Herb Quarterly magazine.
The folklore and historical uses of plants are popular areas of study with many herbalists, gardeners and pagans. Folklore focuses on the legends and myths associated with various plants as opposed to the scientific knowledge associated with the fields of study such as botany and horticulture.
All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival day, traditionally marked the end of summer and beginning of winter. Long before modern-day Halloween costumes and candy overtook the proceedings, the final day of October was a time of reflection, both of past events and of loved ones who had recently died. At the same time, the evening provided a chance to look forward and try to divine what the new year would bring.
While that spirit of reflection has been lost on most of us who celebrate the holiday’s modern incarnation, the symbols remain. Images of cauldrons and broomsticks, pumpkins and witches endure as icons of Halloween. Steeped in history and lore, many of these symbols have a connection to herbs that reveals users long forgotten.
Herbalist or Witch
The historical image of a cauldron bubbling over with magical potions, for example, probably originated from the large pot in which women of the Middle Ages boiled ingredients to produce a variety of medicinal simples and compounds. Simpling and compounding are the arts of collecting medicinal herbs, flowers, fruits, and roots in order to keep a necessary supply of potions, ointments, salves and poltices on hand. Women of the household most often conducted and supervised the simpling that occured in their household. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the disciplines of herbalism, alchemy and magic often overlapped and these women sometimes added the roll of spell-casting to their role of creating homemade herbal cures.
As for the contents of the symbolic cauldron, Shakespeare immortalized these herbs in Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 1), with the chant:
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Sinister-sounding as they may seem, the ingredients used by Shakespeare’s witches were nothing more than the folk names of a variety of common herbs. Eye of newt could have been any of the daisy-type flowers such as English daisy (Bellis perenis). Wool of bat is more commonly known as holly (Ilex aquifolium); tongue of dog is hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale); and adder’s fork today is called serpent’s tongue (Erythronium americanum). We know fillet of a fenny snake as chickweed (Stellaria holostea), while toe of frog may have been a type of buttercup such as Ranunculus bulbosus.
And what about the witches themselves? The word “witch,” another ubiquitous image of Halloween, translates from the old Anglo-Saxon word wicce, which means “wise one.” The word “witchcraft” literally means “the craft of the wise ones.” Also known as the village wise woman, cunning man, tribal shaman, or hedge witch, this person was the healer, teacher, and care-giver of his or her people.
European gypsies of the Middle Ages combined their knowledge of herbs, magic, and divination in their day-to-day activities. Superstitious people often labeled these forest-dwelling gypsies as witches and sorcerers. They were nothing more or less than the herb men and women or shamans of their tribes.
A Clean Sweep
Broomsticks are an ancient symbol representing womanhood, while pitchforks are an ancient symbol representing manhood. Brooms, a symbol often associated with witchcraft, are used to sweep away, or cleanse an area of negative energy prior to performing magical and healing rituals. Wise women and witches would also use their broomsticks to perform a sort of imitative magic. They would go out into the fields and dance and leap high into the air while astride their brooms and pitchforks. It was thought that this would cause the crops to grow as tall as they were able to jump into the air.
Today, the broomstick conjures the mood of Halloween for young revelers – and it’s another image with a meaning steeped in history. In centuries past, Samhain marked the time of year when witches would “fly” in order to divine the future. The image of witches flying off on their magic broomstick correlates to their use of magical flying ointments during their divinatory endeavors. After the witches covered themselves with the ointment they would lay down by the fireplace in order tokeep safe and warm while on their shamanistic journeys.
Superstitious people, believing the witches could literally fly, assumed they climbed aboard broomsticks and rose through their chimneys to terrorize the countryside with their wicked deeds. But the “flight” was really one of spirit. All Hallow’s Eve marked a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned. With the help of hallucinogenic herbs, those seeking spirit flight could explore this realm, using their experiences to divine clues about what the future held. The symbol of this flight, the witch’s broom (also known as a besom), has historical associations with a variety of plants.
Broom (Cytisus scoparius)
Bundles of this plant were attached to a handle and used in cleansing rituals prior to performing magic. This practice was thought to sweep away any negative energy and evil spirits that might interfere with the magic being performed by the witch. Broom is also a narcotic and depresses respiration.
Celery seeds (Apium graveolens)
These seeds were eaten by witches before flying so that they wouldn’t become dizzy and fall off their broomsticks.
Ragwort stalks (Senecio spp.)
According to legend, the stalks of this plant formed the basis for magical flying brooms.
Ash (Fraxinum spp.)
Ash often made up the handle of the broom and had the added benefit of preventing a witch from drowning.
Birch (Betula pendula)
The branches of this tree could also serve as the traditional witch’s broom. A bundle of birch twigs could be bound to one end of the broom handle using a flexible, vine-type plant such as osiers.
Willow (Salix alba)
This plant was also known as osiers. The larger branches of this plant were used to make the handle of the witch’s broom. The longer, pliable twigs would be used to bind other materials to the broom handle.
Other plants were associated with witches’ brooms, including bulrush (Typha latifolia), mullein (Verbascum thapus), and even corn stalks, if nothing else was available.
As for the actual “flying,” we again investigate herbs for some insight. The narcotic and hallucinogenic properties of many herbs served in witchcraft and magic rituals during ancient and Medieval times. Many of these herbs became ointments with the addition of melted fat. Rubbed into the skin, ointments would carry the chemical properties of the herbs into the blood stream, causing a variety of physiological effects – irregular heartbeat, tingling, numbness, delirium, mental confusion, weightlessness, and hallucinations. These effects would create the feeling of flight, especially since the witches would often fast prior to going on their shamanistic journeys to heighten the effects of the herbs they used.
