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Atropa belladonna and the Raving Ones
by The Seed SistAs
Belladonna is an imagination ignition. She is steeped in such wonderful history: folklore and medicinal use. She perfectly exemplifies how stories connected to plants can bring you closer to the essence of them. We Seed Sistas are a pair of medical herbalist witches. As you can see, we love to gender our plants! We work to bridge the gap between our scientific training in plant pharmacognosy and a long history of magical work with plants. One huge, consistent thread of our work has been with the Nightshade or Solanaceae plant family. These powerfully medicinal herbs have had some of the most exciting and mystical folklore connections to magic and stories surrounding them.
The Nightshade family is vast and provides many of the world’s favourite fruit and vegetables from the tomato and chilli, to the aubergine and potato. However, there are also the shadier (mysterious and feared) plants such as datura, henbane and one of our favourites, belladonna. This text is a look at how this plant has influenced much of history and even may be at the root of what is now known as ‘rave’ culture. Could belladonna also have influenced one of the major world answers to substance abuse with alcoholics anonymous? What potential powerful magic and medicine lies at her heart that we can draw on to create lasting change in some personal and societal challenges?
Atropa belladonna connects to a variety of ancient folklore which can support current exploration of this power plant. We will share how the layers of story add to a depth of understanding that can enhance life, health, magic, and mystical experiences—and how creating modern folklore can bring forth new ideas and imaginings.
We will also touch on approaches to altered states of perception and how the magic of entering differing states is part of the healing that medicine people worldwide can offer, and something that is all too often sadly lacking in our modern allopathic framework. Belladonna has a rich history that can be drawn upon to create deeply mystical, held experiences relevant to the culture, time, and lifestyle that we find ourselves in.
Let’s dive in.
1. Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna
Belladonna is a native European power plant, holding the key to an altered mind perspective, as well as being a hugely beneficial, physically-active medicine. Since ancient times, this beauty has been famed for poisonous properties, and applications in witchcraft, sorcery, and other forms of magic and medicine—and it is still very much in use.
Over the years as we became more attracted to this herb and her stories, intense magic started to seep into our consciousness—she appeared to us in dreams as a mysterious witch. She serendipitously graced our garden with her presence, self-seeding in an untended bed.
Every plant is associated with a celestial body from a time when astrology was inextricably linked with theories of health and medicine. Whatever your views on astrology, it provides a framework from which to understand qualities and actions of a plant on the human condition or body. Astrology’s link or influence on modern science is undeniable although it is actively discouraged form modern scientific research!1
Deadly Nightshade is ruled by Saturn. Saturn has the qualities associated with boundaries. When discovered, it was the furthest-reaching planet visible to the naked eye. The energy became associated with the outer reaches, with discipline and a sense of time-keeping, for overcoming challenges.2 Any astrological bodies beyond Saturn were seen to have more ethereal or mysterious influence. Saturn became known as Grandfather Time but also as the threshold. Thus, Saturn became associated with belladonna and other toxic plants because of their ability to end life.
3. What’s in a name?
Both the common and Latin names of herbs carry stories of their medicine, hints as to their appearance or location or warning of their power/toxicity. Often the Latin names link to deities whose stories connect into the essence of the plant in question.
Bella-donna is an Italian phrase meaning ‘beautiful lady’. This name was given to the plant because the ladies of Venice used Atropa belladonna as a cosmetic.3 They would drop the juice of the berry into their eyes to gain the mydriasis (pupil enlargement) caused by its use. The dilated pupils were considered more alluring. In an aroused state naturally, the pupils will dilate so this subtle messaging is powerful stuff. The purple juice of the berries was also applied as a rouge to the cheeks. These beauties must have been completely inebriated, a fact that may have also added to their attraction!
Belladonna’s dark green foliage gives rise to hues of greens and purples in her aromatic blooms. Once these tubular flowers are pollenated, they morph into the famous dark black, shiny berries, often referred to as the Devil’s cherries. These mirrored spheres look like potential treats to the uninitiated and have even ended up in a pie or two! The taste of the berry is sweet and the vivid purple juice can look appetizing, especially as they can be growing alongside the blackberries, looking all safe, delicious and tasty.
We often wonder at the name ‘Devil’s Cherry’ and wonder if it was coined to give children the fear of consuming the berries. This is a possible warning to children to steer clear of what are extremely enticing, black shiny berries with a sweet tasting (unusual for plants so high in alkaloids) fruit. Stories of summoning up Old Nick himself were told: ‘If you eat the Devils’s Cherry, better be prepared to come face to face with the devil.’4 In the wild, we have found belladonna loving uncultivated or desolate areas.
There is an Ancient Greek myth associated with the namesake of the Atropa belladonna, a story that speaks of the formidable nature of this fantastic power plant.
Atropos was one of the Moirai, the three fates of ancient Greece who control the threads of life and death. The first Fate is Clotho, the spinner. She sits and spins the thread of life, the fabric of human existence. She is the maiden and is often seen in artworks carrying a spindle. The second Fate is Lachesis, meaning the allotter. She measures out the thread of life which determines how long one will live. She is the holder of our time spent here in the mortal realm. She appears depicted as a matron with a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe.
