A.K.A. Henbane, Black Henbane, Devil’s Eyes, Hog’s Bean, Jupiter's Bean, Symphonica, Cassilata, Cassilago,
Hyoscyamus, Deus Caballinus.
Henbane is a toxic plant known to mankind since ancient times. It has been used to both maim and heal over the years and is nicely intertwined with many lurid historic events. The name comes from the belief that poultry (especially hens) were particularly vulnerable to the poisonous attributes of its seeds.
If you’re looking for henbane, search chalky wastelands and seaside regions. It flourishes in barren and unlikely places. It is a sticky, hairy and foul-smelling plant, growing 1-3 feet tall, that bears alternate and bluntly lobed leaves. It reproduces by means of seeds and its flowers are pale yellow with a darkish center.
Henbane belongs to the family Solanaceae (the nightshade family) and is one of approximately eleven species that comprise the genus Hyoscyamus. It is native to the Mediterranean and Great Britain, but has been cultivated in North America (among other places) by the pharmaceutical industry to be used as a source of alkaloids. Drugs such as narcotics and antispasmodics are often derived from henbane alkaloids. The main alkaloids that comprise henbane are the same as those the notorious belladonna contains: hyoscine, syoscyamine, atropine and scopolamine.
Historically, its healing properties have been harnessed in other ways. Coupled with other plants like mandrake, it was once used in Eurasia as a component of anesthetic potions. The Elizabethan herbalist Gerald wrote in his 1636 Herbal that "the root boiled with vinegar, and the same holden hot in the mouth, easeth the pain of the teeth." Medieval medicine also dictated that the seeds could be heated over charcoal and the fumes inhaled to ease toothaches or other pain. The ancient Egyptians smoked henbane for their dental problems as well, though the species native to them had a higher concentration of alkaloids than our modern species does and was much more potent. Balms and oils made from henbane have been used, until relatively recently, to treat earache, rheumatism, neuralgia and sciatica. People have additionally used henbane as an anticipatory defense against travel sickness. It was once used to treat depression. An ancient Anglo-Saxan text has this to say about the herbal properties of henbane to treat insomnia: "In case a man is not able to sleep, take henbane seed and juice of garden mint, shake them together, and smear the head therewith; it will be well with it."
But what of henbane’s darker side? Well, to begin with, it’s toxic. Being poisoned by henbane probably won't kill you, but don’t go adding it to your salsa recipe just yet. It usually results in a condition characterized by insanity, seizures, violence and trembling limbs. Even small amounts can cause anything from dizziness to delirium, and lethal doses provoke a slow and painful death. 20-30 seeds can kill a child; 100-150 a man. Some initial symptoms of henbane overdose are headache, drunkenness, urine retention, irregular heartbeat and sleepiness. Suggested treatments are emetics, gastric lavage and heart stimulants, but if it is possible one would be best to take the victim to a hospital rather than administer any treatment oneself.
The ancient Greeks used it as an arrow poison and in a potion to mimic insanity in a man and supposedly grant him the temporary ability of prophecy. Bishop Albertus the Great of the 13th century reported that henbane was being used by necromancers to summon demons. In the 13th and 14th centuries, witches supposedly used henbane as an ingredient in their brews and flying ointments. The ointments, when rubbed on the skin, allegedly enabled the witch to experience intense hallucinations of flying through the air.
Another interesting historic use of henbane is as a common flavor enhancer in German beer during the middle ages, until the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 prohibited all but hops for use in flavoring. Pilsen Beer derives its name from Bilson, the German word for henbane.
During the recent excavation of a 17th century Scottish jail (Tolbooth Jail in Stirling), dozens of henbane seeds were discovered in clay and are believed to have been used on the inmates, perhaps to anesthetize them while amputations were performed. Henbane has also been used in many murders, such as in 1910 when the infamous Dr. Crippen murdered his wife with a poison derived from henbane before attempting to flee the country with his mistress.
'Sleeping within mine orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of mine ear did pour
The leprous distillment.'
It is the prevalent opinion that henbane is the infamous "juice of cursed hebenon" poison that killed King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Among other writers who have mentioned henbane are Marlowe, Gower and Spenser, contributing to the herb’s notoriety in English literature.
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