By Jackie Johnson ND, Planhigion Herbal Learning Center
From Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, we seem to have an undying curiosity of what plants witches used….and for what. In the spirit of Halloween, it seems appropriate to explore these.
Shakespeare gave us the most recognizable and infamous of all incantations with the three Scottish witches in Macbeth:
“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 howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
Although there are variations on the plants symbolized in the chant, following are some of the more accepted versions:
- Eye of newt – mustard seed
- Toe of frog – buttercup leaves
- Wool of bat – holly or moss
- Tongue of dog – hounds tooth
- Adder’s fork – violet
- Blind worm’s sting – knotweed
- Lizard’s leg – ivy
- Howlet’s wing – garlic or maybe ginger
We wonder, did the wise women (or witch) use odd names for effect, for safety, or something else?
Perhaps it was something else, something politically motivated. After al, women practiced the healing arts throughout Europe, mostly as midwives, until the church and state targeted them. And that happened because the church and state wanted the power and money associated with healing arts.
When Rome fell, monks gathered the healing herbs brought across Europe by the Romans. Then, they became the healers. Power hungry and corrupt leaders always need a scapegoat to blame for the troubles in their worlds, and what better place to look than older defenseless women who owned valuable property just waiting to be confiscated?
I’ve always wondered about the bravery — or maybe the stupidity — of these foolish men. It raises a question: If these women were as powerful and wicked as charged, how could the prosecutors survive? Weren’t they afraid that a nose twitch could web their fingers, curse their family….or far, far worse?
But these powerful women persisted, from the burning times until now. The journey of the “witch” (or wise woman) continues, though still under a cloud of suspicion.
Let’s look back to the Wise Old Woman who lived on the far edges of the village, alone, with her cats. Her home is rundown, the plants and trees are overgrown, the path is covered in leaves and rusty gate squeaks as we push it open. It’s autumn and the days are shorter and the air is brisk.
You’ll find monkshood (aconite) so lethal that it was used to poison arrows and, in World War II, the Nazi’s put it on their bullets. Witches believed it could make them invisible if they tied the seeds to them wrapped in lizard’s skin. It was reputed to protect one from vampires and werewolves.
In the garden the winter rose (black hellebore) sits in the corner in bloom. Thought to be a cure for insanity, it would also help one become invisible.
In the back is a lush bunch of witch’s bells (foxglove). They seem to be growing in each corner of the stone fence. Ahhh, for protection. I imagine if we looked in the cottage, we’d see black stone floors – dyed with the leaves of the foxglove- to keep negativity out.
What self-respecting witch would be without moonflower (datura) with white flowers that bloom in the night and give off an intoxicating fragrance? Used as a hallucinogen, and to increase physic vision and communicate with friendly spirits, the plant is poison to even handle. When a visitor would come begging for something to stop another from harming her/him, the Old Woman would often take the seeds, wrap them in brown cloth and tell the visitor to gather something belonging to the alleged ill-doer and place the bag of seeds on top of the item and hide it well. So long as the bag remained over the object, the ill-doer could do them no harm.
Overgrowing anything in its way, the deadly nightshade knows it will always be the Devil’s favorite plant. Often nightshade was put in ‘flying’ ointments, but was also handy for helping one forget an old love. Some believe the more nightshade in a garden, the greater the protection from evil.