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Deadly Nightshade

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Background and History

Belladonna, now more commonly known as deadly nightshade, is a highly poisonous plant that is a close relative to the potato, eggplant, tobacco, and even chilies. It is a very dangerous plant however, with all parts of it proving lethal to anyone unlucky or foolish enough to consume it. Despite this, deadly nightshade was known during ancient times as a 'beautifying' herb, and, later on, as a medicinal remedy that provides some degree of relief from debilitating pain. While all parts of the plant are toxic to humans and most animals, some species of animals are immune to its toxins and partake of the plant's leaves and even its toxic berries with impunity – being a choice nibbling article for wild rabbits and hares, and even accidental fodder for some free-range grown cattle.



Deadly nightshade is characterized by its shrub-like appearance with a well-spaced profusion of oval-shaped leaves. It's most characteristic feature is a 'star-shaped' base of five leaves that nestle its berries – which are a shiny, intensely sweet and of an attractive black hue when ripe, while pale green while immature. The plant typically grows in waste places such as abandoned lots, and even in untended gardens. It is usually mistaken for blackberries by children, which causes accidental poisoning. In the wild, it grows to often sizable heights (5 -6 ft tall) in prime conditions, while it retains a smaller, shrubbier appearance in intemperate or ill-suited soils. It is a hardy plant, although it is prone to insect attacks mainly due to its toxic nature, which is banked upon by insects as a means to 'cultivate' toxins of their own[1].

While deadly nightshade was once cultivated in several European areas as a type of herbal medicine, and as a source of poison for numerous intrigues (poisoning being a method of assassination quite popular during the time), it is now considered a highly dangerous plant as is typically exterminated (by those who are able to identify it) on sight. However, there are still some select areas that cultivate deadly nightshade for traditional medicinal purposes, while some individuals, especially those who have an interest in herbalism and / or shamanic magick, grow the plant at home for medicinal or arcane purposes.

General and Esoteric Uses

The use of deadly nightshade is typically shrouded in gruesome tales of poisoning and intrigue, as its toxic nature was highly employed as a medium for discreet, if not downright undetectable assassination. This has given it the reputation of being an unsavoury plant, alongside its long-standing use by people who dabble in the occult – another feature that has made it notorious in past ages as a grim, macabre, and heinous herb. The earliest use of deadly nightshade dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, who capitalised on the toxic nature of the plant and employed it as a poison for everything from sentencing guilty criminals, to killing off rivals or enemies. Aside from its practical use, deadly nightshade was highly integrated, if not nigh indispensable for the Oracular caste of Sybils, who used it as a hallucinogen, usually combined with other poisonous herbs, in order to commune with the gods and obtain prophetic insight. It was also drunk by individuals who wished a more direct approach to the Divine other than prayer, although such forays into shamanic practices sometimes proved (more often than not) fatal for those foolhardy enough to attempt it[2]. The Oracle at Delphi was reputed to have employed it largely for divinatory purposes, both for its oracles, and for its visitors – no doubt a safer, and more time-honed recipe was employed, which undoubtedly reduced the fatality while improving the hallucinogenic effects desired by seekers of the gods' counsel. The early Greek physicians often employed deadly nightshade as a painkiller, as it effectively dulls the senses, even if used in minute amounts, although it had the unsavoury side-effect of making one hallucinate despite the minuteness of the dosage. Still, for those times, it proved to be very valuable for both medical and magickal purposes, and its use was further refined and perfected for each respective practice.

By the time of the rise of the Roman Empire, deadly nightshade, or 'belladonna' as they termed it, was used still as a prime implement for assassination or execution, typically through decoctions either laced in wine or other drinks (for assassination purposes), or drunk straight up, usually under threat of torture, for condemned criminals. However, by this time the plant's use expanded into the realm of the cosmetic, as the juice of the leaves were sometimes dropped into the eyes – the effect being a quick and long-lasting dilation of the pupils, which was considered highly attractive to the Romans, and, subsequently, the Italians who took on the practice long after the fall of the Roman Empire[3].

By the Middle Ages, deadly nightshade's medicinal usage became somewhat restricted. In these times of great and often foolish superstition, the use of the herb took on darker connotations, as it became associated with witches and warlocks, who were said to imbibe of draughts made from the plant to grant themselves the power of levitation. Further superstitions suggested that extracts from the leaves and fruit of the plant were mixed with rendered fat from human babes and slathered upon a witches' person to allow grant flight. Those who were in power during those dark time – namely the Christian Church – while helping to spread the tide of superstition were themselves guilty of using the herb, although for far more diabolical purposes than its purported use by so called 'witches': Having been perfected by the early Greeks, the Church soon learnt to capitalise on the hallucinogenic properties of the plant and employed it as both an implement of torture and as an early type of truth serum. It was popular in this regard during the Burning Times – the height of the Inquisition's torturous rampage – where it was used to obtain confessions from both guilty and innocent parties; as its hallucinogenic effects, combined with the gruesome and often unbearable physical and psychological torture made for the perfect breaking rack under which even individuals with mettles of steel would bend and break. Its association with witches and the notorious reputation that it has as a primary constituent in 'flying unctions and ointments' is not altogether unfounded, since its hallucinogenic effects has been used in both European magickal practices and shamanic magick to help improve one's ability to travel or project their consciousness into the astral plane; although, without a doubt, for some individuals with the mindset of those times, it would equate to no less than 'flying', or at least the illusion of flying and not at all actual physical levitation and flight.



