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Witches & Poisonous Herbs: A History of Bella Donna, Fly Agaric & More

History tells us witches and poisons go together like peas and carrots. Written accounts of the Witch Trials in the Dark Ages through the Early Modern Period give us a glimpse into the lives of accused witches and sorcerers. Including their use of potions, brews and plants that are deemed poisonous. Yet if we look closer, the “poisons” utilized by witches in their magical endeavors induced trance, invoked divine visions, and for some gave them the ability to “fly”. You know the saying, too much of a good thing is a bad thing? With poisons, it’s all about the quantity and handling. In certain doses, witches use poisons to go on spiritual “journeys”. In other doses, these herbs can kill. Let’s look at some of the entheogens historically and intricately linked to witchcraft.

Warning!

This article is for educational purposes only. We are not encouraging anyone to go out and start handling or consuming poisonous herbs in any facet. Consult a local professional herbalist with questions. You are responsible for your own health!

The Traditional Poisonous Herbs: The Solanaceae Family

From historical records and in modern times, witches particularly love using poisonous herbs from the solanaceae family: a few of which include atropa belladonna, mandrake, and datura. These three poisons in particular are doused in folklore and have aided the witch in her wiles for centuries. The solanaceae family of poisonous herbs is composed of alkaloids including atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These chemical constituents have various effects on the human nervous system including a psychoactive effect. If you ever take a pharmacology class, you’ll also learn these constituents are professionally extracted from these plants to make pharmaceuticals. In fact, belladonna is used as a painkiller in emergency rooms across the United States.

Atropa bella donna: A Witch's herb historically used in flying ointments.
Atropa Bella Donna

Atropa Belladonna: Is it ALWAYS Deadly?

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is a poisonous herb used by witches to create “flying ointments” since at least the ninth century. You may have heard of belladonna in the movie Practical Magic or in the song by Stevie Nicks. Did you know just how deadly Belladonna can be? It will speed up your heart and can be fatal if consumed by mouth. If applied in lower quantities to the skin, it causes hallucinations which is why witches used this intoxicant. By applying flying ointments to one’s skin, the witch had visions of “flying”. There are also stories of witches using Bella donna berries to poison their enemies. So it stands to question – are these “poisons” ALWAYS deadly? Or are they helpful when handled and used properly in medicines and by professional herbalists?

Mandrake Root: One of the witch's poisonous herbs

The “Screaming” Mandrake Plant

The mandrake plant, scientific name mandragora, is another poisonous herb from the solanaceae family historically infused into witches’ flying ointments. Mandrake root is oddly shaped like a tiny man and when pulled from the dirt is said to give a startling shriek. In folkloric accounts, this infamous shriek was so powerful it killed anyone who listened to it, unless one took specific protective measures. This poison is featured in the Harry Potter book series. In Germany, the mandrake is called the alraun and is often kept as a family’s “familiar” in a fancy wooden box.

Datura: The Devil’s Trumpet

Datura, another of the witch’s favorite entheogens, is beautiful and deadly. It has been called the devil’s trumpet because the flowers are shaped like the instrument with little “horns” on the edges of the petals. Although the oldest of the written flying ointments didn’t mention datura, modern witches work with this intoxicating poison. It indeed has hallucinogenic effects when applied to the skin.

Devil's Trumpet: Part of the Solanaceae Family
Plant in the Devil’s Trumpet family

Henbane

Another of the most widely-used poisonous herbs is henbane. Also a part of the solanaceae family, henbane grows in Europe and Asia and scholars believe it’s been used in sacred ritual since the stone age. It holds a connection to Demeter and Bellenus and is said to have been smoked to induce visions of the dead. To read more about this amazing “poisonous” herb of witches, pay a visit to Blood and Spicebush here.

Henbane, another of the poisons in witch's flying ointment.
Henbane

Wormwood: The Poisonous Herb of Artemis

Historically, the herb known as Wormwood has had quite the reputation. You have probably heard of the alcoholic drink absinthe. Absinthe’s “poisonous” ingredient is wormwood, an herb that causes hallucinations when consumed. A popular drink in the eighteenth century, absinthe was well-loved by artists worldwide. Absinthe’s nickname “The Green Fairy” came from its color AND because it caused hallucinations of an actual green fairy. Naturally, witches have been aware of wormwood’s power since before absinthe. Wormwood’s psychoactive component is thujone, and when taken in large quantities causes hallucinations and potentially seizures.

The Goddess Artemis’ Herb

Wormwood’s scientific name artemisia absinthium is named after the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis. The Roman form of Artemis was Diana, a lunar goddess worshiped by Italian witches. In Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, written by Charles Leland, a group of Italian witches worship Diana. So in this way, one can see how wormwood became a sacred witch’s herb. Wormwood is burned to “wake the dead”, but its fumes can be toxic when inhaled. It’s also used medicinally as an anti-parasitic and to stimulate digestion. People still drink it in tea form, though growing it and/or consuming it is illegal in many countries.

Fly agaric is a traditional poison in Norse shamanic history.
Fly agaric mushroom

Fly Agaric: Poisonous Mushroom

Amanita muscaria, also called Fly Agaric, is a poisonous mushroom commonly seen as decorative lawn ornaments and in fairy tale books. It’s a fungus with a bright red cap and white spots that grows in Europe and North America. There is much folklore pertaining to Fly Agaric, and it’s well known for being the fairies’ favorite poison.

Fairies & Mushrooms

Often when we see pictures of fairies in old story books, we also see the ubiquitous fly agaric mushroom. Probably because of the association with the fay, fly agaric is associated with witches. Where there were fairies, there were witches in the old days. Perhaps this is due to the fly agaric’s entheogenic qualities? Fly Agaric is said to be poisonous, but many claim it’s like the other “poisonous herbs” with a bad reputation that causes hallucinations in certain quantities, illness and death in higher quantities.

Norse Shamans & Reindeer Urine

Fly Agaric was a favorite of Norse shamans in ancient times. It was so well loved the people consumed the mushrooms, then saved their urine to drink it to acquire more of the chemical compounds filtered out from the body. There are also tales of people drinking the urine of reindeer who were found eating from a fly agaric mushroom patch.

Monkshood, aka wolfsbane
Wolfsbane, aka Monkshood

More Poisonous Herbs

These are just a few of the poisonous plants used by witches in the past and today. There are dozens of poisonous herbs in the solanaceae family that I didn’t detail, including: henbane, foxglove, and tobacco. Other poisonous plants steeped in folklore include: hellebore, hemlock, wolfsbane, and poppy.

There are those who practice modern witchcraft and walk the “poison path”, meaning they focus their practice on poisonous plants. If you want to learn more about the Poison Path, I highly recommend following The Poisoner’s Apothecary and reading The Poison Path book by Coby Michael to be released in October 2021. Obviously this is a dangerous method of the craft and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research and study is imperative if one is to delve deeply into the world of poisonous herbs. Take caution if you are planning on studying the poisons. And beware the screaming mandrake!

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3 Comments

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