Henbane is a plant known for its hallucinogenic and psychotropic role. During the Middle Age, henbane was widely known as “insane seed that breed madness”. Today, henbane is part of the formula for many modern medical painkillers.
The Latin name of the plant is “Hyoscyamus niger”, and is part of family of flowering plants. The group includes innocent plants like tomatoes and potatoes, but also other poisonous plants like belladonna.
Some legends link henbane with witches. According to the legend, witches used its magical qualities for recipes for the “flying ointment”. German folklore also contains legends as henbane used for witchcraft and witches. In German folklore, witches used the plant to raise rainstorms or curse people and their lands with sterility.
Another interesting legend is linked with beer, a tradition that has history in Celtic culture and tradition. Before hops was adopted as the flavor for beers and ales, Celtics used henbane as a flavoring and enhancer to beer. The legend says the plant made beer more intoxicating.
As for Hamlet, if you read the play, you’ll see that Shakespeare chose it for the poison to kill Hamlet’s father. The text reads “hebenon or hebona”, and the line quotes it “with juice of cursed hebenon”. Many scholars have linked the reference to henbane.
In this documentary, Dr. Francoise Barbira-Freedman, medical anthropologist and lecturer at University of Cambridge talks about the effects of henbane.