Dexterity with poisons has been ascribed to witches and sorcerers (see sorcery) since ancient times. The knowledge to kill is the reverse side of the knowledge to heal, and the village sorcerer or wise woman who was skilled with herbs had the power to do both. Sorcerers knowledgeable in herbs and poisons were believed to exist in Cro-magnon times, according to anthropologists’ conclusions based on cave paintings. In classical times, witches were consulted for poisons—the best way to get rid of an enemy—as often as for love potions. In ancient Rome, 170 women were once condemned for poisoning under the pretense of incantation. During the European witch-hunts, accused witches were commonly believed to poison humans and animals as part of their ongoing maleficia against Christians. They allegedly poisoned wells and barber’s flour and smeared lethal ointments on door handles.
In modern Witchcraft, poisoning, or causing any harm to any living creature, violates the primary law of the Craft (see Wiccan Rede), which holds that Witches must use their skills for healing and good. In other cultures, particularly tribal ones, illness and death is sometimes blamed on poisoning by witchcraft.
Poisons, used as covert and highly selective weapons, have no peer. They are discreet, hard to trace and can be administered either in deadly doses or in small doses over a period of time, leading to slow illness and death. Some of the most innocuous-looking plants and animals contain fatal poisons, which can be incorporated into oIls, foods or powders. many poisons have no taste or smell, making them especially insidious.
Plant and animal poisons.
Native Africans and Indians of the New World have long been experts in the use of poisons. Curare, the infamous plant poison traditionally used on arrows and darts, acts as a muscle relaxant, causing eventual asphyxiation. Curare’s main component, Dtubocurarine, works so well as a muscle relaxant that it now appears in various anaesthetics used in conventional surgery. Strychnine, a poison from the nux vomica plant, has the opposite effect, stimulating the nervous system to the point of severe spasms and death. Poisonous mushrooms, containing toxic alkaloids, such as muscarin and phalloidin, also appear in native concoctions.
Plants of the Solanaceous, or nightshade, family—like belladonna, henbane and mAndrAke—allegedly have been used by witches for centuries, producing hallucinations and death. One particularly effective method for ingesting nightshades is topically, through the moist tissues of the vagina. Other popular witch poisons included hemp and hemlock.
One nightshade, datura, is so highly hallucinogenic and dangerous that even researchers are afraid of it. Also called “the holy flower of the North Star,” datura and its derivatives, which produce a very deep sleep, have been the preferred drugs of criminals and black magicians for centuries. The name supposedly originates in ancient India, where bands of thieves called dhatureas used the drug to incapacitate their victims. Portuguese explorers to India found that Hindu prostitutes were so adept at using datura that they knew exactly how many seeds were necessary in a dose to keep their clients unconscious for hours. A 17th-century traveler to India reported that Indian women, seething with passion for the light-skinned Europeans but held in check by their husbands, gave the men datura, then made love in front of them while the husbands sat stupefied with their eyes open.
The Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico used to rub a salve containing datura on their genitals, legs and feet and believe they were flying. Wives and slaves of dead kings among the Chibcha Indians of Colombia received doses of datura before being buried alive with their masters. Quechua Indians in Peru called the plant huaca, or “grave,” because they believe persons intoxicated with the drug can locate the tombs of their ancestors. Togo witch doctors mixed datura with fish poison and administered it to reputed witches to determine guilt. Some West African women still raise beetles, feed the beetles on datura, then mix the beetles’ feces in food to eliminate unnecessary husbands or unfaithful lovers.
Animals, too, such as venomous snakes and lizards, provide poisons. Cleopatra died from the bite of a poisonous asp, and as early as roman times women used poisonous toads to remove unwanted husbands or lovers. [The fungus gets its name because Europeans believe toads ingested their venom by eating poisonous mushrooms, hence toadstool.] medieval soldiers wounded their enemies by discreetly rubbing the secretions of Bufo vulgaris, the common toad, into the skin. When boiled in oil, the bufo easily secreted venom which could be skimmed off the top. Sixteenth-century Italians learned how to extract toad poison with salt, which could then be sprinkled on the victim’s food. Toad venom was so highly regarded that by the 18th century, weapons makers added it to explosive shells—if the gunpowder and shrapnel didn’t kill the enemy, the toad toxin would.
The Bufo marinus, or bouga toad, a native of the New World, reached the old one not long after Columbus and was immediately recognized by those familiar with poisons as a handy little beast. The Choco Indians of western Colombia milked poisonous toads by placing them in bamboo tubes suspended over open flames, then collecting the exuded yellow venom into ceramic jars. The main toxic ingredients of the toad’s glands are bufogenin and bufotoxin, 50 to 100 times more potent than digitalis and causing death by rapid heartbeat leading to heart failure. The bufo marinus also contains bufotenine, a hallucinogen.
The Chinese were most expert with the bufo marinus. They collected the venom and condensed it into smooth, dark disks, like pills, called ch’an su, dispensing it for the treatment of toothache, canker sores, sinus inflammations and bleeding gums. Taken orally, the pills worked on the common cold. Of course, the toad’s toxic properties were not forgotten in labyrinthine Chinese politics.
