Witches' Night Out!
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron 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."
~ ~ Shakespeare's Macbeth, the witches' recipe, Act 4, Scene 1 (c. 1603-1607)
Before you go shopping for this ingredient list to make your own charm of powerful trouble, know that many terms for plants and herbs were often disguised in order to obscure knowledge or to make things easier to remember and teach others. For example, an Old World name for moss was "Bat's wool." Parsley was often called "Devil's Oatmeal," and "Eye of Newt" referred to wild mustard seed. Maybe. Ask your local witch. And go organic!
For as long as there has been talk of witches, there has been talk of witches using strange potions and poisons, many from the Solanaceae family of plants such as belladonna (deadly nightshade), mandrake, and datura. All of these plants contain compounds which affect the nervous system.
The art of poisoning along with knowledge of the medicinal use of herbs, and its association with sorcery and witchcraft, goes back to ancient Greek times and is reflected in the word pharmakos ,which referred not only to helpful herbal remedies, but to spell-potions, and poisons!
Belladonna (deadly nightshade), is one such poisonous herb that has allegedly been used by witches to create "flying ointments" since at least the ninth century, giving rise to the belief that witches fly from place to place (with the addition of the broomstick appearing in literature during the Middle Ages). Belladonna contains the compound atropine which can speed up the heart. It is usually fatal if consumed by mouth, but if taken in lower quantities and applied topically to the skin, it will cause hallucinations. Witches were thought to use Belladonna in ointments to induce visions of "flying" to coven meetings (sabbats).
The mandrake plant was thought to have roots in the shape of a man (hence the name man-drake), and when pulled from the ground it would shriek! The shriek was said to be so powerful that it could kill all who heard it, unless you took specific magical measures to protect yourself.
Datura (also called the devil's trumpet), is both beautiful and deadly. It has trumpet-shaped flowers with little "horns" on the edges of the petals and contains the same chemical compounds as belladonna and mandrake.
But in reality, many names for common plants and herbs with obscured with folk names either to make things easy to remember and teach others or to hide and hoard plant knowledge. Many common items have fanciful or fearsome names. Englishman's Foot is another name for a plantain leaf, and Dove's foot a term for wild geranium. For Old World terms for common plants and hers, click here.
With apologies to witches who would never really poison their party guests, click on the 1950's poison-themed novelty barware for a set of tastier and safer cocktails, including Caramel Apple, Witch's Hat, Brain Shooters, Black Devil Martini, Cemetery Punch, and a Witches' Brew!