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Hyoscyamus in Harold Roth garden 2013Hyoscyamus niger
Black Henbane
In Greek mythology, the dead who wander the shores of the River Styx are crowned with henbane, most likely because of its real life ability to make one forget oneself. Greek oracles were said to breathe the smoke of this baneful Saturn herb in order to divine the future. Logically enough, it is sacred to Hekate. It was used ritually in ancient Scotland, apparently in connection with honoring the dead, as it was found in a Neolithic funerary site. There is some argument that its remnants there represent a henbane beer that was either given to the dead to ease them on their path or that was drunk by the mourners. Henbane is associated with beer also in the Alps, where it still carries the name Bilsenkraut, or beer lettuce. In that locale, a goddess name Bil is also known as the fairy of henbane. In the Middle Ages, Agrippa recognized the connection of henbane to the dPallid henbaneead by including it in an incense designed to raise spirits. The botanist Linnaeus gave this plant its Latin name in the 1753, basing it on its former name of "dioskyamos," or god's bean; it was apparently used in religious rites. According to one of the writers for the Oxford English Dictionary, henbane does not derive from its ability to poison hens, because hens won't eat it. Instead, the henne part of henbane means death and is tied to the name of a German god, Henne. This magick herb is still used to consecrate ritual vessels and is an ingredient in incense for bringing rain (probably based on German folklore that throwing henbane into water will bring rain). It is an ingredient in incense burned as a part of shapeshifting work, especially when the wolf is the figure involved.

A classic witching herb and plant of
Saturn, henbane is said to have been a component in witches' flying ointments, but this seems strange, since it is sedating and causes feelings of heaviness. Also, oil of henbane can blister the skin, so this herb is not a good candidate for inclusion in a salve or ointment (fat will generally extract essential oils). Perhaps henbane worked against the side-effects of other components in the salves (which fits with at least one theory of flying ointments).

In Other Types of Magic

Outside of flying ointments, henbane has been connected with the mystical for many centuries. Some have argued that the Greek oracles breathed in the smoke of burning henbane in order to enter into a trance state. Others have said that the Scandinavian goddess Bil was associated with henbane (Bilsenkraut). In medieval Germany, henbane was used in rain magic and was thought to make land sterile (henbane does enjoy growing in "waste" land - land that has been stripped of its forest but is not under cultivation). Albertus Magnus claimed that sorcerers burned henbane in order to see demons in its smoke. On a more mundane note, henbane was also previously used to give beer extra punch - "Pilsen[er]" is a corruption of "Bilsen[kraut]." This herb is also known as Hyoscyamus, Hog's-bean, Jupiter's-bean, Symphonica, Cassilata, Cassilago, Deus Caballinus, Henbell, and Jusquiame.

A Long Association With the Afterlife

Henbane was being used by people as far back as the Neolithic period in Scotland - henbane together with barley residues were found in drinking vessels in funerary context there. It's unknown whether the drink was meant for the dead or for shamans or others to ritually imbibe in order to help the dead. Henbane residues have also been found in Bronze Age urns found in the Alps, and a Zoroastrian tale from Persia describes how a man drank henbane in wine and spent a week in the afterlife (he was lucky enough to return). The ancient Greeks believed that the dead in Hades wore wreaths of henbane - this plant of forgetfulness helped them forget their loved ones, whom they would grieve for otherwise.

Toxicity

Our disconnection from nature and our refusal to take responsibility for knowing the natural world mean that we often have very distorted reaction to things like deadly plants. Some people seem to discredit all warnings about poisonous herbs, and others act as if a poisonous plant is as dangerous as plutonium. Neither is a helpful response. This herb is dangerous to life, but that does not mean it cannot be used in ritual at all, only that it must be used with caution. Don't allow it to rest against your skin. If including it in a charm bag, make sure the fabric is tightly woven so that plant dust cannot get through. Wear gloves when handling this herb and do not touch your eyes or mouth without washing them first. If censing with this herb, burn it in a well ventilated area. Henbane is deadly poison - that means that people have died from eating this baneful herb, so please don't do anything stupid with it. If you suspect henbane poisoning, go to the emergency room.

How to grow henbane: Put seeds in water and store in fridge for two weeks, changing water daily (this leaches out anti-germination chemicals). Then sow to germinate in 9 days at room temperature. You can also cold stratify by folding them into a paper towel that has been wet and wrung out; put that in a baggie, and put in fridge for two weeks. Then sow. Be careful not to overwater, because this plant is prone to damping off (suddenly dying from fungus). Transplant when they get two inches tall to a sunny, sandy, alkaline soil (although I have grown this in acidic soil and it did fine). You can crowd them into clumps, because they get a tap root rather than spreading out horizontally. It can be grown in a pot, but it will stay quite small. In the ground, it gets tall enough to flop over. Water when the soil is dry, but give a bit more water when they are flowering. This baneful herb likes compost side dressing (just put some in a ring at the drip line of the plant) and foliar fertilizer (spray organic fertilizer like fish emulsion on the undersides of the leaves in the early morning). Grows 1-3 feet high. These seeds are annual, although henbane can be an annual or a biennial, depending on the particular seed. If it is in a pot, this plant will wilt in heat. Watch out for aphids with this one.  Check under the leaves periodically for tiny white or green bugs.  Use Safer Insecticidal Soap to get rid of them. Slugs and snails also savor the leaves; check for them under pots during the daytime. An annual or biennial (can take two years to flower) depending on when the parent plant produces seeds, this plant has a thick, fleshy, brittle taproot (in fact, you can harvest a very nice mandrake-like root from henbane) but it can still be grown in pots. It does not like soggy soil. This herb is called "Black Henbane" because its flowers tend to have heavy purple veining, but since I've been growing various subspecies of black henbane together, some flowers will have purple veining, some just a purple throat, and some will be golden yellow; all are black henbane. "White Henbane" in contrast has pale yellow flowers. General growing info

 

Hyoscyamus niger
Black Henbane
100 seeds $4.25


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Uses in Witchcraft & Magic:
Honoring Hekate
Baneful Work
Consecration
Rain Magick
Death Work
Divination
Saturn Herb

Witch's Garden Herb

2004, 2017 Harold A. Roth; No reproduction without permission