The henbane’s first effect was purely physical discomfort. My limbs lost certainty, pains hammered in my head, and I began to feel extremely giddy….I went to the mirror and was able to distinguish my face, but more dimly than normal. It looked flushed and must have been so. I had the feeling that my head had increased in size: it seemed to have grown broader, more solid, heavier, and I imagined that it was enveloped in firmer, thicker skin. The mirror itself seemed to be swaying, and I found it difficult to keep my face within its frame. The black discs of my pupils were immensely enlarged, as though the whole iris, which was normally blue, had become black. Despite of the dilation of my pupils I could see no better than usual; quite the contrary, the outlines of objects were hazy, the window and the window frame were obscured by a thin mist.
Schenck’s pulse became rapid and he experienced a further increase in the hallucinogenic effects of the plant:
There were animals which looked at me keenly with contorted grimaces and staring, terrified eyes; there were terrifying stones and clouds of mist, all sweeping along in the same direction. They carried me irresistibly with them. Their coloring must be described – but it was not a pure hue. They enveloped in a vague gray light, which emitted a dull glow and rolled onward and upward into a black and smoky sky. I was flung into a flaring drunkenness, a witches’ cauldron of madness. Above my head water was flowing, dark and blood-red. The sky was filled with herds of animals. Fluid, formless creatures emerged from the darkness. I heard words, but they were all wrong and nonsensical, and yet they possessed for me some hidden meaning.
My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me … but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying …. I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves … billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along.
Gustav Schenk on taking Henbane
From How Do Witches Fly?, by Alexander Kuklin
It’s said that crushing a fresh leaf and inhaling the odor of Henbane can produce giddiness and stupor. I tried it and yeah, it does put a smile on one’s face. I didn’t sniff long enough to provoke stupor however. There’s stupor and then there’s stupid. And Henbane is one of the most baneful plants in the Witch’s Garden.
Henbane is a biennial or an annual herb, depending on the seed, and is a member of the nightshade, or officially the Solanaceae family, which explains its place of prominence in a witch’s garden. Prominence isn’t earned by size, but a long history of use … spiritual, occult and medical. Not to mention beer.
Witches used henbane in their midnight brews, as part of their flying potion, and and it was also used in malicious ways to induce convulsions in victims. Death by Henbane is gruesome indeed.
Curiously enough, the effects of ingesting Henbane don’t intensify as the dosage increases so much as different doses product unreliably diverse effects. Low doses induce inebriation. Low doses can also make one horny, but there are safer methods than Henbane for that.
Henbane overdose leads first to delirium, then finally coma, complete respiratory failure and of course, death.
The characteristics of Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger
Henbane has bell-shaped flowers growing both singularly and in spikes, and are typically pale yellow, lined with purple veins and throat, though variations in color and prominence of veins are common. The greenish grey have vivid, pale veins and the leaves are are covered with hairs which are sticky to the touch and foul smelling.
The fruit, blocked from view by the fused sepals is an oval, egg-shaped capsule, about an inch long and contains hundreds of minuscule seeds. Henbane has a long, mandrake like taproot but can still be planted in containers.
Henbane is positively lethal in higher doses, hallucinogenic in smaller, and can cause skin irritation just from touching the plant.
You’ll find Henbane in southern and central European countries, as well as the western part of Asia. A published work from 1672 showed it was already introduced to North America and had “sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New England.,” who used it for medicinal and perhaps occult purposes. It is also known in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
Curiously enough, it’s said that Henbane is the plant most often found on the western wall of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, which contains the famous Wailing Wall.
It’s considered invasive in places, as it springs up on roadsides, fields, waste places, and abandoned gardens.
Hyoscyamus niger or black henbane and H. albus, or yellow or white henbane are the types most often use for magic and witchcraft. Henbane goes by a variety of names, including Stinking Nightshade, Hyoscyamus. Hog’s-Bean. Jupiter’s-Bean, Bilsenkraut, Symphonica. Cassilata, Henbell, Cassilago, Deus Caballinus, Hyoscyamus and Jusquiame.
The name Henbane dates to the middle ages, about 1265, though it was known and used going all the way back to antiquity. There’s a debate in what the name means, but it’s often believed that hen refers to a similar word relating to death, as chickens don’t eat Henbane. It’s also been connected with Henne, a German god, and Bil, a Scandinavian goddess.
The associations of Henbane with ancestor worship and the dead
Henbane has long been associated with the dead, including ancestor worship. Henbane along with barley residue has been found in a Neolithic necropolis in Scotland, and it’s believed a beer brewed with Henbane was drunk by the dying, or perhaps after death by those mourning.
From Persia there’s a Zoroastrian writing which tells the story of man who drank wine laced with Henbane and spent a several days beyond the veil in the afterlife, before coming back
Henbane seeds were buried in Viking graves, and there’s good reason to believe that the warriors known as berserkers reached that state of anger and fury through the plant.