The motivation behind the desire for flight lay in the belief that upon leaving the physical body after death, spirits moved to the astral plane. Witches thought it possible to temporarily depart the body and visit this astral plane when in a trance or sleep like state. Because the astral bodies of both the living (as visitors) and the dead traveled on the same astral plane, the possibility existed that the two could meet. This was the goal of “flying.” This spirit flight was really a type of divinatory shamanism and is still practiced by many tribal healers such as modern-day shamans and medicine men. Halloween was thought to be one of the best times of the year to practice this type of divination. The boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were thought to be at their weakest during this time. After the effects of the herbs wore off the visions the witches had would be interpreted for clues about what the future held.
Flying Potions and Poisons
Several herbs would help facilitate astral projection and spiritual visions. The typical ingredients that would have been part of a witch’s flying ointment included aconite (Aconitum napellus), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), thornapple (Datura stramonium), blood root (Potentilla erectus), poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), black hellebore (Helleborus niger), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger).
Aconite (or wolf’s bane), according to legend this was Hecate’s herb, the Greek goddess of the Underworld. Aconite was purportedly made from the foaming mouth of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entry to the underworld. The seeds of aconite, when bound with the skin of a lizard, would render a witch invisible. Wolf’s bane also had the reputation as a deterrent against attacks by werewolves and vampires and is a powerful sedative. An overdose of this herb is fatal and was at one time used to kill wolves hence the folk name wolf’s bane.
Black hellebore (aka Christmas rose) this herb is a strong narcotic and a traditional ingredient of the witches flying ointments. It was once thought to be able to cure anyone suffering from madness.
Byrony the forked roots of this plant were sometimes used as a substitute for mandrake and sold under the name English mandrake. Natural body shaped pieces of the root were believed to be the most magically potent. Disreputable apothecaries carved the root to make it look more like the human body.
Deadly nightshade (aka witch’s berry) is related to both mandrake and henbane. Atropos, one of the three Greek goddesses of Fate, used this plant to cut the thread of life – hence the plant’s Latin name, Atropa belladonna. Because of the plant’s toxic nature, some also believed it to be the favorite plant of the Devil. Indeed, the herbalist John Gerard remarked upon the poisonous nature of deadly nightshade in his book The Herbal, or General History of Plants: “A plant so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleepe wherein many have died.”
Hemlock (aka beaver poison) this plant acts as a sedative, induces a sense of giddiness and causes the sensation of flying. This is an extremely poisonous plant and causes the respiratory nerves to become paralyzed which causes the victim to suffocate. A fatal dose of hemlock was taken by the Greek philosopher Socrates c. 399 BC.
Mandrake (or sorcerer’s root) was considered a particularly dangerous herb. The roots, which have a shape resembling the human body, formed the basis for magic “poppets.,” The root was thought to emit such a horrific scream when removed from the ground, so the folklore goes, that the noise would kill any person or beast unfortunate enough to hear it. The trick was to tie a sacrificial dog to the end of the root then run away quickly. When the dog went to follow its master, it would pull the root out of the ground. The witch would then return at a later time to collect the root and the remains of the dog.
Thornapple (aka devil’s trumpet) is a powerful narcotic with stupefying effects. Its uses in ancient times included a potion that would subdue victims marked for ritual sacrifice. During the witch hunts of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, it also helped numb those on their way to execution. Fellow witches hiding in a crowd of onlookers would surreptitiously pass a sponge soaked with a thornapple potion to the accused.
For further details regarding henbane (aka Devil’s eye) including the magical attributes associated with it, see the article Henbane; Horrible or Heavenly? by Kay Morgenstern which was published in the Fall 2002 issue of the Herb Quarterly.
A Dark Past Brightens
Witches have endured a bad reputation, to say the least, not to mention outright persecution. If these healers could use their plants for medicinal purposes, went the witch-hut logic, they could also use them for evil. Anyone known to grow, gather or utilize the mysterious herbs associated with witchcraft often earned the “witch” label, even if he or she only harvested the herbs for culinary purposes of for self-medication.
The person most often accused of witchcraft was the village wise woman, also known as the village healer or herbalist, who dispensed a wide variety of botanical cures. Many of these earth-healers were poor, elderly women living solitary lives apart from the rest of the townsfolk, usually in or near the woods where they could forage for food and medicines among the roots and herbs.
Fortunately, as the witch hunts wound down, the so-called witches were finally left alone to go back to practicing their craft of healing and helping out their neighbors. Herbalism went on to enjoy a renaissance, complete with widespread mainstream acceptance. And of greatest significance to trick-or-treaters, All Hallow’s Eve became a decidedly more festive affair – one with enduring ties to complex plant lore.
A Final Note – Before the Jack-o-Lantern
On Samhain in ancient Ireland, revelers hollowed out large turnips (Brassica rapa) or even potatoes or beets, carved them into frightening designs, and lit them from within with either a candle or a piece of burning coal. They’d then place these lanterns in the windows and doorways of their homes for two reasons. First, they believed the designs would scare off evil spirits, preventing them from entering the house. Second, the hollowed creations would let the spirits of their departed loved ones know they were welcomed into the house during this time of year. These turnip lanterns were the precursor to our modern-day Jack-o-lantern. The larger, easier-to-carve pumpkins found in the New World made ready substitutes for Irish immigrants arriving in America during the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s.
This article is intended to be used for entertainment purposes only. Many of the herbs mentioned in the article are poisonous and their use should be avoided.
Buckland, Raymond. The Witch Book; the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca and Neo-paganism. Visible Ink Press, 2002.
Clarkson, Rosetta. Green Enchantment; The Magic Spell of Gardens. The Macmillan Company, 1940.
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
Jacob, Dorothy. A Witch’s Guide to Gardening. Taplinger Publishing Co., 1964.
Vickery, Roy. A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press, 1997.