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Herbs of Divination

One of my favorite holidays is coming up. Halloween, All Hallows Day, Hallowmas, Samhain. It is probably the most misunderstood holiday of them all and may be the most important from a botanical perspective. Let me tell you what I'm talking about.

First let's take a little history lesson. Halloween has its roots in ancient festivals celebrating the New Year and remembering those who have passed on. The festival has been traced back to the ancient Celts and the Maya; undoubtedly other cultures had similar celebrations.

For the Celts this was the end of summer and the beginning of a New Year. They called this festival Samhain. Now let's clear one thing up from the git go. Samhain is not the name of a god. There is no Celtic god by that name. Rather, Samhain (pronounced, sow-in) means end of summer. It was a time to look back and remember those who had died during the past year while at the same time looking forward trying to divine what the new year may bring.

Both these ancient cultures recognized this time of year as a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. The dead could, if they choose, return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family or tribe. The Maya would decorate the graves of their loved ones and line the paths for the grave to their homes with the petals of marigolds so that the dead may be guided.

Many divination rituals were practiced at this most propitious of times and this is where it gets interesting for those of us interested in plants. The milder and probably more common rituals involved nuts and apples. Girls would put hazelnuts close to the fire and while thinking about the boy she liked would chant, "If you love me pop and fly: if you hate me burn and die".

There are several ways to use an apple for divining your future partner. Cutting the apple crosswise through its equator will reveal a five-pointed star. If you sit in front of a mirror in candlelight and eat the apple while thinking about the boy or girl you like, he/she will return the sentiment. If you share an apple with the one you love they will love you in return. Peel an apple without breaking the peel; throw the peel over your head. When it lands it will reveal the first letter of the name of your beloved.

This is the time of year when reading the Tarot, tea leaves or crystal ball are likely to be most accurate. It is also the time of year when witches would fly, which is how they would divine the future. The word witch comes from an old Saxon word wica, meaning wise one. It is to the wise ones that the community turned at Samhain to get information about what the future would bring. The witch then is the central figure of Samhain and that is why she turns up in our Halloween.

On the eve of Samhain the witches would gather to perform the rites of divination. They would prepare a flying ointment to aid them in their journey. There are many recipes for this ointment all having a base of either Atropa belladonna or Mandragora officinarum, both highly psychoactive drugs producing visions and encouraging astral projection.

The ointment was rubbed all over the body, especially in places that were capillary rich. The mucous membrane of the genitals was a preferred location. The ointment was applied to a broom handle then rubbed on and inserted into the vagina. This is one version of how the ointment got its name and probably where we came up with the picture of witches flying on broomsticks.

The other version is that once the ointment was applied the person was given the suggestion that he or she was flying over the ocean or a river. The affect of the drug made the person really feel like they were flying or astral projecting. After the effects wore off the visions would be interpreted for clues about what the future held.

As you can see with this brief, incomplete history there is so much more to this holiday than the American custom lets on. I could go on about how shallow we are in this country, how soul-less etc., etc., but I won't. Instead I want to urge you all to question everything. Don't take any thing for granted and remember not all is what it seems so dig deeper. Now on to some of the botanical information about Belladonna and Mandrake.

Altropa belladonna
(click for larger image)
First let's talk about Belladonna. This is the ingredient I found most often when looking for flying ointment recipes; also I have a gorgeous volunteer Belladonna plant in my garden. The berries are black purple and look so inviting that I just want to pop them into my mouth. But something about the plant tells me that isn't a good idea. Maybe it's the smell, it isn't a bad smell exactly, it's a bitter smell that tells me maybe this isn't to be fooled with. And the purpley green leaves are a clear indication that this plant contains powerful, if not toxic, chemicals.

Atropa belladonna ( Deadly Nightshade) is native to central and southern Europe and parts of Asia. Its name in Italian means beautiful women, bella and donna. Atropa comes from the name Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life. Other names for it include Death's Herb, Deadly Nightshade, Devils' cherries, Sorcerers berries and witch's berry. Yeah, that's right it can kill you so don't fool around with it.

The dried leaves of the plant are used but the whole plant is poisonous. Various alkaloids are extracted from the dried leaves. The chief of which are atropine, hyoscyamine, tropane, and scopolamine. You may have been given atropine drops to dilate your pupils the last time you saw your ophthalmologist. In the past Italian women were said to use atropine drops to dilate their pupils to make them look bright eyed and more alluring.( Man, the lengths women will go to. I have had my pupils dilated by atropine; any exposure to light is excruciatingly painful.) Atropine works this way because it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system; it also relives pain and can reduce muscle spasm.

Scopolamine is a central nervous system depressant, it has been used as a sedative, to treat insomnia and to reduce the symptoms of motion sickness. This sedative effect can have a deadly end when too much is used. Indeed it was a favored poison in the Roman courts. The tropane constituent is responsible for its hallucinatory effects and why witches used it in their recipes for flying ointment.

According to Michael Tierra, Belladonna is characterized energetically as bitter, warm and toxic. It is a watery feminine herb ruled by Saturn. It affects the liver and is being studied as a possible cure for cancer.

Mandrake or Mandragora officinarum is also native to southern Europe and should not be confused with American Mandrake or Mayapple which is actually Podophyllum peltatum (which is sometimes substituted for real mandrake). Its use goes back ages, one of the earliest references come from the bible in Genesis 30: 14-16.

It's name refers to the shape of the root system, which is large, fleshy and branched. Some think it in the shape of a man others with more imagination say it looks like a penis. The latter description may be why it is thought to be an aphrodisiac and is used to treat sterility. The root is buried beneath Medusa's corpse in the Agora at Athens. Hence Man-dragora.

The active constituents are a series of alkaloids including scopolamine, hyoscyamine and mandrogines. It has very strong laxative properties, which operate by stimulating the release of bile from the liver and gall ducts. It is a fiery, masculine herb ruled by Mercury.

The root is considered a protective charm, aiding fertility, attracting money, love and health. It was carried as a charm and became associated with witches. It was used extensively to treat melancholy, convulsions and rheumatic pain. In large doses it "excites delirium and madness". In other words it's a hallucinogen and may have been part of a recipe for flying ointment.

I want to end by cautioning against use of these herbs except under strict medical consultation. They are very powerful and can be a great help when used by someone who understands their power; conversely they can be very powerfully dangerous, even deadly when used by someone with little understanding. I know there are those of you out there who won't listen to my caution so I'll leave you with a little story.

There once was a young woman who thought she might try some Mandrake tea. She had heard that you could get high on it and wanted to give it a go. So she boiled up her tea and choked the stinking concoction down. Half an hour later she felt nothing, so she gagged another cupful down. Well within minutes she was puking and shitting out everything in her belly and more. This lasted for days. Yes, days of puking up burning bile and shitting watery bile. But did she get high you want to know. No she did not. She got sick, you can too if you fool around with things you don't understand.

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