The Greeks have a rich history with Henbane. They believed the dead in Hades wore wreaths made from the plant to make them forget who they were, and were left to wander aimlessly along the banks of the river Styx.
From oracles to heroes, Henbane and the ancient Greeks
Pliny condemned Henbane as an intoxicant, though conversely it was a remedy for too much wine as well. Dioscorides, writing in the first century A.D. claimed Henbane as a sedative, which it is in small doses, effective in treating mania and madness. But madness meant something different to the Greeks. For them, madness could in fact be divinely inspired, whether by the Muses, or by gods such as Aphrodite (love, which explains the aphrodisiac beliefs), as well as Dionysus, who presided over all things intoxicating, particularly wine. And larger doses of Henbane can be quite intoxicating, with a long history of mystical and spiritual uses.
Trance like states brought on by Henbane was believed by the Druids in the Celtic lands, as well as the Greeks before them, to put you in touch with the divine, a form of sacred consciousness.
One of the most popular theories for the trance like state experienced by Pythia, the Greek oracle to Apollo at Delphi, was incense dosed with Henbane. But according to the ancient texts, the fumes came from a fissure in the ground, which recent excavations are pointing out as a distinct possibility. Being an oracle was a real job in ancient Greece. It gave women status, the ability to travel and own property, and other benefits that otherwise they might never achieve. But it could be a short career. Perhaps Henbane, Oleander or other plants were used to induce these states. Often the oracle was said to be in a frenzied state like Henbane intoxication is known for, and indeed the result of some prophecies was the oracle’s death.
In Euripides’ tragedy, Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, a niece of Circe and the granddaughter of the sun god Helios, mixes a potion of Henbane which she gives to Jason before he set off with the Argonauts and Ray Harryhausen to find the golden fleece.
The diabolical side of Henbane – poisons and potions
“The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causeth sleep.”
John Gerard, Herball, 1597
Like most members of the Solanaceae family, symptoms of Henbane poisoning include dilated pupils and heart palpitation, loss of muscle control, intense and often terrifying hallucinations, madness and then not soon enough, coma and death.
Even in small doses it can invoke most of the above, along with flushed skin, convulsions and vomiting. Plus cotton mouth. While the initial rush might only last three or four hours, it can hang on in various ways for up to three days.
Both the Greeks and the Gauls knew the power of Henbane’s poison, and coated arrows and spears with a potion to make them even more lethal.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius murders Hamlet’s father with a tincture of Henbane poured into his ear canal.
Even more gruesome, one account has Cleopatra, having no intention of being paraded through the streets of Rome in shame first contemplated suicide by Henbane. But after testing the potion on two of her servants, she chose snakebite instead.
One phrase often bandied about when describing death by Henbane is ghastly.
Henbane is often toxic to animals, both wild and domesticated. Birds, fish and cattle are particularly hard hit. But some creatures, including certain moths munch on Henbane with no ill results. In fact, pigs quite like the intoxicating effects.
From witch’s flying ointments to the craft of the magus, Henbane has a long history in the dark arts
“The witches drank the decoction of henbane and had those dreams for which they were tortured and executed. It was also used for witches’ ointments and was used for making weather and conjuring spirits. If there were a great drought then a stalk of henbane would be dipped into a spring, then the sun-baked sand would be sprinkled with this”
Mathias Perger, 1864
Henbane’s place in magic and indeed, the Witch’s Garden stems from its inclusion in the witch’s flying potion, as well as other diabolical uses, believed to have been in use from the middle ages.
During a witch trail in Pomerania, a woman confessed to giving a man Henbane seeds to afflict him with an undying erection, mad with lust. The transcript continues that “a witch admits having once strewn henbane seeds between two lovers and uttering the following formula: “Here I sow wild seed, and the devil advised that they would hate and avoid each other until these seeds had been separated”
Andrés de Laguna a noted physician to the Spanish Court as well as Pope Julius III in the sixteenth century, gave evidence in court that he found in the home inhabited by an accused couple “a pot full of a certain green ointment … composed of herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.”
It was discovered that mixing these plants with fat (of babies according to confessions and rumor) and applying it to the skin reduced the toxic side effects, a cleaner high if you will. Absorption through the sweat glands, the vagina or rectum avoided the hyper metabolism of the liver and digestive track, allowing much higher doses with fewer side effects.
Jordanes de Bergamo wrote in the fifteenth century “But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.”
Hence the practice of greasing up the broomstick and placing it between one’s legs.
An early example of this can be found in the testimony against Lady Alice Kyteler, where it was admitted into court that “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”
Henbane intoxication is known to create the sensation of flying, and whether hallucination or not it didn’t matter. In Norway women who only hallucinated that they were flying were burned at the stake as well.
Albertus Magnus, the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages and a saint to boot, wrote in De Vegetalibus in 1250 that necromancers used henbane to invoke the souls of the dead as well as demons. This was a concept shared by Cornelius Aggrippa, one of the earliest writers on the occult, who listed Henbane as an ingredient in incense with the intent of raising the dead.