The third Fate is Atropos meaning ‘inevitable’. She is the cutter of the thread of life. She appears as a crone. She chooses the manner of each person’s death and when their time is up, she cuts their life-thread with her shears. Her role is the archetypal death figure. She is the smallest of the three, characterized as the most terrible.5
The folklore of the three fates expresses the potential extreme effects of belladonna plant medicine. Of course, it is all in the hands of the person wielding the medicine, as everything is a poison depending on the dose, but as we know some herbs have a narrower therapeutic-to-poisoning dose threshold than others. The common name of ‘deadly nightshade’ is therefore extremely fitting.
4. Historical tales of Belladonna intoxication
The first recorded temple dedicated to Bellona was built around 300BC. The priests and priestesses of Bellona would take belladonna berries before entering into a fervent and fanatical ritual space.6
Dionysus and the Maenads
An early example of reported psychotropic use of belladonna was at the Bacchanalia festivities of the Greco-Roman religious celebrations, where it was added to the wine.7 This celebration was to Bacchus or Dionysus, the God of Religious Ecstasy, and of the harvest, wine and intoxication and fertility and other pleasures.
Dionysus the Greek God of Intoxication has been wrongly assumed to be faithful to his relationship with the grape, but there is plenty of supposition to connect him with other herbal additives to his brews.8
The female nymph revelers were referred to as maenads, so named from the Ancient Greek for ‘raving, wild or frantic’. The stories go that there were nymphs in attendance at these Dionysian orgies, and their appearance and behaviour was that of belladonna intoxication. These nymphs were depicted with dilated pupils and a frantic wildness, dancing and cavorting in abandonment. While much of history venerates male archetypes, gods, and scholars of ancient Greece, texts show that women had a leading role in magical practices with plants from dreaming temples to fertility rites—and female mythological beings connected to revelry and nature connection with plants.9
In our personal practice with this herb we feel this association, and love to call on belladonna’s energetic medicine to welcome in and rediscover ‘the wild’. We abandon civility, completely letting go and becoming ‘raving mad’, dancing and cavorting in wild ecstatic abandonment.
Bringing images of the ancient stories to mind can help to unleash connections with the plants that carry an oral map as to how to work with them.
5. Alleviating bonds of addiction – contacting god inside (AA)
Alcoholics Anonymous and Belladonna?
The ‘Belladonna Cure’ was a moniker given by American doctors who were treating people suffering for mania.10 It was first developed in Europe by German chemists who extracted the hyoscine from the belladonna plant and started to experiment with morphine addicts (a huge issue in the early 1900s). The drug was shown to be useful and American doctors worked with it first with manic patients and then alcoholics.
There are many US hospital reports of so-called epiphanies, or access to knowledge previously unknown from patients under the influence of psychotropic and mind-altering belladonna compounds.
The foundation of the global organization Alcoholics Anonymous was born after one such vision by a man called Bill Wilson. Wilson had met God when under the influence of the ‘belladonna cure’ for his own alcoholism. His room was completely filled with light and a cleansing wind blew in; he became freed of his addiction. He went on to set up the twelve-step programme that is now a huge movement in the support of overcoming alcohol addiction. We like to think that the fierce grace of this herb had some play in this awesome organization.
The belladonna treatment of the 1920s, which was deemed a cure for alcoholism and other addictions such as those caused by opium or cocaine, was for those less well-off often a brutal affair. The rich would have had personalized, opulent care; the poorer could have been locked up in awful asylums, with potentially induced delirium in the name of a cure!
6. Psycho-emotional applications for Belladonna
• Feral – Permission to be wild and free
• Fierce grace
• Endings and new beginnings
• Shifting the sense of a fear of lack
• Cutting away energetic shackles
• Releasing fears – link with Atropos
• Cutting ties to past relationships
• Clarity of mind
• Seeing clearly
With adulthood comes responsibility. Finding a job, a home, paying rent or a mortgage, finding love, potentially breeding, all have their own special set of pressures which create a serving of anxiety and fear. In adulthood, we experience the death of our care-free independence. We need to inhabit these new roles, new responsibilities without losing ourselves completely. Belladonna can help to celebrate the little deaths as we move through in life, and transition between these roles, embracing and releasing restrictions we might feel, cutting away all the baggage, freeing us from the binds, the worries that enslave our minds.
Belladonna in name has been associated with changing our appearance to enhance attraction—a spidery, femme fatal. However, the deeper message of Atropa belladonna is that of the ravers, those wonton, wily, Maenads—finding our own wildness, a fabulous free dance a flow of momentum through the adventure of life. Being true to yourself—that in turn attracts, it attracts the people who are meant to find you, who are meant to be part of your story.
We can use the energy of untamed wildness to free ourselves from the weight we carry and embrace our wild side, being true to our own authentic nature.
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