Nightshades, Wolfsbane, Hemlock and Hellebore conjure images of old crones, dressed in black, chanting over a noxious brew, adding sinister ingredients. The three witches in Macbeth are a perfect example of this image. They show us the form that witches took during the time period. It was written in the early 1600s, near the mid-point of the European witch panic (1450-1750).
“Round about the cauldron go;
in the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and Nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.”
Elderly women living on the outskirts of town were often accused due to their solitary nature and knowledge of herbal medicine. They became the target of hysteria, Christian propaganda, fear mongering and vengeful neighbors. The witches in Macbeth show the relationship between witches and their baneful ingredients, namely poisonous plants and toxic creatures. Part truth and part superstition, this connection mirrors a precedent set in antiquity. In ancient Rome the practice of witchcraft or maleficium and the employment of poisons veneficia were often synonymous.
Double, double; toil and trouble
Today the study of these plants and their connection to traditional European witchcraft has sparked the interest in many modern practitioners seeking to reclaim the knowledge of how these plants can be used. The Nightshades are the most common group of plants in this category, comprising the plants most typically recognized as plants with magical, often diabolical powers. Information regarding the way these plants were used can be found scattered across a number of sources and cultures. Medieval materia medica, obscure inquisitorial references, and the writings of historians as far back as Ancient Greece hold pieces of this puzzle. Reassembling this information is a daunting but adventurous task already begun by individuals like Christian Rätsch, Richard Evan Schultes and Dale Pendell. These scholars, botanists and ethnographers have done much in the way of clearing the Path of Poisons.
The Poison Path, as it has become known to modern practitioners has become an important part of modern traditional witchcraft, herb craft, and nature based spirituality. Many people in the Neo-shamanic, occult and metaphysical communities are seeking out these mind-expanding medicines known as entheogens for the purpose of gaining spiritual experiences as insights. Plants like Kava, Kratom and Ayahuasca are utilized by modern psychonauts for their entheogenic effects.
The Mind of a Poisoner
In this article, I conduct an interview with Ian Vertel, a poisoner, apothecary and herb crafter from the American Southwest. The term poisoner is used to describe a person that works with plants normally considered toxic for their medicinal, spiritual and magical effects.
Ian runs Of_the_Nightshades, and you can find him and his formulas on Facebook and Instagram @of_the_nightshades. He is one of a handful of individuals making these plants available to the public. His first hand experiences, and artisanal formulas bring the powerful spiritual medicine of these plants to the wider community in a way that is safe and accessible. I asked him a number of questions to gain insight into this important and interesting work, and to give people a better idea of what the Posion Path entails. Ian, and myself belong to a community of educated and experienced individuals who what worked intimately with these plants in various modalities, The Poison Path: Historical, Medicinal, Lore Facebook group provides a diverse pool of experiences and perspectives in this area. Here is our interview:
How did you first come to work with plants known for their poisonous and entheogenic nature?
I’ve always been interested in plants and witchcraft. Poisonous and psychoactive plants represented the intersection of these two passions. (not necessarily a specific tradition) I fell in love with poisonous plants because they embody a unique dichotomy of beauty and danger. They are menacing, mysterious and often forbidden, so pursuing them was exciting. I was very interested in non-ordinary states of reality, as well interacting with spirits. Poisonous plants naturally became my most trusted allies. They were my original teachers of occult knowledge because they embodied Death, represented the Other, and allowed communication with other beings. Furthermore, their relationship with the Devil and Hecate (and other aspects of the dark lady) has made them fundamental aspects of my craft. I incorporate them into my life and rituals whenever possible.
It seems that these plants often find individuals of their own accord. There is a lot of fear surrounding the use of these plants, and providing information about them. Whether this is due to lack of knowledge or fear of liability, what were your earlier conceptions of these plants, and how have they changed.
I used to think that information about poisonous plants should be kept secretive, reserved for mystery traditions and practices because they are can be so dangerous. Now, however, I believe they are valuable dose-dependent medicines people can use in a variety of ways. They should certainly be respected, but I think psychoactive substances should be celebrated and promoted rather than ostracized and feared. I believe these plants and information regarding their use should be accessible. Education is the best kind of safety.
What do you find that these plants can teach us, and bring to our spiritual/magical practice?
These plants teach that reality is subjective and that it may be altered or influenced. They remind that mortality is a part of every breath we take, celebrating Death as a part of Life. They teach that something can be both medicine and poison. They can also represent the beauty of shadow work, the transmutation of poison into beauty. Individually, each plant can teach us many different things. There are myriad lessons depending upon personal relationship with the plant. My favorite lesson is belladonna teaching fearlessness.
What is your background and what are the specific traditions or practices that inform your work?
I’m originally from Michigan and moved to Arizona with my husband 4 ½ years ago. My ancestry is Central-Eastern European. I’m an animist, and I practice traditional witchcraft with an emphasis on Herbalism, European folk magic, and Devil worship. The Old Horned Spirit has always been the foundation of my craft. I also practice herbal medicine, plants are my way of life.