It’s also used as a fumigant in ritual magic.
Examples of Henbane in European folklore
‘I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter: and yet Mizaldus, a man of penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest: the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places are saturnine herbs. Both Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is a herb of Saturn. The 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.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1814
‘The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causeth sleep.’
John Gerard, Herball, 1597
Finding references to Henbane in writing as well as folklore, you can see that the dangers of getting your dose right was well known. ‘If it be used either in sallet or in pottage, then doth it bring frenzie, and whoso useth more than four leaves shall be in danger to sleepe without waking.’
Opposite beliefs were held regarding the nature of Henbane. German folklore in the medieval era states that throwing it to the sky will bring rain. But its natural tendency to grow in areas devoid of vegetation meant others thought it made a landscape barren and sterile.
Necklaces made with Henbane were thought to prevent fits and seizures, and take away the pain of teething.
And it was also believed in Germany that as an ingredient in incense, it helps one to shape shift.
Toasting a glass to Henbane in the Alps and Bavaria
In the Alps, Henbane is known as Bilsenkraut (beer lettuce), believed to be named for a goddess, Bil, who is considered to be the fairy of Henbane.
The Germans in Pilsen and other locations used Henbane in gruit, which was used to flavor beer before the introduction of hops, starting in the eleventh century. The recipe includes:
40g dried chopped henbane herbage,
23 l water
1 l brewing malt
5g dried yeast
Henbane disappeared from beer with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 which banned any ingredients other than barley, hops, yeast, and water.
Despite the dangers, Henbane was long used for medicinal purposes
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 cool the veneral heat of the reins in the French pox; to stop the tooth-ache, being applied to the aching side: to allay all inflammations, and to help the diseases before premised.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1814
All of the Henbane plant – leaves, seeds and roots contain some of the 34 alkaloids present, including hyoscine, hyoscyamine, and atropine. Which makes for a variety of uses, even today.
The Greek and Roman doctors commonly prescribed it as a sedative. It’s also been used to treat earaches, toothache, rheumatism and ailments of the bones, sciatica, insomnia, asthma, cough, nervous diseases, and stomach pain.
Along the way some doctors got the idea of mixing opium with Henbane. One recipe in the Byzantine era suggested mixing a paste of ground opium and Henbane, smeared onto a fish to alleviate earache.
And it’s said that Henbane makes for an amazing medicinal massage, but don’t try that at home kids. Remember that it can be ingested through the skin.
It’s worth remembering that unless you know exactly what you’re doing, any form of Henbane intoxication or poisoning can be lethal. And a very unpleasant lethal at that.
Some tips on growing Henbane in your witch’s garden
Our common Henbane has very large, thick, soft, woolly leaves, lying on the ground, much cut in, or torn on the edges, of a dark, ill greyish green colour; among which arise up divers thick and short stalks, two or three feet high, spread into divers small branches, with lesser leaves on them, and many hollow flowers, scarce appearing above the husk, and usually torn on one side, ending in five round points, growing one above another, of a deadish yellowish colour, somewhat paler towards the edges, with many purplish veins therein, and of a dark, yellowish purple in the bottom of the flower, with a small point of the same colour in the middle, each of them standing in a hard close husk, which after the flowers are past, grow very like the husk of Asarabacca, and somewhat sharp at the top points, wherein is contained much small seed, very like Poppy seed, but of a dusky, greyish colour. The root is great, white, and thick, branching forth divers ways under ground, so like a Parsnip root (but that it is not so white) that it has deceived others. The whole plant more than the root, has a very heavy, ill, soporiferous smell, somewhat offensive.
Place. It commonly grows by the waysides, and under hedgesides and walls.
Time. It flowers in July, and springs again yearly of its own seed. I doubt my authors mistook July for June, if not for May.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1814
Most advice regarding Henbane is in how to remove it, as it can be quite invasive. As it springs up freely in marginally desolate soils, it’s not too picky when it comes to the dirt. It doesn’t like wet legs however, hates standing in water and insists on a well drained, sandy soil. But it does love a bit of fertilizer and organic mulch as well, particularly as it starts its bloom cycle.
You can grow from seeds by scattering the seeds on the ground, leaving them uncovered, or do the cold stratification method if you want to start them inside. It quite often will reseed itself, hence the invasive nature,
Container growing is possible, but it tends to result in much smaller plants which wilts easily.
You can also purchase live plants from small nurseries online, if you want to save some steps getting started.
Pests are problematic, and in fact my entire plant was eaten by aphids immediately after blooming last year. This year I’ve used a natural repellent and have a healthy, uneaten plant, currently in bloom (June 6).
Most of all, take care when handling this plant as accidents can easily happen. It’s a good idea to keep it tucked safely away in a part of the garden which can be locked off from prying eyes. As plants of this nature should be secret anyway.
Some of the information in this article comes from this charming article I came across.