Atropine witches, a story of medieval potions

During the medieval era, witches were sought, almost like medieval alchemists. Witches were able to modulate the minds of people with potions, sometimes for evil purposes and sometimes to aid mental states. Thus arguably making them European shamans in a sense.

Today, witches are solemnly Halloween costumes, but what did it mean to be a witch during the medieval era? Why were they seen as a threat?

As funny as this will sound, witches nowadays still exist, and with the popularization of well-being and spirituality, many of us end up falling into a few witch rituals ourselves.

Let’s take this step by step. Witches exist in the modern day and are part of the spiritualistic world. Nowadays, many present themselves as Wicca. Plenty of their rituals evolve mantras, the use of plants, and respect for nature. Now, you might ask yourself: “Well. I don’t use plants or brew potions. How am I doing witch rituals?”

I can answer your question with the famous “Law of Attraction” movement. Unlike the general belief, witches often use mantras such as the law of attraction to bring themselves love, wealth, or health, just like any “normal person” per se, everyone at the end of the day has the same wishes.

Now, all of a sudden, witches don’t appear inherently evil, so why were witches hunted down and burnt?

The answer to this question relies on the word Pagan. Everyone who had a religion opposing Christianity would have Pagan beliefs, including shamans in the Amazon Rainforest, shamans in the lands of Mexico, Native Americans, and various other non-Christian cultures. As we all have studied, during the spread of Christianity, blood was shed to try to establish Christianism as the only religion in various cultures that were seen as pagan, reasoning why plenty of non-Christian cultures, like Native Americans and Mazatecs, might have Christian elements in some of their rituals or festivities. (Learn more about the Christian influence on Native American Rituals in our E-BOOK.)



One still might say. “Well… but witchcraft is evil, right?”

To many, this might sound surprising. Witches aren’t inherently evil, and most often, they would give what they were asked for. I guess you might start to see a pattern here, comparably to a modern-day pharmacist where you can get drugs that might be treatments, but at the same time, might cause contradictory effects depending on the usage you give them, one example being the infamous codeine. In comparison, we have a famous brew from the medieval era named: “Witches Brew.” Used to treat insomnia and various forms of mania. It had a calming and sedative effect once given to someone who was going through a panic attack. However, everyone who has studied pharmacology would know that dosages make a difference. That being said, these calming effects could increase the potency of the mania present in one.

But what exactly is in Witches potions?

We’ve all heard about weird names like Devil Plant, Blood of Hestia, Little Dragon, or even Ladies’ Meat. Of course, those aren’t real ingredients but are codenames for several plants that can be obtained in a grocery shop, and some we may even grow in our garden, like basil, Chamomile, etc. However, there is a brew that has always particularly interested me, one that may have originated the myth of flying witches. The previously mentioned, Witches Brew.

This brew contains the plant Hyoscyamus Niger, also known as Henbane or stinking nightshade.

In ancient Greece, this plant was named the “Plant of Apollo.” Apollo is the god of healing and disease. The plant was blended with other herbs to induce hallucinatory states to commune with the divine. Additionally, the Greeks and Gauls used it to poison their arrows and javelins during war.

During the medieval era, witches saw the plant as more than just a poison and decided to explore more about its psychological effects. They used the plant as a sedative to calm and treat various forms of mania but also as a way to create a connection to evil spirits. Oppositely, the plant could also induce mania, depending on the dosage.

Witches would use the plant as an ointment, causing the hallucinatory sensation of flying, thus birthing the belief that this ointment could make you fly.

Does the story sound familiar? This potion became a note for the flying witch broomstick archetype. Once the potion was administered, it would create a sense of body suspension or hallucination with the witches taking flight. On the next day, one would wake up with amnesia. Thus, the popular belief was born. 

Just like Henbane, another plant that was heavily related to witches, consequently related to Hyoscyamus Niger, we will see why in a bit,  is Atropa Belladonna, the plant was believed to belong to the devil who goes about trimming and tending in his leisure and can only be diverted from his care during Walpurgis, when he is preparing for witches Sabbath, for this reason, people became scared of the plant and started to associate it with witchcraft.

Hyoscyamus Niger and Atropa Belladonna- Artwork credits to Donna Torres (@toseeclearly)

The link between both of these plants lay not only in the fact that they’re both plants that are native to Europe, they’re both hallucinogens, but they also contain tropane alkaloids, more specifically, Atropine, Hyoscyamine, Scopolamine and Tropane.

Atropine is possibly one of the oldest poisons known. With references dating back to the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 B.C., the name Atropa and Atropine originates from the Greek Atropos, meaning Fate. This etymology is a reflection of its long use as a poison being referred to in various pieces by authors like Shakespeare.

Despite its use, the compound was first studied in 1831 by the German pharmacist Heinrich F.G. Mein, who succeeded in preparing a pure crystalline form extracted from Belladonna. However, the synthesis of the compound was done in 1901 by Richard Willstätter. This synthesis is done by the reaction of tropine with tropic acid by a Fischer-Speier esterification. The acid and alcohol were heated together in the presence of Hydrochloric acid to yield atropine.

Now, you might be thinking: “Wow, this atropine thing must be really nasty.”

I’m sorry to disappoint you and break the whole scary vibe for Halloween, but duty calls.

Atropine itself has shown pharmacological value in the treatment of eye disease, as an antidote to Opium overdoses, as a lotion to aid pain and skin lesions, used as a lotion, plaster, or liniment in neuralgia, as an antispasmodic in intestinal colic and spasmodic asthma, for its action on the circulation in the collapse of pneumonia, typhoid, and fever as it increases the heartbeat ratio without diminishing its force.

Pharmacodynamically, Atropine mediates anticholinergic actions, inhibits secretions such as dry mouth, tachycardia, pupil dilation, paralysis, relaxation of smooth muscles in the gut, biliary tract in the gut, and bladder, inhibits gastric acid secretion, and stimulates the central nervous system (CNS). The component acts as an antagonist at the muscarinic receptors blocking the binding of acetylcholine to the CNS and parasympathetic postganglionic muscarinic receptors with a half-life of 3.0 ± 0.9 hours in adults, as for females, the half-life is approximately 20 minutes shorter than in males. 

Nowadays, neither plant nor Atropine is connected to witchcraft but is making its name in studies showing that Atropine might have efficacy in the prevention of childhood myopia and showing its value in ophthalmology under the brand names Atropisol, Ocu-Tropine, and Isopto Atropine.

“So, are these plants safe and have been demonized by society over the years by saying that they belong to witchcraft?”

Woah, not so fast partner! No one should feel scared or find a molecular structure scary on its own, well, unless you’re an organic chemistry student. However, I need to go back to the tropane alkaloids, more specifically, Scopolamine.

Despite being safe in a molecular structure, just like any compound, it doesn’t mean that the substance, consequently plants that yield those alkaloids, have been used correctly by the hands of humans these compounds are considered deliriants and have been used likewise, thus giving it the nickname “the rape drug” or “the devil’s breath.”

The amount of crimes committed using these plants in countries such as South America is abnormal, especially in the case of tourists. People often crush the seeds of scopolamine-containing plants and blow them to your face, putting you in a zombie trance-like state and leaving you with amnesia when you snap out of this state.

But once again, the story repeats itself. Even a substance that sounds considerably bad has its benefits when used positively and has been used to treat motion sickness, postoperative nausea, vomiting, and amblyopia.

This leaves us with one final question. Is true evil not hidden in these substances but hidden within the human intent?

Have a bewitching Halloween.

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