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Aconite

Aconite has a rich history; accounts of its origin and powers range from myth, to natural history, to chemistry, to Harry Potter.

John Blaisdell, in “A frightful, but not necessarily fatal, madness: Rabies in Eighteenth-Century England and English North America,” his 1995 Iowa State University thesis, points to the links among “Cerberus, rabies, aconite poisoning, and the entire concept of virus as poison” in stories such as this one. “The symptoms of aconite poisoning in animals and humans include restlessness, excessive, often frothy, saliva, irregularity of heartbeat, impairment of vision and vocalization, anxiety, vertigo, and eventually coma, symptoms similar to those of rabies. It is possible that rabies may have been interpreted by the classical physicians as caused by a poison similar to aconite” (18). We might then read this story, which is not unique to Ovid, as an origin myth explaining the foaming mouth of the victim by linking it to foaming jaws of Cerberus, the “hell-hound with three heads, signifying a devourer of the dead” (Sandys, index of names, Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished [London, 1628]). A century later, Pliny refers to Ovid’s account here as a “feigned” tale.

Ovid, "The story of Cerberus and Alcides"
  • And now arrives Unknown Aegeus’s seed*,
    *Theseus
  • Who great in name had two-sea’d Isthmos freed.
  • Whose undeserved ruin Phasias* sought
    *Medea
  • By mortal aconite, from Scythia brought.
  • This from Echidnead Dog dire essence draws.
  • There is a blind steep cave with foggy jaws,
  • Through which the bold Tirynthian hero* strained,
    *Hercules
  • Dragged Cerberus, with adamant enchained;
  • Who backward hung, and scowling, looked askew
  • On glorious day; with anger rabid grew:
  • Thrice howls, thrice barks at once, with his three heads;
  • And on the grass his foamy poison sheds.
  • This sprung, attracting from the fruitful soil
  • Dire nourishment, and power of deathful spoil.
  • The rural swains, because it takes delight
  • In living rocks, surnamed it Aconite.
Ovid, Metamorphoses [8 A.D.], trans. George Sandys (Oxford, 1632), Book 7, sig. Dd4v. [modernized]
Pliny, the Elder
“Of the poison aconite, and the panther which is killed thereby”

Aconite alone, if there were nothing else, is sufficient to induce any man to an endless admiration and reverence of that infinite care and diligence which our ancients employed in searching out the secrets of nature, considering how by their means we know there is no poison in the world so quick in operation as it, in so much as if the shape or nature [later translations say more explicitly genitals] of any living creature of the female sex be but touched therewith, it will not live after it one day to an end. This was that poison wherewith Calpurnius Bestia killed two of his wives lying asleep by his side, as appears by that challenge and declaration which M. Caelius his accuser framed against him. And hereupon it was that in the end of his [Caelius’s] accusatory invective he concluded with this bitter speech, that his [Bestia’s] wives died upon his finger.* The poets have feigned a tale, that this herb should be engendered first of the foam that the dog Cerberus let fall upon the ground, frothing so as he did at the mouth for anger when Hercules plucked him out of hell. And therefore it is, forsooth, that about Heraclea in Pontus, where is to be seen that hole which leads into hell, there grows aconite in great plenty.

Cicero defended first Lucius Calpurnius Bestia and then Marcus Caelius Rufus. His speech in defense of the latter, Pro Caelio, addresses the charge that Caelius had planned to poison his lover Clodia, who was also romantically linked to Catullus and Cicero. See Richard A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 69-73. Pliny leaps from accusation to fact (Bestia killed two of his wives). What’s more, the details of the case as it survives in Cicero do not quite line up with Pliny’s account here of Caelius accusing Bestia of poisoning both his wives “with his finger.”

Howbeit, as deadly a bane as it is, our forefathers have devised means to use it for good, and even to save the life of man. Found they have by experience that being given in hot wine it is a counterpoison against the sting of scorpions. For of this nature it is, that if it meet not with some poison or other in men’s bodies for to kill, it presently sets upon them and soon brings them to their end. But if it encounter any such [another poison], it wrestles with it alone, as having found within a fit match to deal with. Neither enters it into this fight, unless it finds this enemy possessed already of some noble and principal part of the body. And then begins the combat: a wonderful thing to observe, that two poisons, both of them deadly of themselves and their own nature, should die one upon another within the body, and the man by that mean only escape with life.