Is a significant part of your work with these plants based on personal experience and experimentation or existing material? Do you work with these plants more intuitively or follow their traditional correspondences?
My work is based on experience and experimentation, as well as research. I’ve used these plants in a variety of ways for years in both magic and medicine, and I always test everything I make before offering to other people. My favorite resource on the subject is the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, by Christian Rätsch, but I’m always exploring new articles and information. I’m always trying to learn new things and expand my knowledge. I believe treading the Poison Path means you never finish learning.
My favorite plant to work with is Belladonna, followed closely by Monkshood. I’ve described them as the left and right hands of my practice (she is tattooed on my left arm, monkshood to follow on my right). Belladonna is the first plant that captured my heart. I was profoundly attracted, and she became a huge part of my craft. She is always growing in my garden. Though monkshood has been called the “Queen of Poisons,” it has always personified as more masculine. Together, belladonna and monkshood symbolize receptive and projective forces, and represent a balanced practice. I tend to move in cycles with the others—all the nightshades are always a big part of my life at one time or another. Currently I’m obsessed with Scopolia [Russian Belladonna]—its obscurity arouses curiosity, and it connects to something very ancestral for me. Old spirits speak through that plant.
Is your focus more on traditional European entheogens connected with European witchcraft, such as the Nightshades?
I focus on European nightshades as well as poisonous, traditional witching herbs (such as monkshood, hemlock or hellebore, etc.), but I also work with other species of nightshades from other parts of the world, such as Brugmansia from South America, Egyptian henbane and other Hyoscyamus from the Middle East, as well as some other nightshades from Asia. I also grow and work with many other psychoactive plants such as wild dagga, kratom, valerian, skullcap, California poppy, wild lettuce and many others. I grow many medicinal and psychoactive plants in addition to a plethora of poisons.
Living in the Southwestern US, do you also grow and work with indigenous plant life? How are you influenced by the Native American and Mexican customs in your area?
Yes, my southwest allies include Datura species, salvia species, osha, devil’s claw, Mexican elder, night–blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii), and other cacti. Sages and rosemary are abundant here, and provide valuable medicine. One of my favorite new allies is osha. Also called bear root, osha is ruled by fire, and is an exceptional supporter of the immune and respiratory systems. It’s an amazing decongestant and actually deepens breathing. Also very protective—the roots are hung by red string in the corners of a room to protect from illness and malicious spirits. The night–blooming cereus is also very special to me. We have one who serves as a house-spirit and receives special care and offerings. It offers a very powerful connection to the Moon, and naturally keeps the company of spirits. It is wonderful for wishing and divination. I was also delighted to find that Datura grows wild here, and while we shared a close connection back in Michigan, our relationship has deepened and become more intimate. Lastly, my Mexican elder is one of my most important plants. So many of my traditions involve the Elder, so finding a species adapted to this environment allows me to continue practicing them. Very old European customs and superstitions are adapted to life in the Arizona desert. This plant is a powerful incarnation of the Dark One—she is honored by certain offerings given through this tree at different astrological events and times of the year.
What role does planetary influence play in the creation of your formulas at Of_the_Nightshades?
Moon phase and sign are very important in the creation of everything I make. Timing this way draws down the moon’s influence and imbues my creations with certain energies. These energies give different “flavors” or subtleties to the product and highlight different effects or actions. This timing based on the moon also aligns the medicine with certain celestial cycles (such as increasing or decreasing, creating or destroying) and elemental energies that help produce more effective products. Often, I try to match plants to elements (moon signs) and phase based on intended action of the medicine.
Many of the solanaceous (nightshades) plants classically associated with witchcraft have roots in older pagan practices, such as divination and spirit work. Do you think the plant’s association with witchcraft is largely do to fear and superstition because of their poisonous and hallucinogenic nature, or is there something more to it?
Witchcraft and magical practices often involve spirits and non-ordinary states of reality, so plants that change consciousness or cause death found an integral place. They’ve always been intimately associated. They give the power to intoxicate, change reality and take life. These are elements of witchcraft, and their association with spirits have always allied them with the supernatural.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on that you would like to share with us? What are you doing to prepare for the spring growing season? Are there any new plants that you look forward to growing?
My current garden goals focus on expanding my mandrake cultivation. It can be so difficult to source, so my ambition is to provide my own. And there’s nothing better than using plants you’ve grown yourself. Moreover, I plan to start making other psychoactive and medicinal plant preparations available to the public. My work will still focus on the nightshades, but since they shouldn’t be used on a daily or regular basis, I want to share other plant medicines that I respect and enjoy. There are so many valuable plants out there to learn and experience.
Connect with Ian on Facebook and Instagram @of_the_nightshades, where you can check out his amazing formulas including oils, tinctures and other herbal products. Ian supplies some amazing formulas including Belladonna and Henbane Oils, Amanita Muscaria Tincture and more! So far I have tried both his Amanita muscaria tincture and Henbane oil and can attest to their efficacy.