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Some species of Aconite were well known to the ancients as deadly poisons. It was said to be the invention of Hecate from the foam of Cerberus, and it was a species of Aconite that entered into the poison which the old men of the island of Ceos were condemned to drink when they became infirm and no longer of use to the State. Aconite is also supposed to have been the poison that formed the cup which Medea prepared for Theseus. (Note---Aconite and Belladonna were said to be the ingredients in the witches' 'Flying ointments.' Aconite causes irregular action of the heart, and Belladonna produces delirium. These combined symptoms might give a sensation of 'flying.'---EDITOR)
Monkshood or Wolfsbane has a long history of association with witchcraft. Having proved too dangerously toxic for the legitimate pharmacy, it fell to the province of sorcerers & witches. It was a believed by many Christians to be a common ingredient in witches' potions, as is the case in Nathaniel Hawthorn's great tale of "Young Goodman Brown." Monkshoods are occasionally named "Love Poison" because it was used in love potions, forever the most popular thing witches (or any crone with a lifetime of herblore in her) was asked to concoct. If the proportions were gotten wrong, or if it was over used when not effective on the first couple doses, the object of the potion's effect merely died.
Mixed with belladonna, it was thought to induce hallucinations, & a widespread but improbable story is that covens of witches rubbed a concoction of monkshood & belladona all over their bodies in order to fly, or at least imagine they were flying. The toxin can in fact be absorbed through skin, & can at least caused elevated sense of extreme well-being. So whether or not it was actually used within sorcerous covens, there seems little doubt that, given the nature of the human beast, it was often regarded worth the risk of death merely to get stoned.
In mythology, Monkshood was nefarious Medea's poison of choice. Ovid said she gathered it in Scythia, where it first grew from the slobber of three-headed Cerberus, the terrible dog that guards the gate to Tartarus. Pliny also tells the story of Hercules dragging the monstrous beast through its cavern to chain it to a pillar, & from its howling snapping jaws slavering froth flung out of cave giving rise to this plant in the mortal world. So when called "Dogbane," Cerberus the offspring of the Echidna is the dog meant.
The plant was sacred to Hecate, hence its archaic name Hecateis herba, the Dark-mother's Herb, which is probably also at the base of its title Queen Mother (or Queenmother of Poisons), as Hecate was Queen of Witches. Athena used the poison as well, sprinkling it on the head of the impious maiden weaver Arachne to turn her into a spider.
Claudius I, Emperor of Rome, was slain by his own physician who slipped him monkshood. It was so often used for political assassinations that that Trajon banned its cultivation altogether. Anyone caught gardening these flowers suffered the penalty of death.
It's use for murder is the subject of the Peter Ellis novel set in medieval England, Monk's Hood (1981), with Brother Cadfael the detective who must clear himself of suspicion. The plant is featured in many fictional murder mysteries, but not all such crimes are fictive. In a series of recent trials infamous in Japan, three women & one man were proven to have collectied millions of yen in their murder-for-insurance ring, the women having prepared for their husbands sweet-bean buns laced with monkshood. The trials ended in 2002, & all four are currently serving prison terms.
It was also useful for suicide, as in the case of the father of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, as well as endless numbers of actual persons. But not all deaths have been intentional homicides or suicides, for Monkshood is sometimes mistaken for fennel or horseradish or other edible plant, as even the species name napellus or "Little Turnip" alludes to its resemblance to something edible. Somewhere around 1840, two Catholic priests arrived to dinner with other guests of the Provost of Dingwall. A servant obtained a radish from the garden for the guests to use as garnish on their meat, in consequence of which three at the table died, including Father Angus Mackenzie, Father James Gordon, & Father Gordon's grand-nephew.
A final tale belongs here since the species attached to this legend is certainly A. napellus & no other. Monkshood has another old folk-name, St. Dunstan's Herb, & in portraits of St. Dunstan, tenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, monkshood is often present. Dunstan was said once to have held the devil by the nose with a pair of red-hot tongs, forcing from him an oath to never again tempt the saint. Shortly thereafter Dunstan dreamt of an enormous branching spire of flowers shaped like the cowls of monks, & interpretted this as indicative of Christianity spreading throughout a future England ruled by Catholic clergy. A most curious legend for Catholics to tell of themselves. I'm sure Oliver Cromwell would've agreed Catholicism was a poisonous plant.