Our ancestors in times past stayed not thus [didn’t stop at this] but found out and delivered unto us proper remedies also for wild beasts. And not so contented, [they] have shown means how those creatures should be healed which are venomous unto others. For who knows not that scorpions, if they be touched with aconite, presently become pale, benumbed, astonished, and bound, confessing, as it were, themselves to be vanquished and prisoners? Contrariwise, let them but touch the white hellebore, they are unbound and at liberty again. They recover, I say, their former vigor and virtue. Whereby we may see that the aconite also gives the bucklers to [defeats] enemies twain, pernicious poisons both––the one, to it self, and the other to all the world. Now if haply any man should say that the wit and head of man alone could possibly compass the knowledge of these things, surely he should show therein his ingratitude and impiety unto the gods in not acknowledging their beneficence. The people about Heraclea, for to kill the panthers which breed in those parts, use to rub with aconite certain gobbets of flesh, which they do lay about the mountains as bait and bane for them. And unless by this means they did destroy them, no doubt they would fill the whole country, which is the cause that some call it Pardalianches, or leopard-bane. But they again [panthers], on the other side, presently have recourse to the excrements of a man, as I have before declared, the only counterpoison whereby they save themselves. Who doubts now but the knowledge of this secret came first to them by mere chance? And considering that it is not possible to render a reason of the nature and usage of such wild beasts (and whensoever we see the like fall out, we count it still a new and strange accident), we must needs attribute the finding out thereof to fortune.

Pliny, the Elder, The History of the World. Commonly Called, The Natural History of C. Plinius Secundus (first century A.D.), trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1601), Book 27.2, sigs. Aa3r-Aa3v. [modernized]
William Ramesey, Life’s Security

Of the toad and its antidotes, with frogs, &c

Rubeta, a toad, a creature extremely poisonous, and no less pernicious than any of the former creeping creatures, offending by the emission of their venom by urine, spittle, and breath, as also by the bite. Although they have not teeth, yet such is the hardness of their gums and roughness, and so violently do they pinch, that thereby they make such an impression that the venomous quality of their poison is conveyed not only into the part affected, but likewise through all and every part of the body by the pores, causing most horrid symptoms. As, the vertigo, loss of sight, syncope [the heart stopping], and mist [blurred vision] by fits with convulsions. For the most part, they stammer, their lips and tongue become black, their countenance furious, horrid and gastly, subject to vomitings, universal swelling, and environed with a cold sweat, and at length death itself possesses them. As appears by those recorded by Ambroise Paré (De Venenis 21.Cap. 24) who drank a little wine in which they had infused a little sage that they gathered in the garden from a stock [a shrub], under which at the root lay several toads, by the urine and spittle of which it was infected. Mizaldus likewise records (Memorabilium Centuriae …) that one walking in a garden, plucking a little sage, therewith rubbed his gums and teeth and so fell down suddenly dead, which proves that these kind of creatures do and can infect herbs and fruits by their breath, spittle, and urine, as was shown before. But over and above the former symptoms, many of the learned write such as are affected or poisoned any manner of way by this creature are molested with a feverish distemper, the external parts become inflamed, the sperm to shed of its own accord, the hair and sometimes the teeth fall out; the mouth and breath stinks, the breath is short and drawn with great difficulty.

Of copper, and such as proceed thereof, with their antidotes

As copper or brass is likewise of a venomous quality, as many of the learned think, and experience confirmed, and of this arises several other noxious things, as, aes estum, aerugo, squamma, and flos aeris [terms for the scales that can form on these metals], which, being taken inwardly, are very poisonous as they subvert the appetite, hinder concoction [digestion], and macerate [weaken] the bowels and entrails, especially squamma and flos aeris, as also aerugo or verdigris, which are much more violent and grievous. … But aerugo, which we call verdigris, is the most deadly poison of all the rest, having all their properties, and moreover affects much after the manner which you have but now heard of arsenic.

Of Aconite

Aconitum is accounted one of the most deadly poisons that is, killing not only beasts, but men also with the very touch. Pliny’s Natural History, 27.2, as Schenkius observes, thinks it one of the most pernicious poisons of all others.

William Ramesey, Life’s Security, or, A Philosophical and Physical Discourse Showing the Names, Natures, and Virtues of All Sorts of Venoms and Venomous Things, As in Poisons (London, 1665), pp. 227-29, 44, 66. [modernized]
Ambrose Paré, Of Poisons

Although toads want teeth, yet with their hard and rough gums they so straitly press or pinch the part which they shall take hold on that they will force their poison thereinto, and so over the whole body by the pores of the pressed part. Moreover, they cast forth their venom by urine, spittle, and vomit upon herbs, but chiefly upon strawberries, the which they are reported greatly to affect. Hence many suddenly and ignorantly catch their deaths.

