Henbane (Hyoscymaus niger)
Henbane residues were found in stone vessels at funerary sites dating back to the Neolithic period and is considered to have a long tradition in necromantic rituals, e.g. Nordic shamans supposedly used the herb in astral flight and contacting the ancestrals spirits. It constituted one of the main ingredients in flying ointments and witches’ brews, alongside Datura, Belladonna and Mandrake, and was used as a narcotic and anodyne. Greek mythology tells of the dead walking along the river Styx wearing crowns of henbane flowers. In Greece sacred to the sun god Apollo, it was called Herba Apollinaris, and was used as such by the priestesses of Delphi to yield oracles. In Germany Henbane was associated with rain magic and it was believed that witches used the herb in spells to evoke storms. The German name is Bilsenkraut, either connecting it to the Germanic goddess Bil (sometimes seen on the face of the moon) or a corn demon named Bilwiß. Another interpretation is that henbane was used to flavour (beer), and bilsen would simply refer to ‘Pilsener’. Other German names include Apollonienkraut, Becherkraut, Dullkraut, Rasewurzel, Saukraut, Schlafkraut, Teufelswurz, Zahnwehkraut, Zigeunerkraut. According to one folk-believe henbane caused death in poultry life stock, which is considered one possible origin for the meaning of its name, hen meaning ‘chicken’, and bane meaning ‘death’, thus translating as ‘chicken death’. Others argue chickens would not eat of it and hen comes from the root henne, another word for ‘death’, also connecting the herb to a Germanic god of death. Henbane is assumed to be the poison called hebenon in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, poured into the ear of Hamlet’s father, whilst others argue it was the sap of yew (see). Other names are Hog’s Bean, Jupiter’s Bean, Symphonica, Cassilata, Cassilago, Deus Caballinus, (Anglo-Saxon) Henbell, (French) Jusquiame.
Henbane contains tropane alkaloids, mainly Hyoscyamine and Scopolamine. Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and ataxia have all been noted. Intoxication with henbane can last several days and may cause irreversible symptoms. An overdose with Scopolamine will cause death through respiratory paralysis. Henbane acts anti-convulsive, anodyne and narcotic. E.g. it was applied to ease cramps and asthma bronchiale, but its medicinal uses are now obsolete due the above-mentioned risks and side-effects. A historical account of its different medicinal applications:
According to CULPEPER, “leaves of Henbane do cool all hot inflammations in the eyes…. It also assuages the pain of the gout, the sciatica, and other pains in the joints which arise from a hot cause. And applied with vinegar to the forehead and temples, helps the headache and want of sleep in hot fevers…. The oil of the seed is helpful for deafness, noise and worms in the ears, being dropped therein; the juice of the herb or root doth the same. The decoction of the herb or seed, or both, kills lice in man or beast. The fume of the dried herb stalks and seeds, burned, quickly heals swellings, chilblains or kibes in the hands or feet, by holding them in the fume thereof. The remedy to help those that have taken Henbane is to drink goat’s milk, honeyed water, or pine kernels, with sweet wine; or, in the absence of these, Fennel seed, Nettle seed, the seed of Cresses, Mustard or Radish; as also Onions or Garlic taken in wine, do all help to free them from danger and restore them to their due temper again. Take notice, that this herb must never be taken inwardly; outwardly, an oil, ointment, or plaister of it is most admirable for the gout … to stop the toothache, applied to the aching side….’ “