Enchanter’s Nightshade and the Witch
The Taste of Alkaloids
The day after I moved into my new home I spied a small weed growing amongst the bountiful tiger lilies. It looked a bit like lobelia (one of my much loved and much used medicinal herbs) but it had burrs and the tiny flowers are the wrong colour.
I nibbled on a leaf. Tasteless initially. Then a moment later - the plant bite back. It released a sharp irritating acrid experience on my tongue. The familiar unpleasantness of alkaloids. The flavour was not strong enough to trigger the gag reflex many plants high in alkaloids produce. Lobelia, also called Puke Weed, acrid nature easily causes the spewing of the stomach’s contents.
After unpacking my herb books, I pulled out the Lone Pine publication, Plants of Southern
Ontario. Although I live on the border between Quebec and Ontario, southern Ontario is
On page 294 there it was, burrs and all – Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea aplina).
The small, delicate weed’s name caught my imagine. I skipped the botanical description
and went directly to the notes:
Notes: The scientific and common names refer to the mythological enchantress Circe. She was believed to use poisonous members of this genus in her sorcery.
The plant had my attention. Who is Circe? I asked myself.
After a foray through the internet, I because acquainted a healer, herbalist, and mystic. Although she is more commonly referred to as an enchantress, sorceress and witch. Let me tell you her story.
Circe is a gift to us from ancient Greek mythology. It is said her father
was the sun. Who her mother was, is less certain. Some say a water
nymph, or perhaps Hecate. I think her mother was Hecate. Hecate
was goddess of the moon, ghosts, and magic. She is often found at
cross roads. She helped Demeter find her daughter Persephone after
being seduced by the lord of the underworld. Many of the Circe gifts
are similar to Hecate.
Who is Circe?
The Odyssey and Circe
The most famous story that features Circe is Homer’s Odysseys. The story goes like this:
Circe is living by herself on a densely wooded island. Her mansion is in a clearing surrounded by many gentle wild animals. When out of nowhere, Odysseus’ ships lands on the island’s shores and the sailors disembark. Circe offers them a food containing Enchanter’s Nightshade (the little friend growing on my back step) and turns the sailors into pigs.
Odysseus upon hearing the fate of his men plans to rush from his ship and battle the witch. Just before disembarking, Hermes, the mercurial messenger of the Gods, warns him that Circe will try to seduce him and steal his manhood.
The story goes on to say that Odysseus made Circe promise not to steal his manhood and they had three children. One of Circe’s son-in-law eventually murders her and that is the end of her story.
Whoo… what a minute! Let’s rethink this story.
Imagine you are living on a beautiful forested island surrounded by warm turquoise
Mediterranean waters. You have a comfortable home in a meadow. All your beloved
animal friends live with you. There are tame wolves, lions, bears, dogs and small cats
as well as birds. It has taken you many years to calm these wild animals with your
gentle ways and soothing herbs.
You spend your days studying plant medicine and exploring the healing and magical movement of energy in your body and the environment. All is good.
When out of a nowhere a ship of sailors, fresh from the madness of war with its bloodshed, rape, violence and meaninglessness disembark on your shores and arrive at your door.
Personally, I would pull out my alkaloid containing plants and brew them up in a stew to feed the war crazed men. It seems like common sense to me. Perhaps the men need to sleep and eat like pigs to recover from their PST. (And that is taking the positive approach to thought of turning them into pigs.)
Perhaps, Odysseus even stopped at the island where Circa lived because he knew she could help relieve the suffering men raging in the hells of war.
If we look at the story from another point of view. Perhaps Circa pulled out the Enchanter’s Nightshade for her own safety and preservation.
In either case, the story does not go along those lines.
Time to Rethink Circe
Let's Rewrite the Stories
Instead, Circe, the woman, healer, herbalist and mystic is demonized and eventually murdered. The plants she used are termed dangerous, poisonous and are now for the most part unknown. History has not been kind to Circa and her plants. Her animals are endangered.
I struggle to end this short piece of writing. Part of me wants to go into a rant about the disempowering oppression of the patriarchy. Part of me feels that the story of Circe clearly outlines how woman, plants and wild animals have been devalued through name calling and false accusations.
I choose not to impose my rants and raves on you. I will, however, ask you to please consider Circe’s tale. It’s time to rewrite these stories.
Enchanter's Nightshade's Medicine
Oh, by the way, some of the medicine Enchanter’s Nightshade carries.
It has been used to wash wounds. I image the sailor’s Circe treated carried deep wounds.
It deepens the breath (much like lobelia). One of the first physiological symptoms to appear with PTS is shallow breathing. Perhaps Circe used this little plant to ease the sailor’s anxious breath patterns.
Enchanter’s Nightshade doctrines of signatures is the need for a perfect balance of sun and shade to thrive. This reflects Circe’s parentage. Her father being the sun and her mother association with dark places. Isn’t this the path of the healer? To be in balance with the light and darkness in life. Is this balance also not the path to healing PTS? I think so.
Needless to say, this inconspicuous plant will always have a place in my garden and my heart.