Belladonnaor Deadly Nightshade is native to Europe but is now foundin the United States and India as it escaped from cultivation.Its generic name, Atropa comes from the Greek fate Atropos,the inflexible one who cuts the thread of life. The specificepithet, meaning "beautiful lady," recalls the use ofthe sap of the plant to dilate the pupils of the eyes among thefine ladies of Italy who believed that the dreamy, intoxicated stare thus produced was the height of fetching beauty. Many vernacular names of the plant refer to its intoxicating properties: Sorcerer's Cherry, Witch's Berry, Devil's Herb, and Murderer's Berry.
The maenads of the orgies of Dionysus in Greek mythology dilated their eyes and threw themselves into the arms of maleworshippers of this god or, with "flaming eyes" they fell upon men to tear them apart and eat them. The wine of theBacchanals was often adulterated with juice of the Nightshade. Another belief from classical times maintained that Roman priests drank Belladonna before their supplications to the goddess of war for victory.
It was during the Middle Ages in Europe, however, that Belladonna assumed its greatest importance in witchcraft and magic. It was one of the primary ingredients of the brews and ointments employed by witches and sorcerers. One such potent mixture, containing Belladonna, Henbane, Mandrake, and the fat of a still-born child,was rubbed over the skin or inserted into the vagina for absorption.The familiar witches broomstick goes far back in European magic beliefs. An investigation into witchcraft in 1324 reported that"in rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambledand galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner shelisted." Later, in the fifteenth century, a similar accountstated, "But the vulgar do believe and the witches confess,that on certain days and nights they anoint a staff and ride onit to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the armsand in other hairy places and sometimes carry charms in theirhair." Porta, a colleague of Galileo, wrote in 1589 thatunder the effects of a potion of these hexing plants a "manwho sometimes be changed into a fish,; and flinging out his arms,would swim on the ground, sometimes he would seem to skip up and then dive down again. Another would believe himself turned intoa goose, and would eat grass, and beat the ground with his teeth like a goose; now and then sing, and
clap his wings."