Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Henbane: From Dioscorides' De Materia Medica

Hyoscyamus is a shrub that sends out thick stalks. The leaves are broad, somewhat long, jagged, black, and rough. At the stalk flowers come out in sequence, like the flowers of the pomegranate, hedged in with little shields full of seed. There are three important different types, however. For one bears almost purple flowers, leaves similar to smilax, a black seed, and little hard, prickly shields. But the other has yellowish flowers, with the leaves and pods more tender, and the seed a faint yellow like that of iris. These both cause delirium and sleep, and are scarcely usable. The fittest for cures is the third kind, which is the gentlest — fat, tender, and downy, with white flowers and white seed. It grows near the sea and among the rubbish of buildings.

You must therefore use the white, but if this is not present then you must use the yellow, but refuse the black, which is the worst.* The seed is juiced while tender, and the leaves and the stalks are pounded and pressed, the mass then dried in the sun. It is useful for a year because it is soon spoiled. The seed of it (in particular) is juiced, pounded until dry with hot water poured on it, and so pressed out. The juice is better than the liquid, and better for pain. The green seed is pounded and mixed with 'three months' wheat meal, made into tablets, and stored. First of all the juice and that liquid made from the dry seed is made for suppositories to take away pain, for sharp hot mucus, ear pains, and the disorders of the womb. With meal or polenta it is used for inflammation of the eyes and feet, and other inflammation. Ten grains of the seeds (taken in a drink with the seed of poppy, honey and water) do the same things, and are also good for coughs, mucus, fluid discharges of the eyes and their other disorders, and for women's excessive discharges [menstrual flow] and other discharges of blood. Pounded into small pieces with wine and applied, it is good for gout, inflated genitals, and breasts swollen in childbirth.

It is effective mixed with other poultices made to stop pain. The leaves (made into little balls) are good to use in all medications — mixed with polenta or else applied by themselves. The fresh leaves (smeared on) are the most soothing of pain for all difficulties. A decoction of three or four (taken as a drink with wine) cures fevers called epialae [sudden]. Boiled like vegetables and a tryblium [plateful] eaten, they cause a mean disturbance of the senses. They say if anyone gives a suppository with it to someone that has an ulcer in the perineum that it has the same effect. The root (boiled with vinegar) is a mouth rinse for toothache.

It is also called dioscyamos, pythonion**, adamas, adamenon, hypnoticum, emmanes, atomon, or dithiambrion; Pythagoras and Osthenes call it xeleon, Zoroastres, tephonion, the Romans, inanaoentaria, some, Apollinaris, the Magi, rhaponticum, the Egyptians, saptho, the Thuscans, phoebulonga, the Gauls, bilinuntiam, and the Dacians, dieliam.

* “In his works Dioscorides described three species – black, white and yellow. Of these he particularly commended the “white” as being least dangerous. (As a matter of fact, it closely parallels black Henbane medicinally, although rather weaker in action.)” – Henbane: Healing Herb of Hercules and of Apollo. George M. Hocking. (Economic Botany. Vol. 1, No. 3, July – Steptember 1947.)

** “According to Pliny, henbane was known in Greece as “Herba Appolinaris” and taken by the Priestesses of Appollon for producing their oracles. The oracle was named “Pytho” and the Priestess “Pythia.” The term “Pythonion” for henbane reflects these connections. The Priestesses of the Delphic oracle were said to have inhaled smoke from smoldering henbane (Mann, 1992). In this context it is remarkable that scopolamine (which is abundant in henbane) was used in modern times for “brain washing.” Because of the higher scopolamine content in Henbane, its hallucinogenic properties are more pronounced than those of Atropa. In antiquity, extracts were taken with wine and visions of transformations into pigs and wolves were frequently reported.” – Alkaloids: Biochemistry, Ecology, and Medicinal Applications. Edited by Margaret F. Roberts. Plenum Press, 1998.

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