“He knows her shifts and haunts,
And all her wiles and turns. The venom’d plants
Wherewith she kills! where the sad Mandrake grows,
Whose groans are dreadful! the dead-numming Nightshade!
The stupefying Hemlock! Adder’s-tongue!
– Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood
There is perhaps no plant more infamous than Atropa belladona, or deadly nightshade. While its oddly sweet, dark purple berries may at first seem inviting, they make for a sinister punch — less than a handful is enough to kill an adult human.
This dichotomy is equally reflected in its name.
Atropa finds it origins in the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology. Atropos was the oldest, and along with her sisters Clotho and Lachesis, she would spin the lives and ultimate ends of every individual, including Zeus himself.
Clotho would spin the thread, Lechesis would measure its length, and Atropos would perform the fated cut.
The word belladonna, meanwhile, is Italian for “pretty woman,” and this has historical significance, as well. At one time, women would use a liquid form of deadly nightshade as an eye drop to dilate their pupils. The idea was that doing so would simulate sexual attraction. However, Atropa belladonna is not best known as a cosmetic. Far from it.
No, at one time, it was considered the perfect tool for assassination. Its key compounds include atropine (the name of which also derives from Atropos), scopolamine, and hyoscyamine, each of which are anticholinergic.
This means they affect the parasympathetic nervous system, which, according to the National Library of Medicine, is the system “that slows the heart, dilates blood vessels, decreases pupil size, increases digestive juices, and relaxes muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.”
Ingesting Atropa belladonna can lead to numerous negative symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, skin rashes, hallucinations, convulsions and, ultimately, death.
Every part of of the plant is toxic, from its roots to its leaves and the dark berries that hang from its branches.
Historians believe that both Claudius and Augustus, emperors of Ancient Rome, were poisoned using deadly nightshade.
To Make Witches Fly
Despite its poisonous nature, deadly nightshade also finds prominent use in witchcraft, namely in one of its most well known spells — the witch’s flying ointment.
The ointment, which would be applied to specific points on the body (top of the head, bottoms of the feet), was believed by many to allow witches to venture skyward. Witches would use the ointment, perhaps applying it to themselves with a broom or a stick, and then fly out to shadowy meetings with fellow witches.
In truth, the term “flying ointment” was perhaps metaphorical, the concoction enabling a kind of out-of-body experience or astral projection, or perhaps even a simple hallucinatory experience. While this may seem underwhelming in comparison, some believe the “mind-altering” aspect of deadly nightshade, as used by witches, instead allowed them to gather secretly on another plane of existence.
Atropa belladonna comes from the same family as tomatoes and potatoes, Solanaceae. On a personal note, this year I noticed some black nightshade growing in the garden, near a few tomato plants. Black nightshade, while not as toxic as deadly nightshade, is still considered poisonous in many cases.
Notice in the picture how its fruits grow in a very similar fashion to tomatoes. As they mature, the fruits become purple.
Deadly nightshade grows similarly. Though, as you can see from the images farther up, its leaves and flowers have a distinct appearance.