Henbane comes to me in my dreams.
In some dreams I dig out the roots and swallow them whole, like a mad and hungry thing. These are dark and delicious dreams where toads croak, and the Henbane whispers her dark little secrets to me.
Queen of death perhaps? No.
Certainly Queen of something.
It took three years and one-hundred-and- fifty seeds before one seedling would sprout. Henbane is notoriously difficult to germinate, although the seeds can stay viable for many years in the ground. They like to wait for the right conditions.
No photograph has been able to capture the presence of Henbane in all her glory, and boy does she have presence. She is a very different spirit to Brugmansia and Datura- allies I have known for many years. She stinks, a scent somewhat reminiscent of onion, and possibly dirty fridge water. I smell the odor occasionally when I bring her inside to prevent insect predation. Unfortunately the pests are as enamored with her as I am. Slowly her leaves yellow and show signs of being eaten, slowly my heart breaks. Caterpillars are eating her, and try as I might I cannot stop them in their entirety. They have gotten to the pods and I am left with a sadness that I won’t have any viable seeds left from my own plant.
I don’t think there is a witch alive who could look upon Henbane and not be taken in completely by her beauty- the photographs can capture at least some of that. Even the Hedgehog is deeply fascinated by her blooms.
“Do not share Her with anyone- they won’t appreciate her the way you do”.
Perhaps he is right. Not everyone is a Plant Person and certainly not everyone who walks the path has good intentions or sincerity. I worked hard to get where I have gotten. I have drunk in poison where others would consider it folly, drunk in those that I consider Sisters, drunk in Death, and Forgetfulness and Deep Sleep, and the Essence of the Crossroads.
Some people have ulterior motives. Don’t be naive enough to think that everyone who comes knocking is truly interested in the depths of this dark and grisly path. It is trendy after-all to declare yourself a Traditional Witch, and a Poison Path worker.
This is your life. Why would you be so careless with your life if you are not serious about Poison? To do this you have to become poison, if you are not already. There are places you will long for, places that don’t exist for those who are not Plant People, those who are not themselves Poison.
To walk these roads you need to have an open heart, ready to be ripped free from your chest, so that it can be sewn back with the sinew of poisonous vines and flowers, healed with the Sisters of Death. You must die again, and again, and again, and be brave enough to carry on, even when your heart is pumping poison, and your mouth is dry as a bone, and you are as hot as the desert flames, and your mind is halfway to hell.
Datura is a psychopomp, she will guide you to the land of the dead, she is like Hekate and Anubis in that way- Queen of Hell.
Brugmansia opens your eyes to reality, to see what other people have forgotten to see, she can take you down there as well, but she will open your eyes so that you will never be able to close them fully again. Queen of Heaven.
But Henbane, Henbane she is a bit different. She is not really a psychompomp, at least not in my experience. She does live on the border, like Hekate, and like Hekate there are things about her that are contradictions.
She is not so easy to bring out from the deep, dark, underworld. She does not come out of the depths of the abyss easily. It can take many years, and lots of patience to get this annual/biennial to come out from the land of the dead. You have to coax her, beckon her from down there, beckon her to come, to come, to come. She must be sung to, like the Toads that belonged to the witches of old, she must be gently caressed by Witch breath, and only when she and the witch are ready, does she come.
And she comes in a blaze of fire and glory. Cody Dickerson writes of her fiery nature, and has been lucky enough to experience her in full, wild splendour. I have not and probably will never see Henbane in the wild, but even so, she burns brighter than the sun, and she seers deep into my soul.
The Golden Toad, The Toad Queen, Bright fire from inside the Earth, Bright Fire from the Darkest Depths. She will swallow you if you are not careful, she will become your only obsession, she will drown out the voices of all the others as she beckons you into the dark pits of the deep. You will be escorted, but not by her. She is no escort.
