Monkshood

(Aconitum napellus) An extremely poisonous plant, "the force and facultie" of whose poison "is deadly to men, and all kindes of beasts" (Gerard). Shakespeare (in 2 Henry IV) compared the effects of the poison to gunpowder:

".though it do work as strong

As Aconitum or rash gunpowder".

In the language of flowers, it is the symbol, not surprisingly, of crime (Rambosson). It has been used for medicinal purposes. Pliny called it "plant arsenic", while Rambosson referred to it as "le poison suprême", atavisha, as it was known in India. In classical tradition, monkshood sprang from the foam of Cerberus, when dragged to light by Hercules. It is mentioned by Ovid, Metamorphoses, as the principal ingredient in the poisonous draught prepared by Medea for the destruction of Theseus. It was apparently dedicated to Hecate (Grigson. 1959), and was used by witches for drugs and poisons (Summers. 1927). According to Scot. 1584, it was an ingredient in witch flying ointment, details of which he cites, and had taken from Della Porta, a 16th century physician. The effects of such ointments have been analysed frequently in modern times. If such an ointment ever existed, it could give the impression of flying through the air. Some witches who claimed they flew to sabbats were known to have been in their beds the whole time (Donovan). It was a common belief at one time that poisons were the antidote to poison, so, for example, one finds it was used against scorpion stings (Ellacombe). Another strange belief was that they were the cause of fevers; but it has been used as a febrifuge for a very long time. Rheumatism has been treated in Russian folk medicine by a liniment made from the dried roots. Care was taken in its application; if the patient had any heart trouble, the amount used was decreased significantly. This liniment was rubbed in until the skin was dry, and then the area was covered with flannel (Kourennoff).

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