Other poisonous sea creatures include two varieties of tropical fish, the fou-fou, or Diodon hystrix, and the sea toad, or Sphoeroides testudineus. Both are commonly called blowfish or puffer fish, describing their ability to puff up their spiny bodies to dissuade predators. Such procedures are unnecessary, as the puffer fish contains tetrodotoxin in its skin, liver, ovaries and intestines—a poison 500 times stronger than cyanide, 150,000 times more potent than cocaine. Ancient Egyptians appreciated the puffer fish at least 5,000 years ago, and the presence of deadly puffers in the red Sea led to the Old Testament injunctions against eating scaleless fish, outlined in the book of Deuteronomy. The puffer is a modern delicacy in the Orient. Prepared correctly, it is harmless; prepared incorrectly, it is fatal, which turns a puffer fish meal into a sort of Russian roulette.
Poison and justice.
Long before the Europeans raided the coasts of Africa looking for slaves, wItCh doCtors and certain tribes specialized in the administration of poisons to determine the existence of witches and a suspect’s guilt or innocence. The Efik tribespeople along the Niger river became famous for their secret societies, which were responsible for keeping order among their neighbors through various horrible punitive methods. One of the Efik’s most powerful weapons was the poison test, in which the accused was forced to drink a potion made from eight seeds of the highly toxic Calabar bean, whose main component is physostigmine. Such a huge dose sedates the spinal cord, causing progressive paralysis from the feet to the waist, and eventually leads to loss of all muscular control and death by asphyxiation.
The victim, after drinking the poison, had to stand before a judicial gathering of the Efik until the poison began to take effect, then walk toward a line drawn ten feet away from the tribunal. If the accused vomited up the poison, he was declared innocent. If he reached the line but had not vomited, he was also innocent and was quickly given an antidote of excrement mixed with water that had been used to wash a female’s external genitalia. most died horribly, however, wracked with convulsions. The guilty did not receive burial, either, but had their eyes gouged out and their bodies cast naked into the forest.
Peoples of nearly all African cultures used poisons to eliminate the guilty. In certain regions chiefs ordered criminals to be executed by pricking their skin with lances or needles dipped in toxic plant juices. In West Africa, the son and heir of a chief had to undergo two poison ordeals to see if he possessed the superhuman qualities necessary to become the new chief; if he failed, the line was broken and another family became royal leader.
To purge communities of witchcraft, witch doctors would prepare poisons and force all the citizens to drink them. One witch doctor prepared a concoction containing poisonous bark from the Leguminosae tree, along with a powder made from the dried hearts of previous victims, ground glass, lizards, toads, crushed snakes and human remains. This disgusting liquid was left to ferment for a year, at which time the entire village drank a draught during a great festival. Up to 2,000 people died every year. When Africa was carved up into European imperial colonies, such practices were outlawed.
Africans also use poison tests on animals to divine a human’s innocence or witch-inspired guilt. The benge test involves giving poison to chickens while reading a list of suspects. When a chicken dies at the same instant a name is called, that suspect is found guilty (see AFrICAn Witchcraft).
Witches and poisonous retribution.
As Europeans grew more sophisticated with medicines and chemicals, metalbased poisons like lead, arsenic and mercury derivatives became popular. Socially accepted doctors, primarily male, suffered little suspicion about poisoning, but the female midwives, healers and abortionists continually battled indictments as witches. Perhaps the doctors saw such condemnation as a way to eliminate competition.
Nevertheless, the fear of witchcraft was rampant, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, when anything unexplainable was attributable to the Devil. midwives were especially vulnerable, since they were blamed for murdering children and for using their bodies to obtain ingredients for poisons. Even high officials were not above suspicion; when the milanese Commissioner of Health was observed wiping his ink-stained hands on a wall in 1630, he was accused of spreading plague. Intense interrogation and torture gave rise to the Commissioner’s full confession and names of accomplices. All involved were torn with hot pincers and burned at the stake.
In the 17th-century French court of Louis xIV, the Chambre Ardente case revealed a ring of poisoners who allegedly supplied witches and abortionists all over France. Poisons and love potions were common at court, used to dispose of unwanted lovers and attract new ones. After an enormous investigation accompanied by torture, evidence surfaced that the poisoners had been the cause of an unknown number of murders, including some 2,500 unwanted babies who were secretly buried in a garden at Villeneuve-sur-Gravois. The ringleader, Catherine Deshayes, called La Voisin, and her confederates were accused not only of poisoning but also of Devil-worship and practice of the Black Mass. They suffered brutal torture and died at the stake. The entire case would have run on its own hysteria for years if king Louis had not intervened in 1680, outlawing fortune-tellers and mandating legal controls over poisons.
See also :
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (abridged). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
- Hughes, Pennethorne. Witchcraft. New York: Penguin Books, 1965.
- Kluckhorn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. 1944. reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.
- Lea, Henry Charles. Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1939.
- Summers, Montague, ed. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. 1928. reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971.