Etymology: From Italian bella donna = beautyful woman and Greek ἄτροπος = atropos = inevitable. Atropos was the third of the Greek Moirae (equal to Morta of the Roman Parceae), who was in charge of cutting the thread of life and chose the manner of a person’s death.
The common name belladonna is Italian for ‘beautiful lady’, because women would use belladonna as an eye drop causing the pupils to occur wider and darker (making use of belladonna’s anti-muscarinic effects), which was considered to make them appear more attractive. Another version is that an Italian poisoner used deadly nightshade to poison beautiful women.
German names: Schwindelkirsche, Schlafkirsche, Teufelskirsche, Walkerbeere, Irrbeere, Wutbeere, Wolfsbeere, Tollkraut, Tollkirsche
History, myth and various uses: Deadly nightshade has been used throughout history for various purposes dating as far back as to Sumerians, who considered it as a cure against ‘demons’ (= diseases) and assumingly used it in treating depressions, psychosis and mental disorders. It has also been an inebriant agent added to beer and palm wine in the ancient near east. Likewise ancient Greeks drank it when they visited the Oracle of Delphi. Along with datura it was also part of the famous wine of the Bacchanals (or wine of the Maenads), worshippers of Dionysus, which was consumed for inducing trance states and euphoria. In ancient Greece the plant was also known as circaeon, named after the enchantress Circe, since the leaves were employed in sleeping draughts.
One of the plant’s common names is dwale, which is thought to derive from the Norse word duale, meaning ‘dead sleep’ in reference to the narcotic state after taking belladonna. It may be connected to the Scottish word dule and French deuil, which both mean ‘sorrow’. A cosmetic lotion called dwal water was used by young women for removing freckles.
Purportedly an important ingredient in Witches brews during the middle ages, Atropa belladonna was closely tied to witchcraft, representing aggressive female sexuality and inducing feelings of flight. It was part of flying ointments but otherwise rarely used as a magical herb due its high toxicity.
Hildegard von Bingen noted “a coldness inside the plant” and “where it grows is a devilish insinuation and those who practice the arte (witchcraft) gather there. It is dangerous for men to eat because it shatters the mind and causes states as if one was dead.”
During the middle ages it was used for inducing hallucinogenic states and given to victims under torture. Torturers used it thus to force confessions from both the guilty and the innocent as those interrogated under its power are confused and weakened and cannot distinguish between truth and fantasy.
Belladonna was also an arrow poison (see Aconite). The Romans used the plant as a sort of biological weapon to contaminate their enemie’s food reserves. Reportedly the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both used it to murder contemporaries and it was thought to have been the plant which accidentally poisoned the troops of Mark Anthony during the Partian Wars: the soldiers, short of food and needing to eat, tried a plant unfamiliar to them and became intoxicated (however some say that this plant was datura). It is also said to have saved Scotland from Danish invaders in the 11th century: the Danes landed and demanded mead as part of their settlement. Macbeth laced the mead with belladonna and then slaughtered the drunken and benumbed Danes.
Another derivation is founded on the old tradition that priests used to drink an infusion before they worshipped and invoked the aid of Bellona, Roman Goddess of War.
Belladonna has a dark and fearsome reputation. Many old herbalists refused to grow it and monkish chroniclers would not even mention it, though it was grown in monastery gardens as a cure for inflammations and boils. According to one legend it once grew so thickly around Furness Abbey that the district was also known as The Vale of Nightshade.
Belladonna has traditional associations with the hunt, Wotan and the Wild Hunt. Hunters in the South of Germany consumed 3-4 berries to increase awareness and for betetr marksmanship. The German names ‘Wolfsbeere’ and ‘Rasewurz’ bear associations with the Wotan, the god of rage and furor, whose totem animal is the wolf, as well as the Berserkers, who were norse warriors that would enter a trance-like state of fury before going into battle (probably with the help of drugs such as belladonna or wolfsbane) and are sometimes described as ‘wearing wolf-skins’.
