What’s Your Poison? Mushrooms!

Did you know:

  • Mushroom poisoning is called mycetism.
  • About 100 types of fungi are toxic to humans.
  • Most deaths occur from eating the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides):

Death Cap Death Caps

  • Death Caps are a sticky pale yellow or olive green color, and their caps measure 3-6 inches.
  • They are easily peeled and often mistaken for edible varieties like the Button or Caesar mushrooms.
  • Found during the Fall, this fungus grows in woods near the bases of trees.  It likes hardwoods, preferably oaks and pines.
  • Death Caps are pretty and taste pleasant.  The effects of poisoning do not appear until 2-3 days after ingestion.  Death occurs 6 – 16 days later.
  • Toxicity is not reduced by cooking, baking, drying or freezing.
  • Poisoning produces diarrhea, vomiting, delirium, seizures, coma, and eventually results in fatal organ failure.
  • Victims of mushroom poisoning may have included Emperor Claudius (AD 54), Pope Clement VIII (1554) and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (1740).
  • The Death Cap is closely associated with The Destroying Angel.  This all-white mushroom is just as deadly as its cousin.

DCF 1.0 Destroying Angel

Sources:

Adams, Cat. “Most Dangerous Mushroom” at slate.com

Fischer, David. “The Death Cap Mushroom” at americanmushrooms.com

Wikipedia. “Amanita phalloides” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_phalloides

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Mandrake!

Did you know:

Mandrake

  • Mandrake – Mandragora officinarum –  was historically known as Satan’s Apple.
  • The roots and leaves are highly toxic.  They result in coma and asphyxiation.
  • If ingested in large doses, mandrake causes delirium, madness, and death.
  • Its thin tuberous roots look like parsnips.  Ancient Greek and Roman physicians offered patients pieces of root to chew on before surgery because it acted as an early anesthetic.
  • This plant grows best on poor, sandy soil in full sunlight.
  • The greenish-yellow (sometimes purple) flowers are followed by round, orange seed pods.
  • Because mandrake has a narcotic, hallucinogenic, hypnotic effect, it has been aligned with Black Magic and mystical rites since the Dark Ages.
  • Also, the roots often resemble human figures.
  • Anyone who digs up a mandrake root is supposedly condemned to Hell, so animals were usually used to harvest it instead.
  • Legend claims that the mandrake root screams when it is pulled from the soil, and that anyone hearing this cry will instantly die.  This explains Shakespeare’s reference in King Henry VI, Part 1: “Would curses kill, as doth the Mandrake’s groan.”

 

Sources:

Grieve, M.  “Mandrake” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mandra10.html

Medieval Bestiary, “Mandrake” at http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast1098.htm

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Mandrake” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Aconite!

Did you know:

Aconitum_napellus_JPG1a[1]

  • Aconite – Aconitum napellus – was used by the Ancient Chinese to poison the tips of their arrows.
  • All parts of the plant are extremely toxic.  Death occurs in 2 – 6 hours and is caused by the paralysis of the heart.
  • Poisoning produces symptoms similar to rabies – frothy saliva, poor vision, disorientation, and coma.
  • The helmet-shaped flowers are usually a violet- blue color, but they can also be white, yellow, or pink.
  • This plant grows in moist mountain meadows and has glossy, dark green leaves.  The root looks like small turnips.
  • Aconite was historically used to kill wild predators – hence the nicknames Wolf’s Bane and Leopard’s Bane.
  • It is also commonly known as Monkshood, Devil’s Helmet, and The Queen of All Poisons.
  • Cleopatra used Aconite to kill her brother Ptolemy XIV, in order to place her own son on the throne.

 

Sources:

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Aconitum” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aconitum

 

What’s Your Poison? Ergot!

