Introduction to the Witches Banes
Oh, I have been beyond the town, Where nightshade black and mandrake grow, and I have been and I have seen What righteous folk would fear to know!
The Witches Ballad, Doreen Valiente
Baneful herbs are named so because of their nature, they are poisonous and deadly, known throughout history for their hallucinogenic properties. They were herbs not lightly used but often abused, especially by those who did not understand or know the spirit of the plants and what they were capable of. Herbs of such power and spirit that the ordinary folk would shudder at the mention of their names, herbs that would poison, herbs that would heal and herbs that would allow the witch to fly from her body and journey the length and breadth of the Universe. These are the herbs known throughout history as herbs of Witches and the herbs they used to hex and to heal, to fly and to travel and have been thought to grow in every witch’s garden.
Aconite, also known as Monkshood or Wolfsbane is a herb known for its deadly properties yet stunningly beautiful purple flowers. Aconite is a perennial, quite hardy and loves the shade. It is native to Europe and Asia growing up to 5ft and is quite toxic. Plants of the aconite family were often rumoured to cure lycanthropy, and offer invisibility and protection from vampires and werewolves. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Professor Lupin drinks a potion of Wolfsbane to help prevent his transformation into a werewolf. Aconites are feminine herbs and like many baneful herbs and flowers it is associated with the planet Saturn, the element of water and the Goddess Hecate.
Black Nightshade is the lesser toxic cousin of Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade). The green berries are toxic but the black ripe ones cooked are often eaten in some tribal regions, however it is something I would not recommend trying unless familiar with the plant. Black Nightshade is often confused with its deadlier cousin because the two plants do look very similar. Black Nightshade berries grow in bunches whereas Deadly Nightshade grows in individual berries. It has lovely white or purple flowers and grows roughly 1 to 2ft in height, it is an annual and much like the previous plants, it is associated with Saturn, Hecate and the element of water.
Datura, also known as Jimson Weed, is one of the more deadly of the witches’ herbs and has interesting folklore names like Devil’s Apple and Thorn Apple. It is highly toxic and must be handled very carefully should you find this in your garden. It grows to about 2ft high and is rumoured to have a strange odour. Datura can be used to break hexes, manipulative spells or any other spells cast against you. Its elemental association is Water and its planet is Saturn.
This plant is one of legend and lore; there has never been a tale about a witch told without mentioning the infamous Belladonna, one of the many herbs in medieval Flying Ointments. It is often called the Witch’s Berry, Bane Wort and Fair Lady and was referred to as Hecate’s Mandrake. Both Mandrake and Belladonna come from the Solanaceae family, interestingly the same family as the potato, tomato, tobacco and eggplant. Long before it was made famous as a witch’s plant, Belladonna was used as an anesthetic; the same toxic alkaloids in Belladonna that made it a useful anaesthetic also cause hallucinations and death and can seriously damage a person’s health if used. In antiquity it was used by women to dilate the pupils to appear more beautiful. To understand how deadly this plant is, it was named for one of the Three Fates, the sister Atropos – the one who cut the threads of life. It is a protective herb, associated with Saturn and is a feminine herb.
Foxglove is a very popular and lovely cottage garden plant; it holds the chemical compound that makes up the heart medication Digitalis. Foxglove is highly toxic and one plant that should always be handled with care. Foxglove blooms in late spring, is a biennial and can grow up to 3ft in height. Foxgloves are a very popular faery flower and some of the folklore names for it are Fairy’s Gloves and Fairy’s Weeds. It is also called Witches’ Gloves and Witches’ Thimbles. Magically, foxglove can be used for faery spells, deflecting negative magic and protection. This plant is ruled by Venus and is associated with the element of water.
The common names for this plant are Death Cap, Redcap Mushroom and Raven’s Bread. It is one of the infamous hallucinatory shrooms that need to be carefully handled if discovered in the wild. It is believed that Fly Agaric is the world’s oldest hallucinogen, used in Lapland and Siberia by Shamans in healing rituals and vision quests. This mushroom grows in heavily wooded areas in Northern America and Europe. It is the image of the quintessential toadstool and is a motif used often on cards and postcards. Fly Agaric is associated with Odin, a shamanic god and according to folklore can open doorways to the realm of Faery. Its astrological association is Mercury and its elemental association is air.
Hemlock is definitely another famous Witch’s herb. It is also known as Warlock’s Weed, Poison Hemlock and Winter Fern. Hemlock was once the go to plant for death by poisoning in Ancient Greece and famously it is the classical philosopher Socrates who was poisoned by this plant. Hemlock looks remarkably similar to Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Carrot so identification is a must with this plant. Again this is a plant sacred to Hecate, associated with Saturn and the element of Water; it is also a feminine plant.
