The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Hyoscyamus niger earned its English folk name because of the danger it posed to free ranging poultry. Among its other names are devil’s eye, god’s bean, henbell, hogbean, Insana, Jupiter’s bean, and poison tobacco.
Henbane is a biennial that was originally indigenous from Mediterranean regions through Asia Minor. It’s been transplanted to the United States where it now grows wild on wasteland, old, neglected gardens, cemeteries, and ruins.
Henbane’s active component is hyoscyamine. It is very dangerous when used excessively or over extended periods of time. The general consensus among the ancients was that excessive use of henbane caused madness and insanity. Henbane’s effect is similar to that of datura; however it was indigenous to regions of Europe where datura was unknown until late in the Middle Ages and so henbane was for centuries Europe’s most accessible, if secret, hallucinogen. (Toadstools—Amanita muscaria—were typically gathered from the wild; henbane is relatively easily cultivated.) For many generations it was the most prominent, beloved “witch plant” in Europe. It is also used similarly in Africa and India, although there it has more indigenous competition.
Henbane was once among the most important ritual plants of the German lands, sacred to Lord Balder. According to Germanic tradition, for optimum power the ritual harvesting of henbane must be accomplished by naked women, under the direction of magical spirits. This may indicate that the women are ritually channeling these spirits during the harvest.
Henbane was traditionally used for conjuring up those spirits as well as for divination. Henbane seeds were burned in European bathhouses, a place traditionally associated with divination and spell-casting, well into the Middle Ages. Henbane was also used as a charm in medieval weather magic. It was also once among the ingredients of a very popular medieval beer, one that apparently intoxicated in more ways than one.
All parts of the henbane plant are deadly poisonous. Allegedly even inhaling the scent of its fresh leaves may lead to intoxication and stupor. The dead in Hades were crowned with henbane wreathes, but then they were past worrying about it. Henbane is believed to have been the poison used to kill Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play.
Although it is poisonous, henbane has historically had various medicinal uses and was believed beneficial for hernia, lung disorders, and pain relief—provided one had a herbal physician with enough skill and knowledge to administer it. Because it has narcotic properties, it has traditionally been used medicinally as an anesthetic and a sedative. It was used for various gynecological treatments. Traditional midwifery utilized henbane as a soporific during childbirth so as to create an early form of “twilight sleep.” The Irish name for Hyoscyamus niger is gafann. Meted out in very carefully measured doses, it was once valued in Irish herbalism for its anodyne and sedative properties.
During the era of the Inquisition possession and use of henbane was considered sufficient proof for conviction of witchcraft.