Did you know:

Ergot

  • Ergot is a toxic fungus that grows mainly on rye plants.
  • Claviceps purpurea can also infect barley, oats, and wheat.
  • It reduces the crop yield and causes a disease called ergotism, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire because it affects the blood circulation and creates a terrible burning sensation.
  • There are two forms of ergot poisoning: one type causes gangrene, and the other form manifests in hallucinations, convulsions, and seizures.
  • Because it causes the symptoms of madness, ergot may have been responsible for the large-scale outbreaks of mass hysteria that swept across Medieval Europe in the Middle Ages.
  • This fungus often triggered the symptoms of demonic possession that led to accusations of witchcraft.
  • Ergot occurs in high humidity, especially at the edges of a crop field.
  • It emerges in autumn, usually after an extremely cold winter and rainy summer.
  • The fungus manifests on rye seeds as a dark violet or black stain.
  • Severe epidemics seem to follow a 5 -10 year cycle.
  • The fungus also creates contractions of the womb and was traditionally used to induce abortions, or to help stop post-natal maternal bleeding.
  • Ergot is the natural form of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).

 

Sources:

“Ergot of Rye” at http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Ergot” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Hemlock!

Did you know:

Hemlock

  • Hemlock has several names including Conium maculatum, Poison Parsley, Devil’s Bread, and Poison Hemlock.
  • Conium comes from the Greek word konas – “to whirl” – because vertigo is one of the symptoms from eating this plant.
  • Hemlock is a highly poisonous member of the carrot family.  It also affects animals and can cause birth defects in pregnant mammals.
  • All parts of this invasive plant are toxic, especially the seeds, but it is thought to be less harmful when grown in colder climates or when dried out.
  • It grows small white flowers on a speckled stem that turns purple at the base.  All parts are hairless.
  • A flowering bush smells of mice, but the crushed leaves and roots are pungent like parsnip.
  • Hemlock prefers warm, moist soil so it often flourishes alongside streams, ditches, and the edges of fields.
  • The Ancient Greeks used hemlock to execute condemned prisoners, the most famous being the philosopher Socrates.
  • In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the three Weird Sisters add “Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark” to their magic cauldron – a sure sign they were up to no good!

Sources:

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. David Bevington (Fourth Ed.) (Worldwide: Longman, 1997) 

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Conium maculatum” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conium_maculatum

 

What’s Your Poison? Belladonna!

Did you know:

  • Atropa belladonna is the strangest and deadliest member of the tomato family.
  • The name Atropa comes from the Greek goddess Atropa – one of the three fates who determine human life and death.
  • Belladonna is Italian for “beautiful lady.”  This poison has historically been used by women as a cosmetic eye drop to dilate the pupils, making the user appear more desirable.
  • Its common name is Deadly Nightshade.

Bella Donna

  • Belladonna has dull green leaves, purple bell-shaped flowers, and shiny black berries that are sweet to the taste.
  • All parts of the plant are highly toxic to people, though cattle and rabbits seem to have a natural immunity.
  • Deadly Nightshade grows in woods, hedgerows, and wastelands.
  • Before the Middle Ages it was used as an anesthetic in surgery.
  • Witches were said to mix Deadly Nightshade with other poisons to create a flying ointment (which may have triggered the hallucination of flight).
  • According to local folklore, the Lancashire Witches sometimes mixed belladonna berries into blackcurrant or blueberry pies as toxic “gifts” for their enemies!

 

Sources:

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

WebMD: “Belladonna” at http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-531-belladonna.aspx?activeingredientid=531&activeingredientname=belladonna

Wikipedia: “Atropa belladonna” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna

 

 

Countess Dracula: In League With Witches?

As long as there have been stories, tales of female vampires have captured the popular imagination.  Hebrew scriptures claim Lilith and her daughters lived on the blood of babies, and in the Greco-Roman mythology the followers of Hecate were also said to feast on children.  But the Guinness World Record for a woman serial killer is held by a documented historical figure – the wealthy Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614).  She is said to have tortured and killed around 600 peasant girls in order to bathe in their virgin blood, believing this was the fountain of youth that would keep her beautiful. The maidens were lured to her castle with promises of well-paid work, only to be beaten, burned, mutilated, frozen, starved, or stabbed to death.