During ancient times, henbane was a popular pain relief. Dioscorides recommended it for allaying pains and inducing sleep. It is well known for its use in flying potions, the leaves being the part used. When the dead used to wander the river Styx, they would wear a crown of Henbane. It is thought to of been used in Ancient Greece by the Oracles to induce trance and visions by inhaling the smoke. It is a pretty plant with lovely flowers, however it has been said to smell very unpleasant. It is considered sacred to Hecate, its orientation feminine, its elemental association is water and its planet is Saturn.
The famous and well known Mandrake, there is not a witch today who would not know this plant for it has to be the most famous in antiquity known throughout the world for many centuries. It was once known as the herb of Circe and was the herb Medea used to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece. It is the herb used in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to de-petrify the students – the root that screamed when it was taken from the pot; it was also used in Pan’s Labyrinth to try to help her mother heal. Legend has it that mandrake grew under the gallows where men hung and their semen dripped creating an alraune, a root shaped in the form of a human housing a familiar spirit; building a relationship with the Mandrake can be a powerful and prosperous relationship for a Witch as long as the power of the root is respected. Mandrake is associated with Mercury, the element of Fire and is considered a masculine herb. A whole mandrake on the mantle will bring good luck and prosperity into the home as well as protecting the health of those who live in the home.
A definite classic of the witch’s herbarium, mugwort has been associated with divination, prophecy, astral projection and dreams. An infusion can be used to anoint crystal balls, runes and other divinatory items. Like its cousin the wormwood, mugwort is a herbaceous perennial, growing around 1 – 2m tall. Mugwort is sacred to the Druids, and to Diana/Artemis for whom it was named. Stuffed in a pillow, it will bring on prophetic dreams, an infusion drunk will smooth the way for astral projection. Mugwort was often used to flavour beer before the introduction of hops, sixty years or so ago it was used in Cornwall as a substitute for tea as tea was quite expensive. Mugwort is a gentle herb compared to the much more overpowering company mentioned in this article. It is a good herb to use when introducing oneself to astral travel, prophetic dreams and divination when wanting a herbal aid.
Wormwood is a herbaceous perennial with lovely silver green leaves. It is in the same family as Mugwort. It grows to about 3ft in height and can be grown as a hedge if you desire. The flowers on the Wormwood are a lovely sunny yellow colour, although not particularly large. Wormwood will bloom late spring/midsummer, depending on the geographic location. Wormwood has a bitter taste and was used to flavour vermouth and absinthe. It’s a popular herb for outdoor work, especially in a cemetery as it is used for summoning spirits and increasing psychic ability. Wormwood is somewhat toxic so should never be burned inside unless the area is well ventilated. Wormwood can be used in love enchantments and is sacred to Artemis, Pan and Diana. Wormwood is associated with Mars, the element of fire and is considered a masculine herb.
The Yew tree is perhaps one of the most famous and well known of sacred trees. Some Yews have reached hundreds of years old, some estimate thousands, however because of the way the Yew grows, it is impossible to determine age using the ring test. The Yew represents immortality, death, life after death and renewal; these associations are thought to be so due to its inordinately long life. It is a long lived evergreen growing anywhere from 50 to 80ft high; the fruit of the Yew are bright red berries, nearly all parts of the Yew are incredibly poisonous. The Yew is sacred to the Druids and was a tree that was used to make longbows and dagger hilts. The Yew is a tree of Hecate, it is said growing a Yew in your yard shows your commitment to the Old Tradition. It symbolizes protection, defense and the comfort gained from the wisdom of the Witch, it is also thought that Yew can raise the spirits of the dead, invoke visions and enhance magical and psychic abilities. Yew is ruled by Saturn and its elemental correspondence is Water.
The Poison Path is a long, winding road; not one to be undertaken lightly. Travelling with the spirit of any of the plants mentioned could spell disaster or death for the unwary, untrained or unknowing. It is simply not enough to read about the herb and consider yourself ready. You must get to know the plant, its quirks, its personality and most of all, its deadly nature. Start with Mugwort or Wormwood; learn the energy before you move on to its stronger compatriots. The foremost lesson of the Banes is never forget to respect the plant; for its nature is powerful, wild and dark, capable of such incredible and devastating acts.
CAUTION: This is for informational purposes only, I highly recommend that you not work with, grow or touch any of these plants unless you are experienced in working with herbs of a toxic and deadly nature and know what you are doing. If you work with these herbs without the necessary training or knowledge you risk poisoning, grievous injury and death – all three are very likely outcomes.
1. Wolf D Storl, The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners, (North Atlantic Books 2012)
2. M Grieves, A Modern Herbal, (Tiger Books, 1996)
3. Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl Ph.D, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 2003)
4. Scott Cunningham, Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, (Llewellyn Publications US, 2000)
5. Reader’s Digest, Encyclopedia of Gardening, (Reader’s Digest (Australia), 1995)