As the baneful and Beautiful Lady of the flowering Solanaceae family, Belladonna emits whispers both pernicious and visionary. Belladonna commands reverence, respect, and caution. She is known by the wise for her role as an agent of the Unguentum sabbati — the flying ointment of the witches Sabbath.
The Solanaceae are also called the Nightshades. In formal Latin botanical terms, the Beautiful Lady is called Atropa belladonna, and her namesake is Atropos — the eldest of the three Moirai, or Fates. Death is the dominion of Atropos. Whereas the other two sisters Clotho and Lachesis weave and measure, Atropos severs the living threads of mortals
Hesiod identified Atropos’ genealogical locus as a daughter of Erebus and Nyx (Darkness and Night), and a sister of Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep). Clement of Alexandria called Atropos “The Inflexible One.” Similarly, Atropos means without turn. Here, clear parallels can be drawn between Atropos, Belladonna, and the likewise reaping and rigid planetary influences of Saturn (♄). Yet, there is a Mercurial (☿) and visionary quality also associated with the Beautiful Lady.
In his 1995 work Pharmako/Poeia, ethnobotanist and poet Dale Pendell offers a diagrammatic map of what he calls the Poison Path:
Later in Pharmako/Gnosis — his third book in the Pharmako trilogy — Pendell locates Belladonna on the pathway of Daimonica. Like her tropane cousin Datura, Belladonna lies between the nodes of what Pendell calls Thanatopathia and Phantastica.
Whereas the Saturnine associations of the Thanatopathic realm herald dissociation, death, and notions of “killing time,” the Mercurial teachers of the Phantastica realm purvey “…numinous wheeling dynamos,” phantasmagoric imagery, and visionary messages.”
The language employed in this essay should make it obvious that Belladonna is extremely toxic. In fact, it is one of the most toxic plants — not just among the cornucopia of traditional witching herbs, but all together. Her effects are enacted through a series tropane alkaloids which include Atropine, Scopomaline and Hyoscine. Belladonna is an anticholinergic, meaning she inhibits the parasympathetic nervous system, This system is responsible for delegating and balancing the body’s unconscious activities like heart oscillation. Her toxic symptoms are myriad: increased heart rate, dermatitis, blurring of vision, confusion, etc.
Yet, the deadly Belladonna has also been used in numerous visionary contexts. The tropane alkaloids described above also cause delirium and powerfully vivid hallucinations. Belladonna’s use in traditional forms of the Unguentum sabbati feels intuitive.
In 2012, Pendell offered up an essay for Three Hands Press which focused on Belladonna. The work, entitled For the Beautiful Woman, draws upon Pharmako/Gnosis. In the essay, Pendell writes:
“The pharmacological properties of belladonna were well known to educated physicians. And from a handful of cases, we know that commoners experimented with them also. Greasing a broomstick with a belladonna flying ointment, and applying it between the legs would surely be effective—all the tropane alkaloids are readily absorbed transdermally. Beyond that the story gets more dreamlike…”
Pendell frames the discussion of visionary plant use within in the context of witch-hunts and persecutions. Pendell writes:
“In one case a monk sat with a woman who claimed that she flew with the Devil after applying the unguent, in order to assure her that it was all a delusion and that she had never left the room. Others seemed to think that if one believed one were flying with the Devil, that was devilish enough. Most of the witchcraft trials, however, had nothing to do with psychotropic plants — the accusations, like they are everywhere in the world where such things occur, had to do with things like the evil eye or envy, with pettiness. Arthur Miller seems to have caught it close to the mark.”
For Pendell, these persecutions emerge out of impoverished and marginalized social realities foregrounding the Inquisition, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, etc.
Envy, impoverishment, pettiness, and social unrest have all driven folks to give their neighbors up to authority. This has been shown countless times through the spiral of history.
Yet in the context of plant knowledge, I believe there is another facet to these persecutions. This facet is embodied by the Beautiful Lady — for Belladonna calls into question the tremendously powerful relationships between death and vision, bane and beauty, Thanatopathia and Phantasica.
Consider how that which kills may also heal by way of vision or medicine. Consider how that which is beautiful on the surface maintains an unseen ugliness creeping below. Consider how the dreaming is one step away from the everlasting dream of death itself.
These relationships are fonts of power. They are liminal spaces, crossroads, and hedges. but they are also spaces of profound misunderstanding and fear. I believe this line between death and vision — so closely tread by those wise to the poison path — helps constitute the heart of historical drives towards persecution. Such is this fear, that even a cursory association with plant knowledge may be grounds for inquisition. This sentiment is true even in modernity. Pendell envisions a court case in which the evidence against him reveals: “He owned a lot of books on drugs.”
Where the wise know that the dose makes the poison, the uninitiated see only a precarious dance with death. Those that fear, reject, and repress death will likewise fear this dance — along with the poison that whirls the dancer into motion.
Clement of Alexandria. The Exhortation to the Greeks. The Rich Man’s Salvation. To the Newly Baptized. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Loeb Classical Library 92. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1919, pg 52-53.
Köhler, Hermann Adolph Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte” or Köhler’s Medicinal Plants in Lifelike Illustrations with Brief Explanatory Texts. 1887. Image via Biodiversity Heritage Library. Work in public domain. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/10836#page/3/mode/1up
Mann, Johan Gottlieb. Deutschlands wildwachsende Arzney-Pflanzen. 1828. Louisiana Digital Library via Loyola University (Monroe Library’s Special Collections and Archives). New Orleans, LO. https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/loyno-p16313coll20:collection
Pendell, Dale. “For the Beautiful Woman: Deadly Nightshade, ‘Atropa belladonna’ – Pathway: Daimonica.” Three Hands Press. 30 December, 2012. Excerpt from Pharmako/Gnosis. Mercury House. 2005.
Pendell, Dale. Pharmako/Poeia. Mercury House. 1995.
X. Miscellaneous Belladonne (atrope belladonna) (trés vénéneuse.) : etched poster. Undated. Via Harvard University’s Harvard Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.library.harvard.edu/catalog/hou02925c01814