Aside from these usually grim uses, herbalists of those times employed deadly nightshade in very small dosages as a type of early anesthetic, typically made into a draught along with poppy seeds and other narcotic or sedative herbs, usually against birthing pangs, or to deaden the senses during minor surgeries such as cauterization or bone setting. [4]

In Asiatic countries, it was typically employed as a sedative, painkiller, and, of course, as a poison. Some Arabian countries, and even areas where the influence of Islam and Arabic practices prevailed employed deadly nightshade as both a stimulatory herb and aphrodisiac, typically when drunk in small doses, or when burnt as an incense, while highly diluted decoctions of the herb were drunk by scholars and their ilk in the beliefs that it helped to enhance and improve one's memory. The leaves of deadly nightshade was also sometimes smoked, usually as a fortification for cannabis or hashish which helped to increase the hallucinogenic and sedative effects of the latter, often resulting in either very pleasant, or highly horrendous dreams – a practice at once redolent of the shamanic use of nightshade in a number of primitive cultures. This practice may seem to provide a better and much-sough 'high', but the resulting hallucinations may prove fatal for the sheer realism that it might manifest to the imbiber.

When mixed with other sedative drugs such as opium and either smoked or ingested in very minute doses, it does help to soothe the pain of often highly painful wasting diseases. This made deadly nightshade useful during those times, when the availability of synthetic painkillers was unavailable. It was used soothe the pain of debilitating arthritis and rheumatism, to numbing the gnawing discomfort of malignant tumors. This usually left the imbiber too drugged to function properly, and because of its highly toxic nature, the doses were carefully calculated, monitored, and dispensed only by expert herbalists.

With the end of the Dark Ages, the use of deadly nightshade soon took on a more practical and purposeful turn, as it was commonly employed as a pain-reliever and a sedative. By the latter part of the 1860s, it had become a staple ingredient in the creation of anodyne liniments used to disinfect wounds and relief pain and swelling. During the First World War, deadly nightshade became nearly indispensable as a medicine that helped to relieve the agonies suffered by injured individuals, while more typical uses involved it being made into herbal plasters or compressed to relieve even the most trivial of aches and pains, usually when combined along with other pain-relieving or anti-histaminic herbs and spices such as ginger or turmeric[5]. The roots and dried leaves of the plant were typically used for painkilling purposes, and, later on, extracts via tincturing were developed for far more effective (and even more unpredictable) results.

With an increase for its demand, the price of deadly nightshade soon became very costly, and since the cultivation of the plant for medicinal usage was typically relegated to foreign countries, this made it even pricier. Overtime, the use of deadly nightshade as a painkiller and weak antiseptic was replaced by synthetic compounds, not mainly due to its expense and relative unavailability at the time, but also due to its potentially lethal nature and the slew of unsavoury side-effects (hallucination, vomiting, weakness, disorientation, etc.) associated with its prolonged usage. Today, the use of deadly nightshade as an herbal medicine for treating aches and pains, and for relieving coughs, fevers, and nervous disorders is rarely attempted, and only by highly experienced herbalists. It's most common use nowadays is relegated to drug experimentations – usually as a fortification for cannabis (as it was wont to be employed in the past).

In the magickal community, the use of deadly nightshade thrives, especially among traditional and neo-shamans, as well as witches, who often recreate age-old 'flying ointment' recipes that contain nightshade to achieve the same purposes, but with a better understanding of what the 'flying' actually is. Deadly nightshade is also often mixed into drinks or dried and made into inhalant incense to facilitate hallucinatory side-effects, while its roots, leaves, and berries are often made into offerings to various Underworld deities by some ceremonial magicians. Shamans sometimes actively cultivate and process the plant parts for spiritual trances or 'vision quests' – (depending on their spiritual and cultural paradigm), and as a very potent medicine and hexing article.[6] Regardless of its usage, caution should be practiced in the utmost when handling deadly nightshade. Better yet, any inexperienced herbalist, magician, or would-be shaman should avoid it at all costs until further learning or training under experts is gleaned.

Poisoning caused due to ill-usage of deadly nightshade usually results in vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation, slurred or inane speech, inability to control one's limbs, a feeling of general weakness, blurred vision, dilated pupils, or a combination of any of the following. It is advised that one seek immediate medical attention if any of these symptoms are experienced when partaking of deadly nightshade. One may attempt to remedy the symptoms by taking stimulatory herbs that contain caffeine or other stimulants, such as ginseng, tea, cacao, or coffee, although expert medical attention is by far the best means to deal with accidental poisoning, as it may be fatal if left untreated.

Names of Deadly Nightshade, past and present

Chinese (probable): su'chi
French: baccifere / cerise du Diable / cerise d'Espagne / herbe a la Mort (lit. 'Death's herb') / herbed u Diable (lit. 'Devil's herb') / grande morelle / morelle Furieuse (lit. 'Furies' morelle')
Italian: bella donna / belladonna (lit. 'beautiful lady')
English: dwale (Old English) / dwayberry / naughty man's cherries / great morel / Indian belladonna / belladonna (adapted) / poison black cherries / sorcerer's cherries
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Atropa belladonna

References & Further Reading

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna
[2] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/n/nighde05.html
[3] http://www.chem.ox.ac.uk/mom/solanine/deadlynightshade.html
[4-5] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/531.html
[6] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/531.html

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2012

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