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Henbane: The Witches Herb

Planetary Association: Saturn/Jupiter
Gender: Feminine
Elemental Association: Water
Folklore: Henbane was believed in Germany to attract rain and was once believed to produce sterility in land and livestock. As the raising of storms and the blighting of crops and livestock were amongst the most common charges against accused “witches” by neighbors, this German folklore may have derived from the plant’s association with witches; if witches raised storms and blighted crops, then maybe they did it with henbane or other noxious plants. On the other hand, if livestock was poisoned by fodder containing henbane (and other similar plants) it may be assumed that the sudden and unaccountable death of beasts must have been due to witchcraft.
Henbane, whose botanical name is Hyoscyamus niger, is a member of the Solanaceae order of plants which includes such innocuous members as the potato and tomato, but also highly poisonous and notorious ones such as belladonna, mandrake and the daturas. It is one of the legendary "witch" plants, renowned in folklore for its claimed magical qualities and it shows up in many of the recipes for witches' flying ointments which have been preserved in the records of the witch trials in an various other sources.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the plant makes its appearance in the English language as henne-belle, a form which is recorded as early as 1000 ce and it seems likely that this form derived at least in part from the bell-shape of the plant's flowers. The more familiar (and modern) form Henbane was first recorded in the mid 13th century. The “bane” part refers to an archaic Old English word for death, so the name as a whole refers to a belief that poultry, most notably hens, were particularly vulnerable to the effects of eating its seeds.
The same idea is found in the name Wolfsbane, one of the common traditional names for Aconite (Aconitum napellus), which was not only sacred in Greek myth to Hecate and therefore to Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guarded the gates of the underworld, but also refers to the one-time use of the plant for poisoning meat left out as bait for wolves.
One of the more mundane traditional uses of henbane was in the flavoring of beer - a use which appears to have a very long history indeed as evidence of henbane and belladonna beer has apparently been found on at least one Neolithic site in Scotland. We take it for granted these days that beer and ale are made and flavored with hops, but until the general adoption of hops beers were made with a wide variety of flavorings and enhancers.
Magical Uses: A love-bringing herb when worn. Traditionally used in ointments and brews. Induces delirium. Used with wisdom, it could be an excellent herb for consecrating ceremonial vessels. Attracts hares, therefore would be an excellent herb for those who raise rabbits. Burn outside to bring rain. Herb of the Underworld. Summon spirits and relatives who have passed. Love, of a binding nature. Some add Henbane to Love sachets and charms to gain the love of the one they desire. An old folk lore tells of throwing Henbane into water to bring rain.
Henbane grows up to 36 inches tall and may be either annual or biennial. The annual form flowers in July and August and the biennial one in May and June of the second year. During the first year a rosette of basal leaves grows; in the second this is followed by an erect stem which may be simple or slightly branched. The stem and leaves are slightly sticky to the touch. The flowers are bell-shaped, hairy on the outside and shaded from a pale yellow to a reddish-purple towards the open end of the bell. They are veined with purple or violet and each has five distinct tips. Each of the seed pods may contain up to five hundred very small greyish-brown seeds not unlike those of the poppy. The leaves large, thick, soft and wooly.
All parts of the plant are highly toxic, the leaves being the most poisonous part of the plant - so much so that the mere smell of the fresh leaves has been found to cause giddiness and stupor in some people. Culpepper comments that "The whole plant more that the root has a very heavy, ill, soporiferious smell, somewhat offensive." The main active agents are several tropane alkaloids - hyoscyamine and hyoscine, from which the plant takes its Latin name, and atropine.
Sheep and pigs appear to be largely immune to the poison whereas serious poisoning has been reported in cattle which have eaten henbane. Other writers have claimed that pigs have in fact been poisoned by the plant, so the position regarding pigs is rather unclear. It was also once a common practice to add small quantities of henbane herb or seed to horse and cattle feeds to fatten them up - perhaps by making the animals too stupefied to walk off the flesh. The toxin is sometimes present in the milk of cattle which have been given feed containing henbane.

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