was said that the plant utters a blood-curdling shriek when pulled from the ground and whoever heard it would die of terror.
Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian and diplomat who died in 95 A.D. relates that in a valley near the Dead Sea, there grows a wonderful plant which, at night emits a glowing red light. It is difficult to get close, for the plant withdraws when it notices someone approaching. But if one succeeds in pouring menstrual blood on it, it will keep still.
Josephus’ statement that the plant shines in the dark is not without foundation. In certain weather conditions, it may happen that shall chemical particles in the night dew and on the surface of the berries combine together to produce a faint glow of light. A similar phenomenon may be observed on warm, northern summer nights where blueberries are growing.
A few generations later Aelian introduces new details; the Mandrake cannon be seen in the day because it hides among other plants, however at night it shines like a star in the darkness and one can mark the spot where it is growing and the next day be certain of which plant it is.
A radical innovation in the popular belief was that the Mandrake, now known as “gallows man” and “dragon doll”, can only be grown at the foot of a gallows and only comes up where either urine or seamen from a Hanged Man has wetted the earth. But not just any old bodily fluids – they had to be the ones from an arch-criminal who acquired his thieving nature in his mother’s womb.
It was not everyone’s cup of tea to go out to the gallows hill to dig the mandrake root from the earth which also housed the moldering remains of rogues who had been hanged or broken on the rack. Most people would prefer to buy it. A new mandrake root cost lots of money, not surprising considering the origins and the qualities attributed to it. It made its owner invulnerable in battle and granted him deadly accuracy in the use of weapons. It cured all sicknesses and was particularly effective against those ones brought home from the battlefield of Love. It helped discover hidden treasure, become esteemed by one’s fellows and lucky in love because no woman could resist the compelling power of the Mandrake!
The newly acquired mandrake should be bathed in wine, wrapped in white and red silk and covered with a black cloak. Every weekday it should be bathed again and fed, but there is disagreement as to what it should eat. The most popular opinion was that it should get communion bread which one had refrained from swallowing at church. Others thought that “a portion of fasting spittle” was what it liked best, and the learned insisted that it should be fed on the red earth of Paradise. This last idea seems hardly to agree with the medieval alchemists who coveted the Mandrake precisely because it contained some of this unique kind of earth which was so necessary as a catalyst in the production of the philosophers stone.
When the belief in the Mandrake was at its strongest, in the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, doubts began to be expressed. John Gerard (1547-1607) whose herbal was published in 1597 says about the Mandrake: “All which dreames and old wives tales you shall henceforth cast out of your books and memory, knowing this, that there are all and everie part of these stories false and most untrue. For I myselfe and my servants have also digged up, planted and re-planted very many and never could either perceive shape of man or woman, but sometimes one straight root, sometimes two and often six or seven branches coming from the maine great root, even as Nature list to bestow upon it as to other plants. But the idle drones who have nothing to do but eat and drink have bestowed some of their time in carving the roots of Brionie, forming the shapes of men and women: which falsifying practice has confirmed the error among the simple and unlearned people who have taken them upon their report as the true Mandrakes.”
However, the belief in the North about the Mandrake was strongly upheld right into the 18th century, when the ironical Holberg in “Witchcraft or false alarm” lets Apelone declare that “when a wizard begets a son, he will be a dragon-doll (mandrake) which will bring money to its mother.”
Not until the introduction of compulsory education did the belief in the mandrake legend die out. And yet in a few places it still lingers. Only a few years ago was there a Danish Television broadcast where an old man from South Juteland claimed in deadly earnest that one of his neighbors practiced evil witchcraft and went as far as to set his mandrake on him and others whom he did not like.
In Central and Southern Europe both the fruit and the roots were used as ingredients in aphrodisiacs and flying ointments. It is unsure whether the witches in the South always understood that the dragon-doll of the gallows hill and the beautiful little herb were identical.
The Mandrake thrives only when cultivated in light sandy soil. The seeds are sown shortly after the berries ripen. The herbs are carefully transplanted in late summer, to a sheltered, sunny and well-drained plot which is covered lightly with sprigs of spruce in the autumn
“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 beautiful woman 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’ 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, raving, mortiferum, fatal, laethale, lethal, hypnoticon, hypnotic or spellbinding and somniferum, soporific. The common names were of the same kind, such as Sorcerer’s cherry, witches’ berry, murderer’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 minute 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 plants fateful consequences in Buchanan’s “History of Scotland” which describes the destruction of Sweno’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’s tragic play of the same name, which has the famous witch scenes with the three wryd 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’s brews and particularly in many flying ointment recipes from Germany and France.
The herb grows wild , however it is often hard to find. I found quite a large amount of it growing in a car park in St Kilda, however, the council took it away eventually. In Guildford, I’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.
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’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, ribbed 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, sort of foetid and mousey, whereas Wild Carrot has a distinctive carroty smell.
Hemlock’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’ 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 ignis sacer, St Anthony’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 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’s breasts, Hemlock dries up the milk and also prevents virgin’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’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 accused 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’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 (micro) 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 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
Artemesia Vulgaris (Mugwort)
Is one of my favourite herbs; I use it primarily as an aid for clairvoyance and crystal gazing. It is best to cut Mugwort in the waning moon for scrying purposes and, of course, just before it has flowered so it is at its most potent.
Attributes of the Herb
Crowley attributes Mugwort to Number 13. It is therefore harmonious with ideas such as Luna, the High Priestess, Hecate, Silver-bluish-greenish colours, moonstone, pearl and crystal. The number 13 is the number of Witchcraft of the dark variety – I don’t mean negative, but of the waning and dark moon.
The medicinal properties of Mugwort are – stimulant & tonic, nervine, diuretic, diaphoretic and emenagogue. As an emenagogue it is best mixed with pennyroyal and southernwood and drunk as a tea at least three times a day, preferably more. You could also bathe in a bath that had about a litre of strong infusion of Mugwort and other herbs added.
There are many ways it can be experienced and absorbed. It can be drunk as a tea, the essential oil burned as incense on a charcoal block, made into an ointment, stuffed into dream pillows, floated in the bath etcetera.
It can be infused in a dry white wine for aIt is useful in aiding the clairvoyant potential in that it helps relax and still your analytical mind, therefore letting your subconscious mind bring forth creative visions. For this reason, my speculum sits on a black cushion stuffed with the herb. Mugwort can also be used for scrying the Tattwa Cards, Tarot and for astral bout a month to make a good herbal wine that can be used for ritual purposes in which the male and female deities are invoked. The white wine symbolizes the male aspect and the Mugwort symbolizes the female. This wine can also be used as a love potion.
A caution – Mugwort should not be used if you are pregnant as it is an emenagogue .
Growing the Herb
Mugwort grows easily from cuttings taken in Winter. It likes to grow where there is a damp place – it likes to keep its toes wet. It has long thin leaves, green on the top and silver underneath and it reaches about three feet tall. The taste is rather bitter, but I like it.