- Family: Solanaceae
- Type species: Hyoscyamus niger
- Other species: Hyoscyamus albus
- Related genera: Atropa, Brugmansia, Capsicum, Datura, Mandragora, Nicotiana, Scopolia, Solanum
Names and folklore: 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 ancestral spirits. It constituted one of the main ingredients in flying ointments and witches’ brews, alongside datura, belladonna, mandrake and other herbs. It was also used as a narcotic and anodyne. In Greek mythology the dead walking along the river Styx wore crowns made of henbane flowers, which made them forget the memories of their gone by life. Besides this it was also sacred to the sun-god Apollo, who is evoked in the herb’s Greek name Herba Apollinaris, which was used 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 Bilsenkraut is either a reference to the Germanic goddess Bil (who is 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 are Apollonienkraut (note again the reference to the Greek sun-god), 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 hebenon mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, which was poured into the ear of Hamlet’s father, whilst others argue this poison was the yew (see). Other names are Hog’s Bean, Jupiter’s bean, Symphonica, Cassilata, Cassilago, Deus Caballinus, Henbell (Anglo-Saxon) and Jusquiame (French).
Medicinal: 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 used 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 is given by 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… 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.’
He also notes that the herb should never be taken inwardly but only in the form of poultices, plasters and oils applied outwardly.
Henbane in the garden:
Native to Eurasia and Africa, now distributed all over the world, it is found growing by the wayside, on walls, tips or dumps and wasteland, on nitrogen-rich, clay and sandy soil. The flowers appear in April or May (typically around Beltane) and are pollinated by bees and bumblebees. They are pale yellow, with purple veins and spots and dark purple or near black at the center. The plant continues to grow and produce flowers and seed pods until late summer and dies off in autumn. The pods ripen from August to fall and contain each several hundred seeds, which are spread by wind, animals and humans. Two variants exist, one annual, which produces flowers and seed pods and dies in the same year, and one biennial, which produces a basal rosette of leaves in the first year and flowers and seeds in the second. The latter develops stronger and often branchy stems and can get up to 1 m tall, whilst the annual variant is usually not as lush and smaller. The seeds are said to remain germinable for 600 years or longer.
Magical associations: Jupiter/Saturn, earth, banishments, death curses, necromancy, oracles, rain magic, flying ointments, sacred to the god Apollo, evoking the Norse goddess Bil and the corn demon Bilwiß, also chthonic deities such as Hecate, Persephone, or Saturnian deities such as Chronos
Photos and art: Wiebke Rost