Belladonna - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Atropa belladonna)

Atropa belladonna has many names: banewort, deadly nightshade, devil’s cherry, dwale, but most popularly belladonna which means “beautiful lady,” a surprisingly innocuous, even seductive name for such a deadly plant. The standard explanation for this folk name says that it derives from an extract made from the berry’s juice that was used in ladies’ eyes during the Renaissance to create a dilated “doe-eyed” expression, which was, at that time, considered very beautiful and seductive.

However, centuries previously, belladonna was sacred to the Roman war deity, Bellona, daughter of Mars. The plant was considered under her dominion and to share her essence. Ancient Roman priests allegedly drank some sort of elixir containing belladonna prior to ritual appeals to Bellona. The word belladonna contains the name Bellona within it, and it may have been a euphemistic pun on her name so that one could refer to her without actually calling upon this beautiful but fearsome Lady. Belladonna, like the goddess Bellona, is a beautiful but lethal killer.

Belladonna’s genus name Atropa honors Atropos, one of the three Fates, whose name means “the dreadful,” “the merciless,” or “the cutter.” Atropos is the Fate who cuts or terminates the thread of life.

All parts of the belladonna plant are poisonous including flowers, leaves, and roots. However the berries are the most virulently poisonous part of all: as few as three can kill a child. Do you remember those advisory stories reminding you not to assume that because birds can eat berries, that those same berries are safe for human consumption? Belladonna berries are the perfect example; many birds munch on the berries with impunity, something that is impossible for humans and for many mammal species.

Belladonna is a member of the nightshade family and is frequently equated with Deadly Nightshade. The names may or may not be used to indicate the same species. Various types of nightshade do exist that are also deadly, including Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and Russian Nightshade (Scopolia carniolica), also known as Russian belladonna.

The primary toxin is the alkaloid atropine, which first stimulates the nervous system, then paralyzes it, causing muscular convulsions. Belladonna may also cause hallucinations, cramps, severe headache, mental stupor and, of course, death. Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria, see page 152) is the traditional antidote, however, it, too, is potentially fatally poisonous and the antidote must be administered at an incredibly fine, delicate balance and only by a skillful, professional hand.

Belladonna is a perennial that grows rampant among ruins and in wastelands. It is still found in this manner in Great Britain. It is rarely found wild in North America but is instead a cultivated plant. As its name implies, it has lovely flowers and so is often a prized component of poison gardens, where it may be appreciated visually and from a distance.

Belladonna’s alkaloids are used to make atropine, an eye medication. Until World War I belladonna was not an uncommon medicinal plant. Trained herbalists and pharmacists knew correct methods of use. The main pharmaceutical crop was derived from wild belladonna growing on stone ruins in the wilder regions of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was used to treat asthma, sciatica, and various other disorders.

As a beautiful and dangerous plant, belladonna was beloved and prized by herbalist wise-women who marked their skill by their proficiency with such plants. (There is no margin for error; no room for smoke and mirrors. It is impossible to fake your ability and knowledge with plants such as these; the truth will immediately be demonstrated.)

According to ancient witchcraft traditions, belladonna is at the peak of its power on May Eve (Walpurgis Night), so European witches only picked it on that night, when it is at its most powerful and magical.

See also CALENDAR: Walpurgis; PLACES: The Brocken.