Before modern day religions much of everyday life was dictated out of fear and superstition. All through the year, but especially on Halloween, peasants used herbs to protect them from the unknown. Because of this the early Christians were forbidden from growing herbs.
Centuries later, mandrake, henbane, belladonna, aconite (also known as monkshood or wolfs bane) vervain, mugwort, dill, valerian, betony, St.John’s wort, scopolia, larkspur and wormseed would all be linked with sorcery.
Spirits of witches and spirits were thought to be invoked by combining mandrake, henbane and belladonna. Coriander mixed with fennel was used to conjure up the devil. Mugwort supposedly increased clairvoyance.
One legend relates that when the Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic sprung up in one footprint and onions sprung up in the other footprint. For this reason onions are respected by the devil and have been used to block the “evil eye”, and to prevent bewitching. During the time of the plague, onions were used to draw out the infection and to remove evil smells from the air.
Garlic hung in the home or worn around the neck is said to stop a vampire’s bite. Garlic was once believed to be a poison, and Elizabethan herbalist Nicholas Culpepper ranked it with deadly herbs including wolf bane, henbane and hemlock.
The witch hazel tree at one time was shrouded in mystery because of its use by water diviners to locate underground springs of water. Because of this use witch hazel was believed to be a tree of the devil.
Herbs have always played an important role in superstitions surrounding witches. Flowers, leaves, roots and bark were used in magical potions to make things fly or disappear.
The besom, or witches broom, needed a handle made from the wood of an ash tree. This would guarantee protection from getting ones feet wet when flying across water. The sweeping part of the broom was made of birch twigs, tightly encasing evil spirits inside. The twigs were held in place with willow branches.
Willow trees according to legend can always be found growing near a witch’s cottage. The willow has become a sign of sorrow and is used in black magic.
To make a broom fly the handle is rubbed with datura, wolf bane and moonwort (lunaria), or magic fern. To help with levitation a resourceful witch would rub herbs, either directly or in an ointment onto the body. One recipe called for “the juice of smallage, wolf bane and cinquefoil mixed with fine wheat. To this basic mixture other herbs such as henbane, mandrake, nightshade, tobacco, opium, saffron and popular leaves would be added.