Belladonna has also been named “Walkerbeere”, in name-relation with the Valkyries, daughters of heaven and earth (Wotan and Erda), who accompany the souls of warriors died in battle to their final destination in Valhalla, where they serve them mead until the twilight of the gods.
Belladonna seems to have been used in very similar ways as the mandrake and it is likley that its roots have been used as substitute or alternative (both look very similar). Any spirit bound in this root was thought to be powerful with regard to dreams and visions. There are reports of harvesting rituals similar to that of mandrake: In Hungary the root is dug up naked on the night of St. George and in turn for a certain type of bread offering (“dargebracht wie an einen elbischen Unhold”). In Romania it is considered the “Empress of Herbs”. Likewise it is sometimes called the “Queen of Witchherbs” in Germany.
Belladonna was believed to be beloved by the devil, who guarded it all year round except on May Eve, when he had to leave for the witches’ sabbat. Hence it could only be harvested on that night. This is probably a corruption of the older lore when the belladonna was harvested for magical purposes on Beltane. In Bohemia it was thought the plant was guarded by the devil but on Walpurgis Nacht he could be distracted by letting lose a black hen which he would be bound to chase, leaving the plant unobserved.
Giovanni Battista della Porta writes about Belladonna as a ritual herb to induce theriomorphic shape-shifting. As part of Samhain incense it aids the necromantic calling of the ancestral spirits. Belladonna has besides Datura stramonium also been considered to be the strychnos manikos mentioned by Dioskurides. According to another source it was the herb known also as morion.
Movies and art: Belladonna by Herman de Vries shows a young women trolling through the forest, and when finding a belladonna, beginning to undress and smearing her naked body with the fruits. The movie continues portraying her hallucinations. Another movie inspired by the myth of the beautiful woman and the plant is titled Atropa belladonna – Die Farbe der Zeit. The book Ist Gott eine Droge oder haben wir sie nur falsch verstanden portraits the hallucinatory experience of a belladonna trip.
Toxicity: Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids (atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine), which act anticholinergic and antagonize the parasympathetic nervous system. Symptoms of poisoning range from erythema, dry mouth, pupil dilatation, blurred vision, tachycardia, urinary retention, loss of balance, confusion, hallucinations (set in when the cardiovascular system is already overstrained), delirium, coma, respiratory paralysis and consequently death.
Antidotes: Physostigmine or Pilocarpine
Medicinal uses: Atropine is a core medicine in the WHO’s “Essential Drugs List”, which is a list of minimum medical needs for a basic health care system. Its medical Uses are manifold, from opthalmology to treatment of bradycardy and bronchoconstriction as well as poisoning with organophosphates contained in insecticides, and possibly also in poisoning with Parathion.
Belladonna in the garden:
Belladonna is a perennial and hardy plant native to Europe, which often grows as as sub shrub and is found wild on forest glades and edges and cut-over woodland. She prefers a spot in half shade with diffuse sunlight and fresh, humus-, limestone-rich soil. Developing a branchy growth the plant gets 1 – 1,5 m tall (and wide), with brown-purple flowers from June to late autumn that are pollinated by bumblebees. The black fruits resembling cherries, ripen from August until the end of autumn and contain each about 100-150 seeds. The plant develops a strong fleshy root, which is harvested traditionally during the third year.
Fertilize with compost soil and protect young shoots from slugs (who tend to devour plants in the nightshade family much like salad). If you already hae problems with slugs in your garden it might be safer to grow them in containers. Fertilize more if leaves turn yellowish during growth period.
Note: Belladonna may be illegal to cultivate in some countries.
Magical associations: Saturn/Earth and Water, also Mars and dark Venus, banishing and cursing, magical attack and defense, war magic, enchantments, soporific, herb of Circe, dreams and visions, necromancy, shapeshifting, evokes dark and ferocious aspects of female deities such as Hecate, Kali, Lilith and Naamah, as well as the Valkyries, Wotan, the Wild Hunt and the Devil himself
Pictures: Wiebke Rost