Countess

Bathory is also known as Countess Dracula, partly because her atrocities are often compared with Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror – a fellow Transylvanian murderer.  Bram Stoker used Bathory’s royal Hungarian connection for his Count, and made Dracula appear younger each time he feasted on human blood.

According to some sources Bathory, betrothed at age 10, married a lesser nobleman when she reached 15 years old.  In the meantime, however, she was impregnated by a castle servant and secretly gave birth to a daughter.  The child was never heard of again – and the lover was castrated before being fed to a pack of dogs.  She was married for 29 years, and during that time had several other children.

Bathory is thought to have suffered from violent seizures in early childhood, which may have aroused the first suspicions that she was “possessed by demons.”  Her husband spent a lot of time at war.  During his absence a manservant called Thorko apparently introduced her to the occult, and several of her companions were rumored to be witches, sorcerers, seers, wizards, and cunning folk.  Four of these people were accomplices in her bloody crimes and when she was finally brought to justice, two were burned at the stake, one was beheaded and burned, and the last was imprisoned.  Because of her royal status Bathory could not be executed, so she was incarcerated in her castle for the remaining few years of her life.

Legend has likely embellished the horrors of Countess Dracula.  And whether she was dangerously vain, mentally unstable, or killed maidens simply for sadistic pleasure, we will never know.  But this was the era of witch hunting — and Bathory was a rich, powerful widow who triggered a lot of political envy and resentment — so she was a natural target for the ambitious men around her.  We cannot deny the fact that royal ladies have been known to torture and kill.  But when one of the charges against this noblewoman claims she cast a magic spell to summon ninety cats to torment her enemies . . . perhaps she was not quite as guilty as we have been led to believe!

Summer Solstice

Solstice

June 20th : Summer Solstice, 2020

1. What is the Summer Solstice?

– The longest day of the year

– The start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere

2. What does “solstice” mean?

– It is Latin for “sun-stopping”

– The sun appears to stop and reverse direction in the sky after this day

3. What actually happens to the sun on this day?

– It is at its annual highest point in the sky

– The sun’s zenith is furthest away from the equator

4. Why is the solstice important?

– It was a visible calendar sign to help ancient agricultural societies

– People often used the passage of the sun to track time

5. Why is Stonehenge associated with the Solstice?

– Many people believe Stonehenge was created as a sun temple

– The stones are lined up to capture the sun at specific points on certain times of the year (the Solstice being the most important)

6. What else happens on this day?

– Your shadow at noon is the shortest it will be all year

– You are most likely to get sunburn on this particular day

Enjoy your summer!

Vampires: The Devil’s Minions

Eve

The vampire is one of the archetypal embodiments of evil.  These cursed, damned creatures are claimed by Satan, and act as his followers to lure human souls away from God.  For this reason, they cannot tolerate any reminders of what they have lost – crucifixes, holy water, rosaries, consecrated ground – and are forced to wander in the dark realm of night alongside the dead and undead.  Traditionally thought to be the reanimated evil souls of witches, suicides, and malevolent spirits, these corpses prey on the living in search of gratification and blood.  So how did this weird form of demonic possession becomes so sexy in the popular imagination?

Our literary fascination goes back the nineteenth century when Gothic horror writers began exploring the vampire myth.  Perhaps the most influential book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has since defined the legend for many generations.  Having spent seven years exploring Transylvanian folklore, Stoker based his demonic character on Vlad the Impaler (Vlad II, Dracula of Wallachia) who killed 40,000 – 100,000 enemies by impaling them on wooden poles – providing us with the method of ending a vampire’s reign by driving a wooden stake through the heart.  Vlad’s other atrocities included roasting children and serving them to their mothers, burning entire villages to the ground, and making men eat the severed breasts of their women.  Interestingly, the name Dracul can mean both dragon and devil.  But Stoker’s villain is much more attractive and sophisticated.  His Dracula is a worldly aristocratic count who skillfully stalks and seduces his prey.

