Listen up class, quills and parchment at the ready! It's time for a little lesson in Folk History.
It's growing chilly in New England. Autumn has arrived! As the leaves rust off their trees (rusting, yes, that's the correct term. write that down.) and nights fall before suppertime - you may have been spending more and more time in the woods collecting kindling wood lately. Anybody ever happen upon a Witch out there? Was she galloping wildly on a broomstick? Well, (you can put your hands down now) our lesson begins in the woods... with flying witches... and three deadly plants.
|↑ "Forrest in the late autumn" Casper David Friedrich|
Our three subjects are all from the Solonacea plant family, or, more commonly- the Nightshades. The ever-popular potato, pepper, tomato, eggplant, and tobacco are just a few of its many illustrious members. The Solonacea clan are a famously deadly bunch and, while some are positively delicious, most all contain powerful alkaloid poisons capable of drastically affecting our bodies' major systems - even a bite from the wrong part of a potato plant could send you into fits of paralysis and delirium!
LATIN: hyoscyamus niger
OTHER NAMES: hog's bean, herb of Jupiter, devil's eyes
PROPERTIES: all parts are poisonous, the smell of its flowers alone can send a person into a daze. has a strong and unpleasant odor. flowers grow in an arrangement like teeth set in a jawbone.
NOTES: pigs are immune to its poisons and seem to enjoy its effects. was likely the hebenon poison employed to kill Hamlet's father.
LATIN: atropa belladonna
OTHER NAMES: belladonna, sorcerer's cherry, devil's herb, dwale
PROPERTIES: produces semi-sweet and attractive berries. effects are slow to work and very long lasting; used by ancients to induce types of twilight anesthesia.
NOTES: in Italy of old, ladies took as eye drops to perilously dilate the pupils thus giving the eyes a heavy bedroom gloss - belladonna in Italian means beautiful woman. in medieval warfare, was a popular poison with which to tip arrows.
LATIN: mandragora officinarum
OTHER NAMES: gallow's man, dragon doll
PROPERTIES: the mandrake fruit is edible and tastes somewhat like apples. surrounded by myth, its large root sometimes resembles a little man. during the middle ages, roots (especially those shaped like little men) were highly sought after as objects of fascination and were often dried and kept as mystical trinkets.
NOTES: it was believed that plants grew beneath gallows from the fallen semen or tears of hanged men and that upon extraction, the root would cry a piercing and deadly scream. to 'safely' harvest the plants, dogs were used to pull the roots from the ground. sometimes urine or period blood were sprinkled over the plant to pacify the beastly little creature. (Prof. Sprout will advise you use earmuffs when re-potting).
Now that we are acquainted with our three deadly plants, it's time to meet the subject of our lesson: The Witches!
From ancient days till the 1700's, the world at large truly did accept a common fantasy of Witches. The days of colonial America's Witch trials were filled with the enraptured nightmares of villages [possibly tripping on rye bread tainted with ergot fungus] who believed that some among them were agents of the devil! Witches lamed the farm animals, witches gave you whooping cough, a witch ate all your potatoes and then shared a bed with your husband and stole his beard... The Witch at large has always been a very high-concept idea; they fly on brooms, they use magick, they wear black, they do as they please.
|↑ "Pretty Teacher" Francicso de Goya (1799)|
The ancient and arcane practices of real Medieval Witches centered around their deep connection with the natural world. For good or for bad, they had a keen understanding of plants and how to use them. On special occasions, Witches would gather together to perform rituals and practice their craft. Rest assured, this usually involved cooking up some pretty mad and magical sacramental potions!
|↑ "Witches' Sabbath" Hans Baldrung Grien (1514)|
One of the Witches most sacred potions was also (surprise, surprise) one of their absolute deadliest. If improperly prepared, it had the power to shut down the bodies' vital functions completely.
Can anyone guess which three plants were used to craft this fatal concoction? That's right! 1. Henbane, 2. Deadly Nightshade, and 3. Mandrake root! Each of these poisonous plants contains a cocktail of the trophane alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine whose long list of effects include: shortness of breath, pressure in the head, a feeling that someone is closing your eyelids by force, unclear sight, slavering... delirium... powerful hallucinations... sensations of flying ... on broomsticks?
|↑ "Witches' Flight" Francisco Goya (1798)|
When prepared slowly with the fat of an animal, the plants were allowed to break down in a calculated way. In creating this salve, Witches were able to enhance and isolate certain desired effects the potion would have. Most importantly, though, was the aspect of safety - contacting the poisons on the skin was much less risky than swallowing a draught of nightshade and chance crippling the stomach or liver.
Witches' favorite places to spread the salve were in their armpits and groin, where absorption was quickest. But, if the image of a bunch of hairy Medieval Witches slapping magical hallucinogenic salve under their arms isn't awesome enough for you, try imagining them spreading it on a broom-handle and sticking it up their bum!
Yes, you heard me right. The butt. As favored as the armpits method was, none proved more effective than depositing the salve in the anus or vagina. The most preferred method? With a broomstick handle. So there you have it: the age-old association of Witches flying on broomsticks answered. Class dismissed!
|↑ "Standing Witch With Monster" Hans Baldung (1515)|
In parting - here's a man putting flowers in another guys bum.
Have a happy Halloween, everyone!
|↑ detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights" Hieronymus Bosch (1510-1515)|