Notes from the Apothecary: Aconite
What a wide range of marvellously maleficent names this poisonous plant boasts: Monkshood, Devil’s Helmet, Queen of Poisons, and my favourite, Wolf’s Bane, to name but a few. Unlike most of the plants and herbs we have discussed on this column, this herb is not to be trifled with. DO NOT PICK OR EAT as this plant can be deadly. However, this plant has potent magical power, and a history in folklore to be envied.
The Kitchen Garden
This is not a plant for your kitchen garden, that needs to be said from the outset! Although beautiful, with blue to violet blooms, you would not want to have this near your edible herbs, due to its extremely poisonous nature.
If you wished to cultivate the plant, just be wary of other visitors to your garden, such as pets and children, and don’t ever get it mixed up with another plant. Accidents can happen, even to the most experienced herbalist.
The plant likes a shady spot, often beneath a tree, and can be grown from seed or by splitting the roots. Always wear gloves if you do decide to handle the plant.
NEVER use aconite as a medicine yourself. This information is for historical interest only. Although there are some medical applications, these should only ever be explored or prescribed by a qualified, medical professional.
Mrs Grieve tells us that the herb is used in homeopathy, and is classed as an anodyne (painkiller), a diuretic (increases urination) and a diaphoretic (causes sweating). She mentions that it is used as a tincture or a liniment, or even injected. She suggests it has been applied externally to aid neuralgia, lumbago and rheumatism.
Internally it may reduce the pulse, and aid in the early stage of fever and in cases of local inflammation. This means it has been seen as useful for laryngitis, pleurisy and pneumonia. Children with tonsillitis were sometimes prescribed aconite; something which simply would not occur today! Occasionally the aconite was combined with chloroform or the poisonous belladonna to make it even more potent.
Pliny wrote that ‘the ancients’ (vague, I know) utilized aconite as a remedy for scorpion stings.
As you might expect from such a poisonous plant, it has been and still is used to purposefully cause death, particularly in hunting. There are over 250 species of aconite, all poisonous, and many of these are gathered or cultivated specifically to use as a poison. Aconitum ferox (image above) is used to create a Nepalese poison called bikh. Arrows poisoned with aconite are used to hunt ibex in Ladakh and bear in Japan. The poison has even been used in whale hunting, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
The Witch’s Kitchen
Pliny the Elder (in his Natural History) waxes lyrical about all plants being gifts from the gods, and he has plenty to say about aconite. He tells of how the herb was created from the foam of Cerberus, when Hercules dragged him from the underworld, and that the plant is a signpost showing the way back to the underworld. This gives the plant a strong connection to Greek mythology, in particular Hades, the god of the underworld. The term underworld here means the literal, chthonic sense; beneath the earth. It’s worth remembering that Hades is enormously powerful, being brother to Zeus who rules over the sky, and Poseidon who rules over the sea. Although often seen as a ‘dark’ figure, Hades is actually a lawful, orderly figure who strives to maintain balance amongst the dead and ensure none return to the world of the living when they should not. He is crucial to the correct balance and order of life itself.
Aconite can be seen as a symbol of this, through both the associations to the chthonic deity, and the fact that it can be used to both harm and heal. Aconite can represent both life and death; the underworld and the earthly world; healing and destruction; the visible and the unseen. It also represents the balance between these contradictions, and how these aspects of life are all necessary; neither good or evil, they simply exist.
Aconite is also associated with Hekate, being one of the plants named for her garden in the Orphic Songs. Hekate has a strong association with hounds, linking the herb back again to Cerberus. Hekate is a liminal goddess, with power in earth, sea and sky, so aconite can be seen as a transitional herb, with links to all the physical and metaphysical planes.
Home and Hearth
An image of aconite can be focused on to make a journey beneath the earth, in either meditation or pathworking. The plants chthonic (underworldly) origins make it a great catalyst for this, so for druidic work where you may step down through a hole in the roots of a tree, or for other visualisation such as burrowing into the earth or entering a cave, the image of the aconite may ease this transition, as it is a kind of key to the liminal state required to make this kid of journeying.
I Never Knew…
Despite its poisonous reputation, aconite is a crucial part of many eco-systems as it feeds the caterpillars of tiger moths and various other species of moth.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.
She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.