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Sigurd
Tuesday, May 5th, 2009, 10:10 PM
I was discussing this topic a fair while ago with a friend at home, and we had some interesting ideas upon this topic, which I will provide, with reference to folklore, ethnobothany and general ethnology.

Basically - the use of henbane amongst ancient Germanics has long been documented - and as such it perhaps one of the stronger "herbal aids" of use to the ancient Germanic, be that for medicinal causes, for intoxicating causes, or for shamanistic causes.

This highly psycho-active nightshade has a wide-spread and rich natural habitat in the larger "Germanosphere" as it were, its use was therefore very likely, considering its common growth, was perhaps even more wide-spread than other psycho-active drugs whose spiritual use has been established, such as cannabis or psychadelic mushrooms: Even though herbal folk-medicine considers it an important ingredient for many solutions - like any psychoactive poison, it also has intoxicating properties, which undoubtedly found their use in ritualistic-shamanistic ways.

This use of henbane as both a pyscho-active drug and a source of healng has been documented in various other cultures, especially in Asia - according to Chinese ethnobotanist LI, the Henbane Seeds - if prepared in the right way and ingested for a longer period, allow one to undertake uncharacteristically long marches.

In our own folk-medicine, we see Hildegard von Bingen recommending this psycho-active weed as a type of "hangover cure" - "Damit aber ein Betrunkener wieder zu sich kommt, lege er Bilsenkraut in kaltes Wasser und er befeuchte seine Stirn, Schläfen und Kehle (damit), und es wird ihm besser gehen." (trans: So that a drunken man shall recover, he should put henbane into cold water, and moisten his forehead, temples and throat, and he will feel better).

From this we assume that its medicinal use has strengthening properties, which supports our theory. More importantly, however - according to German ethnobotanist Christian RÄTSCH - higher doses of this poison can not only lead to a revitalised feeling, but it can cause the ingestor to embark upon a long-lasting rage, whose immediate only antidote is death.

Considering this piqante little detail, it sounds very likely that Berserks could have used this property to embark upon one of their rages. This thesis is supported by its medicinal use to improve stamina - it would appear logical that the capability to feel pain is compromised in more than just one way.

Furthermore, henbane comes in handy when considering its recreational use: such as its mixture with alcoholical beverages - it could well be possible, that our ancestors did indeed use henbane to strengthen their mead or beer, to instill courage, dexterity and rage in the warriors.

It use as an alcoholic ingredient is further supported by the accepted theory in ethnological and ethnobotanical circles, that the Bohemian city Pilsen - from which the Pilsner beer-type is derived - could take its name directly from systematic plantaging of Henbane, whose German name is Bilsenkraut. It is thus well possible that the use of henbane to strengthen the effects of beer could have been widespread prior to the introduction of the German Beer Purity Law of 1516 --- especially since it is an integral ingrediet of grut, which was used as flavouring in beer prior to the more wide-spread cultivation of hops.

So you have: Widespread use in beer (perhaps what made beer popular in the first place? ;)), used as a medicine to reduce pain, causes restlessness and hallucinations, allows the ingestor to embark upon a rage --- all properties which are known of the berserks.

Muslim writer Ibn Fadlan even stated that it was "drunk by the Vikings" - so perhaps, after long last, this very common weed could be the simple answer to the unexplainable restlessness and rage of the berserks? Who knows. ;)

Englishwoman
Tuesday, May 5th, 2009, 10:44 PM
Henbane is used in modern medicine for insomnia, as a sedative, for rheumatic conditions and seasickness. However as it is deadly poisinous I wouldn't think that is use in the past would have been overly common.

Sigurd
Wednesday, May 6th, 2009, 02:08 AM
However as it is deadly poisinous I wouldn't think that is use in the past would have been overly common.

Any nerve-poison, in fact any ingestible substance in general (including water, though we're talking of unreasonable amounts there), can be lethal at large doses, intoxicating at medium doses, and have medicinal uses in smaller doses. It all depends on the toxicity of the substance.

Of course, we would be talking about minute amounts of henbane being sufficient to create intoxicating effects, perhaps no more than 10 grams per 50 litres, the existing documentation however does suggest its use.

And with Deadly Nightshade having been documented and that being a few times more poisonous than henbane, well ... ;)