History of Belladonna
Belladonna, or “beautiful woman” in Italian, is a witchy herb with a sordid history. Beautiful yet deadly, belladonna is the femme fatal of the plant world, and is intertwined with the idea of beauty cloaking a hidden danger. Used as medicine, in beauty treatments, and as a murder weapon, belladonna has quite the bewitching reputation. Its energies are associated with death, beauty, power, and danger, and although we probably won’t be using the actual herb in our spellwork, knowing the history of the plant can help us incorporate its magickal properties in spells or rituals. Let’s take a look!
Named for Death & Beauty
Belladonna’s official name is Atropa belladonna. Atropa comes from Atropos, a character in Greek mythology. Atropos (which translates to “unturnng one”, “she who may not be turned aside”, or “the inflexible”) was one of the Three Fates that decided a person’s life. The first sister spun the threat of a person’s life, the second measured it, and Atropos, being the last, cut it – symbolizing death. (Her Roman name was Morta, from which we get muerte, mort, and morte in the romance languages). In some sources, these Fates were daughters of Erebus and Nyx (Darkness & Night), so we see another layer of association with death.
The second part of the official name is belladonna, which means “beautiful woman” in Italian. The berries of the belladonna plant are indeed beautiful and apparently are fairly sweet in taste, but they hide a deadly alkaline poison that can kill quite easily. The name beautiful woman, comes from the enchanting woman of the Italian Renaissance court, where pale skin and ‘bedroom eyes’ were considered the height of beauty. To achieve this look, the women would use eye drops with belladonna juice in them to dilate their pupils.
In folklore and folktales, belladonna has been called many other things, all of which add to its notorious reputation. The most famous of these names are Deadly Nightshade, Witch’s Berries, Sorcerer’s Berry, Death’s Herb, Beautiful Death, Death Cherries, and my personal favorite, The Devil’s Cherries (great band name!).
A Nefarious Poison
Belladonna is best known for its reputation as a deadly poison. Weather fact or folklore, the stories about the use of the plant to carry out murderous intentions abound. There is some research that suggests early civilizations made poison arrows from belladonna. In Ancient Rome, Empress Livia Drusilla is said to have poisoned her husband, Emperor Augustus, with belladonna, while the wife of Emperor Claudius was supposedly poisoned with the plant by her husband. Another legend says that the historical Macbeth poisoned barrels of English drink with belladonna, causing the opposing troops to retreat before battle. And according to some historians, Solomon Northup (Twelve Years a Slave), was knocked out and abducted using a concoction that contained belladonna.
Nicholas Culpepper wrote “It is of a cold nature; in some it causeth sleep; in others madness, and shortly after, death.” These effects have led some to surmise that the famous poison that makes Juliet seem as though dead in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, included deadly nightshade.
Whatever the historical accuracy of these claims, it is absolutely true that belladonna is a deadly poison. The roots, leaves, and berries all contain high amounts of tropane alkaloids, which are deadly to humans and many domesticated pets. If one handles the plant with cuts or scrapes of any kind, the poison can affect them, and although the berries contain less alkaloids, they are the part of the plant most often responsible for poisoning deaths.
A full grown adult can die from approximately 20 berries (or less) and a child from only two. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning are as follow:
- rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
- skin rashes
- flushed skin
- dilated pupils
- difficulty swallowing
- blurred vision
- severe cramping
Although there are some medicinal uses for this poisonous plant, the boundary between toxic and non-toxic amounts is too close for comfort. It has been used as a muscle relaxer, pain reliever, and its key chemical ingredients have been included in some eyes drops in optometrist offices. It seems that there are some homeopathic products which contain belladonna, including teething tablets for infants, that have been warned against by the FDA, and as we can see, there is good reason to avoid any product containing belladonna, especially those made for children.
The folklore surrounding belladonna is very closely tied to witchcraft (or what societies assumed was witchcraft). One of the most persistent associations is that belladonna was an ingredient in the flying ointment used by witches. Flying ointment was a mixture of ingredients, usually poisonous and psychotropic plants, which were put into an ointment (made from the fat of children no less!) and rubbed into the skin (an in some stories the broom handle…uh…yeah it’s what you’re thinking), to help witches ‘fly’ to their satanic meetings. [An entirely separate discussion is whether this ‘flying’ was physical or astral; it seems the latter is more likely. A witch would ‘fly’ (i.e. get high) and have hallucinatory experiences which were believed to have been really experienced)]. Belladonna was often listed as an ingredient in these ointments, due to its association with death and its hallucination inducing chemicals.
Another popular folk belief has to do with belladonna and beauty. In an ancient folk practice from Romania, girls would venture out, find a belladonna plant, and make an offering. She would bury bread, salt, and brandy in exchange for the plant’s root, which would then be carried on top of her head. This would assure her good looks and beauty. As we read above, belladonna was also used to ensure sensuousness and attractiveness in renaissance ladies, so this plant has been connected to the idea of beauty for centuries.
Belladonna & Goddesses
I just wanted to quickly include the goddesses associated with belladonna because the plant’s energies closely align with these powerful deities. Because of belladonna’s strong feminine energy and associations with death and danger, this herb has been connected to several ‘dark’ goddesses. The Roman goddess Bellona is one such deity. She is a goddess of war in Roman mythology. According to some sources, priests who worked with this goddess would drink a mixture infused with belladonna before rituals or meditations to connect with her.
Belladonna is also connected to Hecate and Circe. Circe (possibly Hecate’s daughter) is a Greek enchantress figure. Known for her workings with potions and herbs, Circe was a powerful woman who could use her knowledge to change those who offended her into animals. She is also associated with powerful femininity, sensuality, and because of this, witchcraft. Hecate is also a Greek goddess, and she is probably the most intensely ‘witchy’ goddess of all. According to Wikipedia (yes, I use Wikipedia!): “She is variously associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, night, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery“. We can easily see how belladonna, a plant connected to death and beauty and mystery and liminal spaces is tied to these goddesses.
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of belladonna are as dark and dangerous as her history. Powerful and seductive, yet extremely toxic, these energies should not be played around with lightly. Here are some types of magick that belladonna may be used for, although I don’t encourage use of the actual plant. I find that working with an artistic representation can replace the physical herb in spellwork.
- Magick dealing with the underworld or the dead
- Connecting with Circe, Hecate, Bellona, or or other similar goddesses
- In meditation (connect to the energy) to travel to the underworld/dead or similar energies
- Dark love spells or other magick to invoke intense power or seduction
- In hexes or curses (dealing with enemies) – warfare and aggression
- Beauty spells
- To open and get in touch with liminal spaces
I don’t have many ‘suggestions’ for this herb because there is no way I’m recommending using the actual plant. It can be grown and as far as I could tell it isn’t illegal; however, it is very dangerous both physically and energetically. I love the idea of using a piece of artwork you connect with to bring in the powerful magickal properties, especially around Samhain, or maybe even a belladonna inspired charm. I think it’s up to you how you choose to work with this herb.
Alright, so I don’t have a recipe this week because this plant is highly toxic! What I do have are two suggestions to get in touch with her powerful energies.
- Create a piece of artwork inspired by belladonna. If you’re artistic you can paint or draw – the plant itself, be inspired by a story or goddess connected to belladonna, or even an imagined magickal working scenario.
- Make a cocktail inspired by belladonna! You could use butterfly pea flower and some lemon juice (this is what turns my Psychic Blend purple) and some other ingredients to make a fun (non-toxic) drink for a Halloween party, or even a ritual for Samhain.