Throughout the Ancient world she is known as a flower of fire- sacred to the Solar gods Apollo and Belenus. But to me, her energy is far more aligned with Desert Gods like Sekhmet- a fire so hot it can kill. She requires little water and reminds me somewhat of Argemone. She cannot be the sun in our skies, when she is the sun in the Other world.
She shares her association and alkaloids with the other Witches Weeds or Cursing herbs- Datura, Belladonna, and Mandrake and she too has been used in witches ointments and for murder. Like her murderous sisters, she can be merciful death too, bringing relief from suffering and to those who need her powerful medicine to cross the hedge for the final time. She is a healer and a killer, and has been used in surgery and folk medicine. Henbane has often been used for tooth ache, which is echoes beautifully in the shape of the seed pod stalks which resemble a jaw bone.
Henbane has deep associations with prophecy and necromancy- the dead were said to wear crowns of Henbane in Hades, and it has been theorised that Henbane may be one of the ingredients in the legendary and mythical Nepenthe-the drink of forgetfulness. (Opium is also often given this association). She can make you forget- forget the pain, forget the sorrow, forget the “real” world, especially as you fall into her seduction and become obsessive and mad.
The seeds are often burned as incense for prophetic purposes, and Henbane may have been used by the Delphic oracles. Henbane is hypnotic, even without ingestion, just simply looking into the “Devil’s Eyes” can be enough to be spellbound, the scent of her leaves and flowers being said to make one “giddy”. It is not hard to see how she would be be an ally for those who wish to see the threads of fate, the veins on her petals coiling out like a web from the dark abyss.
She is what Daniel Schulke describes as a “Time-eater”- The Nightshades are notorious for this, warping time, slowing it down- perhaps because they are particularly attuned to the Otherside. Like the Fairy Queen she might steal you away for what seems like only an hour, but of course it is longer than that, and the consequences are just as dire.
When I came to the Yaga I was given a task, one which I am still working to fulfill. I was told to find toads and frogs. I still look for them at every chance I get, scouring the dams, ponds, and rivers where the Spring Rains have fallen, to even just catch a glimpse of these creatures that I knew so well, so plentifully in my youth. But these are harsher and darker times. The environment has changed, there have been droughts, and new roadways and developments. The Frogs and Toads have lost their homes and breeding waters. I haven’t found any frogs or toads of flesh and bone yet, not in the last a few years.
But they do find me in my dreams, and in books, and in little gifts from dear friends. And they find me as plants. Plants which are poison, plants which are thick and waxy, and spotted with tongues, and plants which call the rain. Hellebore is one of them, Black Nightshade is another. Henbane is the Queen of them all.
There are many lessons that Henbane has taught me, and there are many still more to learn. One lesson is to not give up, to carry on trying no matter the odds. The precious moments are so precious because they are brief, and often hard won. If you slow down, and are willing to look and be patient, you can see the threads of time, the threads of fate and Other things, things which are never noticed because people are always in a hurry, even when they are in a moment with no obligations. She can help you to forget the obligations, just for a moment, she can make you forget your pain, and alleviate the suffering.
Perhaps these lessons seem trite, but right now, while we are living in the age of mass extinction, I can think of no better time to be reminded of these gentle and simple things. Sometimes the Darkest of Queens have the gentlest of messages. Who better than The Toad Queen to give us this lesson, herself a relic of the old world, on the decline in this one, both poison and medicine, both feared and loved.
Not all of her lessons are so gentle, but this is where I have come to now on this dark path… a golden toad croaks in my dreams, tasking me to eat the sun. Do I ignore this herculean task? Or do I dig down into the underworld and say yes?
I think if you know me, you will know what answer I give.
Further Reading and Resources:
Viridarium Umbris- Daniel Schulke
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive plants- Christian Ratsch
The Witching Herbs: 13 Essential Plants and Herbs for Your Magical Garden- Harold Roth
Verdant Gnosis Vol 3- Symphonica: Black Henbane and the Choirs of the Dead- Cody Dickerson
Henbane: The Iconic Plant of Witches– Blood and Spicebush
Hysocyamus Niger- The Poison Garden