During the twentieth century, the TV show Dark Shadows featured a sympathetic monster called Barnabas (1967).  In Interview With A Vampire Anne Rice introduced the sensual character, Lestat (1976).  And before long the disgusting blood-sucking creature of nightmares turned into a metaphor for redemption.  If the sad, lost vampire can be saved – by love or compassion – surely there is hope for everyone!   This also seems to be the  hook in books like the Twilight series.

Today, the vampire has become a sex symbol, the hero of YA fiction and cable TV.  But this is not a modern phenomenon.  Ever since Eve was tricked in the Garden of Eden, the devil has been portrayed as being both attractive and seductive.  He does not lure Eve into temptation in human form – he chooses to appear as the phallic snake, a reminder that woman is lustful and open to the sins of the flesh.

When Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she dooms the human race to mortality, and in aligning herself with Satan she becomes the prototype witch.  But when European mythology made evil the polar opposite to good, it seems the devil came up with an intriguing alternative.  Instead of God’s promise of eternal life, Satan offers immortality on earth through becoming one of his minions.  Vampirism is an attractive solution to the Christian rigors of heaven or the painful tortures of hell.  And so, I would argue, the Dracula myth was born.

Who does not want to overcome death and live forever?  Most of us have a secret craving for love, immortality, power, and freedom.    The vampire realm requires an initial sacrifice of blood to the master, but thereafter there are no punishments or rules, no aging and pain, no guilt or taboos.  Surrendering to the darkness is erotic, exciting, mysterious, and adventurous.  The vampire remains suspended in time and the lustful soul is free to roam at will.

As modern day religion and morality changes with the times, so does our perception of good and evil.  It is only natural that our mythology alters too.  Few people would have found Bela Lugosi’s demonic Dracula very attractive:

Bela

But True Blood’s Eric Northman is a whole different beast!

Vampire

Sources:

Wikipedia: “Dracula” – “Vampire” – “Vlad the Impaler”

Dawidziak, David.  “When Did Vampires Turn From Monsters To Sex Symbols?”

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Penguin, 1990.

 

Rasputin: Devil or Saint?

Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a complex Russian cunning man, sometimes called a monk, yet also described as a demon.  Why is he still such a fascinating figure?

Rasputin

Born a Siberian peasant, Rasputin rose to fame as a mystical faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  His name, however, is often associated with trickery, debauchery, and the lust for power.

Following the death of his two young sons, Rasputin claimed a holy vision led him to become a religious wanderer.  In 1907 he was summoned to the royal palace to attend Alexei – heir to the throne – who secretly suffered from hemophilia.  Although traditional medicine could do nothing for him,  Rasputin healed the young man with special prayers (and possibly his own herbal remedy), offering the Tsar and his wife their first glimpse of hope for their son’s future.

At a time when most of educated Europe was interested in mysticism, Rasputin claimed to have access to the spirit world.  This – and his sway over the royal family – earned him many critics, some of whom claimed he was the Tsarina’s lover.  The newspapers of the day continually hounded him, yet by 1914 he was a firm influential force in Russian politics.

Multiple assassination attempts were made on the cunning man’s life.  One the first occasion he was stabbed.  But the night his enemies finally murdered him, Rasputin was poisoned with cyanide, shot three times at close range, bludgeoned with a shoe, and dumped in an icy river.

Scholarship suggests Rasputin was not a saint – he was never ordained in any religious order.  Rather, he was a charismatic personality with hypnotic eyes, who clarified the scriptures and made them accessible to everyone.  Most likely he was a herbalist and a gifted faith healer.  But his strong male appetite for power, fame, sex, and entertainment ultimately led to his downfall.

At the end of the day Rasputin was human, and like all of us he had both good and bad qualities.  Yet the widespread public fascination he evoked (and continues to evoke) suggests he may have been one of the first modern pop-culture icons.

Perhaps that is why his fame has stood the test of time.  Rasputin was the undisputed paparazzi star of his era!