Black Henbane, also known by the scientific name of Hyoscyamus niger, is a member of the Nightshade family. It is acknowledged in ancient literature as “apollinarix,” the plant of the god Apollo. Dioscorides, the famous ancient Greek pharmacologist and botanist who wrote one of the most influential herbal books in history, a five volume set called “De Materia Medica” which laid the groundwork for all modern pharmacopeias, was familiar with the medicinal value of black henbane. Medieval Anglo-Saxon pharmacopeias touted the healing properties of the plant. It has also been suggested that henbane was the magic nepenthes in Homer’s Odyssey, the drug which Helen gave to Telemachus and his comrade to make them forget their grief. It is also suspected that henbane under the name of hyoskyamos was sacred to the goddess Persephone.
Black Henbane was used as a ritual plant by the pre-Indo-European peoples of central Europe. In Australia, handfuls of henbane seeds were discovered in a ceremonial urn along with bones and snail shells, dating back to the early Bronze Age. During the Paleolithic period, it has been speculated that henbane was used for ritual and shamanic purposes throughout Eurasia. When the Paleoindians migrated from Asia into the Americas, they brought with them their knowledge of the use of the plant. When they were unable to locate Hyoscyamus niger, they substituted the very similar and related tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum).
The Gauls of ancient Western Europe poisoned their javelins with a decoction of henbane. The plant’s name is derived form the Indo-European “bhelena” which is believed to have meant “crazy plant.” In the Proto-Germanic ancestral language of modern English and German, “bil” seems to have meant “vision” or “hallucination,” and also “magical power, miraculous ability.” There was even a goddess known as Bil, a name interpreted as “moment” or “exhaustion.” The goddess Bil is understood to be the image of the moon or one of the moon’s phases. She may have been the henbane fairy or the goddess of henbane, and it’s speculated that she may have even been the goddess of the rainbow; “Bil-röst” is the name of the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. “Bil” then would also be the original word for “heaven’s bridge.”
The Assyrians knew henbane by the name of sakiru. They used the plant as a medicine to treat a variety of ailments and they also would add it to beer as a way of making it more intoxicating. It was also used as a ritual incense made by combining black henbane with sulfur to protect the user from black magic. In ancient Persia, henbane was called bangha, a name that was subsequently used to describe hemp (Cannabis sativa) and other psychoactive plants. Persian sources site that henbane has had a religious significance throughout history, with many journeys to other worlds and visions being described, evoked by various henbane preparations.
King Vishstap, who is known historically as the protector of Zarathustra, imbibed a preparation of henbane and wine known as mang; it has also been speculated that the potion he drank was a mixture of haoma and henbane in wine. After drinking this concoction, he fell into a sleep so deep it seemed deathlike, lasting three days and three nights. During this time, his soul journeyed to the Upper Paradise. In Persian folklore, Viraz, another visionary, also made a three-day journey into other worlds by using a mixture of henbane and wine. As the story goes, at the end of the third night, “the soul of the righteous,” meaning Viraz, felt as if it were in the midst of plants, inhaling their heady scent, sensing an intensely fragranced breeze that blew in from the south. The soul of the righteous, Viraz, inhaled the wind through its nose and awoke enlightened.
The Celts consecrated black henbane, known to them as beleno, to Belenus, the god of oracles and the sun, when they would burn it as a fumigant in his honor. Henbane also appears to one of the most important ritual plants of the Vikings, since Iron Age Viking gravesites were found to contain hundreds of henbane seeds. An archeological dig of the ancient gravesite in Denmark yielded a significant artifact, a leather bag worn by the deceased woman which was filled with hundreds of henbane seeds.
The oldest enthohistorical evidence of the Germanic use of henbane as a magical plant can be found in the nineteenth book of the collection of church decrees, the German Book of Atonement. In one passage, the process of a henbane ritual is described in detail: Villagers gather together several girls and select from them one small beauty. They then disrobe her, and take her outside their settlement to a place where they can find “bilse,” which is henbane in German. The chosen girl pulls out the plant with the little finger of her right hand and it is tied to the small toe of her right foot. She then pulls the plant behind her to the river, as the other girls lead her there, each carrying a rod. The girls dip the rods in the river, then use them to sprinkle the young maiden with the river water, in hopes that they will cause rain through this magical process. It is believed that this ritual was associated with the Germanic god of thunder, Donar.
The beer of Donar the god of thunder was brewed with henbane, as he was considered an extremely enthusiastic drinker and very skilled at holding his liquor. As a result, henbane was in huge demand in Germany, although quite rare there as it was not indigenous. Therefore Germans planted henbane gardens specifically for using in brewing beer. The history of these sites where these gardens once stood is reflected in their modern day names, such as Bilsensee, Billendorf and Bilsengarten.
During the Middle Ages and the early modern period of Europe, henbane was associated with witchcraft and magic, in particular with oracles and love magic. It was believed that henbane smoke could make one invisible and that it was an ingredient in witches’ ointments. In modern occultism, henbane seeds are used as fumigants to conjure spirits and to summon the dead. The flowing recipe is for a fumigant used in occult rituals:
1 part fennel root/seeds (Foniculum vulgare)
1 part olibaum – (Boswellia scara)
4 parts henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
1 part coriander seeds (Coriandrum sativum)
1 part cassia bark (Cinnamomum cassis)
One would take this incense into the black forest, light a black candle and set the incense vessel on a tree stump. The mixture would burn until the candle went out, and it was then that one could see the spirits of the dead.
In addition to its ritual significance, Hyoscyamus niger has significant medicinal importance as well. The use of henbane smoke to treat toothaches and asthma is widespread. In Darjeeling and Sikkim, henbane is used for these purposes, as well as to treat nervous disorders. The plant has also been used since ancient times to heal bones, as an analgesic and antispasmodic, and as a sedative and narcotic. In Nepal, the smoke of the leaves is used to treat asthma and in traditional Chinese medicine, the smoke of Chinese henbane seeds is inhaled in treatments for coughs, bronchial asthma, rheumatism and stomach aches. In homeopathic medicine, it is well known to be an effective treatment for anxiety, agitation, unease, insomnia and spasmodic digestive disorders.