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

 

 

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.

 

Power

“Is it not glorious to ride on the wind –

to mount the stars –

to kiss the moon through the dark rolling clouds?

Witch

She loathed her own form and her own species –

earth was too narrow for her desires.”

(John Roby: Lancashire Myths and Legends)

Medea

One of Hecate’s most famous priestesses is the Greek princess, witch, and enchantress called Medea.

XIR182676 Jason and Medea, 1759 (oil on canvas) by Loo, Carle van (1705-65); 63x79 cm; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Pau, France; (add.info.: murdered her own children when Jason left her;); Giraudon; French, out of copyright  Medea – the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis – was born divine, with the gift of prophecy.  Her aunt was the same Circe who turned Odysseus’ men into swine.  Unlike other deities, however, she is not portrayed as a benevolent mother figure.  Rather, Medea seems to have always glowed in the popular imagination as a jealous wife who avenged herself on the man who betrayed her.  She is a murderess – but not without cause.  And even when portrayed as a vicious scorned woman, Medea retains her celestial strength and dignity.

Medea helps the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece because she falls in love with him at first sight.  She pledges her magical assistance on the condition that he takes her away from her father’s tight grip and agrees to marry her.  To aid their escape from Colchis, Medea kills her brother and scatters his body parts into the sea, a ruse that buys time because the father has to locate all the parts for a proper burial.  The couple live happily together for ten years and have several children, possibly five sons and a daughter.

According to Euripides’ Medea, Jason finally leaves his enchanting wife for a young maid called Glauce, King Creon’s daughter.  Medea’s anguish turns to spite, and using her herbal lore the witch sends a poisoned gift to the palace that murders both the new bride-to-be and her father.  Not content with this, however, the distraught mother butchers two of her own sons – Mermeros and Pheres – to ensure that Jason feels the same hurt and loss that was inflicted on her.  Calling on supernatural aid, she then escapes from Corinth in a cart drawn by dragons, sent from her grandfather Helios.

Some time later Medea remarries the aging King Aegeus, promising to restore his vitality so that she can give him another child to accompany his lone son Theseus.  They do have a baby together, but Aegeus catches Medea in the act of trying to poison Theseus in order to assure her own son’s place on the throne.  She is driven away, leaving behind only her reputation as an evil sorceress.

Sources:

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Medea” at http://www.britannica.com/topic/Medea-Greek-mythology

Euripides, Medea and Other Plays (New York: Penguin, 1963)

Greek Mythology Link, “Medea” at http://www.maicar.com/GML/Medea.html

Theatrehistory.com, “Medea” at http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/bates018.html

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

Witchcraftandwitches.com, “Medea” at http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/witches_medea.html

Picture: Jason and Medea by Carle van Loo (1705-65)

Kali

Kali is the Hindu goddess of death.  Her name comes from Kalam and means black or dark in color.  She is associated with time, change, power, war, blackness, destruction, evil, and violence. In mythology, she is the consort of Shiva, and a ferocious slayer of demons.  But Kali is also a most ambiguous deity.

Kali Many followers perceive this goddess as the Supreme Mistress of the Universe because she was created first – out of the blackness – before the rest of time began.  Therefore she is the highest reality and the greatest force.  And because Kali brings death, she serves as the vehicle to human salvation.

Others view Kali as the benevolent Mother.  She is the Ultimate Being, and those who worship at her feet become her children.  Yet she is a fearsome sight to behold.  The goddess is usually portrayed as a naked blue woman with four arms, a sword, skull jewelry, matted hair, blood-shot eyes and a drooping tongue.  She feeds off human flesh and blood, holds a severed head, and has Shiva laid flat at her feet.  She is often accompanied by snakes and jackals.  Kali is a far-remove from the Christian image of the beautiful, meek Holy Mother!

Perhaps because of these ambiguities, some Hindus fear Kali as the Dark Goddess and have turned her into a witch.  Her followers are called Daayans – and many unfortunate women are currently being actively persecuted in certain regions of India today.  You can read some of their harrowing stories here:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/06/magazine-meet-indian-women-hunted-witches-150603092941061.html

“The infinite is always mysteriously dark”  (Sri Ramakrishna).

 

Sources:

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

“Kali: The Dark Mother” at http://hinduism.about.com/od/hindugoddesses/a/makali.htm

“Mother Goddess As Kali” at http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm