Have you ever caught yourself dreaming of holiday escapades to remote and exotic places? Luxuriant jungles, coconut palm-shaded beaches, mountain forests, secret gardens… In the midst of drudgery and everyday chaos, these flights of the mind may feel like a true lifeline; at other times, a pleasant kind of self-indulgence.
Yet we seldom realise that being human means that escape is not optional. Our flights from consciousness, whether ordinary or extraordinary, define our existence as humans.
We sleep. We dream. We forget. We die.
Erase any of these verbs from our lives, and we’d have to surrender our humanity to become something else. A bacterium, perhaps.
Ranging from harmless slumber to altered states of consciousness, our mental escapades have the power to transform our lives. Yet flights are dangerous things, tricky and mysterious. When the soul takes flight, there’s always a danger that she won’t come back. The intentional pursuit of escape is witchy business, for mad(wo)men, fools and saints.
Nevertheless, sooner or later even you shall pursue it on purpose, whether because of mild insomnia or a surgical operation requiring anaesthesia… and you’ll need help.
Before chemistry unraveled the universe’s secret recipes, this helping hand would’ve come from the nocturnal districts of the plant kingdom.
Some of its inhabitants are still used today, such as chamomile or valerian; spreading their roots between daylight and twilight, they are tactful and gentle, and shall mostly sing harmless lullabies to your body.
Other plants, however, are sirens. They live in shadow, they can strip you of willpower and shove you outside the door of your own consciousness, then shut it behind your back. Go. Run. Fly.
These Circes are no innocent lullaby-singers. They are a dark force to be reckoned with, the plant professionals of flight magic.
Everybody knows magic runs in families, and so it happens that several of these enchantresses belong to the same family (Solanaceae), and their name honours the cold, dry darkness they work with: the nightshades.
Their chemistry makes mischief on the nebulous edges of flight, where they may either precipitate you into slumber, numbness, forgetfulness, madness or even death.
They are sleep poisons, the kind that can overcome even knowledge. Yet one thing they’ll never grant you, as Iago tells the Moor of Venice in Shakespeare’s play, is peace of spirit:
Not poppy, nor mandragora, / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep / Which thou owedst yesterday. (Othello, III.iii.330-333).
The juice of mandrakes (Mandragora spp) does call sleep forth, and nevertheless its narcotic virtues pale in comparison with the fantastic legends that grew around its root. “Shaped like a human being” and astonishingly big for so small a plant, its fame swelled out of proportion beyond the borders of its natural habitat. Mandrakes didn’t need to grow close to you though, to make you dream. Fertility, wealth and riches, success and good luck, it could all be yours if only you found yourself a mandrake root (and took proper care of it). But seeker, beware: in order to dig it from the ground, precautions had to be taken, else the mandrake send you into eternal sleep with its inhuman cry.
People must’ve certainly died from incorrectly prepared mandrake potions, yet in most places where the myth existed there were no wild plants to dig up, anyway.
In southern Europe, the henbanes (Hyoscyamus spp) are both more common and less legendary than mandrake. Take, for example, the Spanish Golden Age, where henbane became virtually synonymous with sleep (and with poison).
In the play La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), the main character is a prince imprisoned since birth to sidestep the dire consequences of a prophecy that foretold he would “bring disaster to the country and death to the King.” He is given a sleeping draught and taken to court, as an opportunity for him to show that he could be a good and capable ruler and thus prove the prophecy wrong. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work out: uneducated and unprepared, he is found unfit for the task and thus sedated and imprisoned again. On waking up, he believes the short episode at court was but a dream… a dream brought on by a concoction of opium poppies and henbane.
Yet henbane-inspired dreams aren’t always as sweet—or, at least, they haven’t always been put to good use. Legend has it that black henbane (H. niger) was an ingredient in witches’ “magic ointments”, alongside other plants such as thorn-apple (Datura spp.) or deadly nightshade. And there is something in henbane’s effects that seems highly evocative of witchery: a sensation of weightlessness, fooling perception into believing that gravity can be escaped.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a third enchantress that can invoke sleep… if you’re willing to take the risk of never waking again. Unpredictable and too alluring by far, she flaunts her power in her temptingly juicy, shiny black berries. Even less than five can kill a child.
Whereas mandrake is myth and henbane is sleepy flight, deadly nightshade is associated with madness and death: the ultimate escape, albeit not necessarily a pleasant one.
At a certain time in history, these sisters were the eerie tools inside the doctor’s cabinet, enchantresses that knew how to scatter our senses into deep sleep and numbness.
They are the ultimate poisons, in the original sense of the word: magic potions, neither good nor evil in themselves —albeit powerful and extremely dangerous. Carefully used, they shall simply open the door and help you escape from yourself.
Where you choose to go and whether you come back or not, is not their problem.