I heard from a man of very good credit that there were two merchants not far from the city of Toulouse, who, whilst dinner was providing, walked into the garden that belonged to the inn, where they gathered some sage leaves, and unwashed as they were, put them into their wine. They had not as yet dined, when being taken with a sudden vertigo, the whole inn seemed to run round, then losing their sight, they fell into a swoon, intermixed now and then with convulsions. But they stammered with their lips and tongues becoming black, a froward and worried look with continually vomiting, and a cold sweat, the forerunner of death, which presently seized upon them, their bodies becoming exceedingly much swollen. But the justices of the place suspecting that they were poisoned, made the innkeeper and the guests to be apprehended. Being examined, they all constantly and with one voice answered, that the dead parties ate of the same meat and drink which the rest did, but only that they put sage into their wine. A physician was asked the question whether sage might be poisoned; he answered, it might, but to come to the purpose, that it must appear whether any venomous creature had poisoned the plant with her spittle or venomous saunas [fumes?]. This which was lightly pronounced, and only by conjecture, was by the eye found to be true. For at the root thereof there was found a hole in the ground full of toads, who got out by putting in of warm water, made it credible that the plant was poisoned by their spittle and urine.

Whereby you may understand how unwisely they do, who devour herbs and fruits newly gathered without washing. Also, we must take heed lest falling asleep in the fields, we lie not near the holes which toads or other venomous beasts of the like nature have made their habitation. For thence a venomous or deadly air may be drawn into the lungs. For the same cause, we must abstain from eating of frogs in the month of May, because then they engender with toads. Oxen in feeding sometimes lick up small toads together with the grass, which presently will breed their great harm, for thereupon the oxen swell so big, that they often burst withall. Neither is the venom of toads deadly only being taken inwardly, but even sprinkled upon the skin, unless they forthwith wipe the place, and wash it with urine, water, and salt. Such as are poisoned by a toad turn yellow, swell over all their bodies, are taken with an asthmatic difficulty of breathing, a vertigo, convulsion, swooning, and lastly by death itself. These so horrid symptoms are judged inherent in the poison of toads, not only by reason of the elementary qualities thereof, coldness and moisture, which are chiefly predominant therein, but much rather by the occult property which is apt to putrefy the humors of the body whereto it shall happen. Therefore it will be convenient to procure vomit, especially if the poison be taken by the mouth, to give glisters [enemas], and to weaken the strength of the poison by hot and attenuating antidotes, as treacle and mithridate dissolved in good wine. But in conclusion, to digest it by baths, stoves, and much and great exercise. [Guillaume Rondelet, in his book] De Piscibus, affirms the same things of the cursed venom of toads as we have formerly delivered, yet that they seldom bite, but that they cast forth either their urine, the which they gather in a great quantity in a large bladder, or else their venomous spittle or breath against such as they meet withal, or [by whom they are] assailed. Besides, the herbs which are tainted by their poisonous breath, but much more such as are sprinkled with their spittle or urine, are sufficient to kill such as eat them. The antidotes are juice of betony, plantain, mugwort, as also the blood of the tortoises made with flour into pills, and forthwith dissolved in wine, and drunk. Pliny writes that the hearts and spleens of toads resist poison. The vulgar opinion is false, who think that toad-stone is found in their heads, which is good against poison.

Of Mineral Poisons
Verdigris so stops the instruments of respiration, that it strangles such as have taken it. The cure is performed by the same remedies as help those that have taken arsenic.

Ambrose Paré, The Works of That Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634), pp. 796-97, 810. [modernized]
American Association for Clinical Chemistry, "Monkshood or Aconite"

Monkshood is a distinctive looking wildflower borne on shoulder-high erect and sturdy stems. The common name for this plant comes from the hood-like sepal on the flower. The hood is thought to look like an old fashioned cowl worn by monks.

All parts of monkshood are poisonous, especially the roots and seeds, and the flowers if eaten. In the past, wolves and criminals were poisoned with an extract from the European wolfsbane Acontium lycoctonum. This species was also supposedly used as a component in witches’ brew.

Historical Significance

Aconitum is an ancient Greek name for the plant, used by the Greek physician and pharmacist Dioscorides. Dioscorides lived around 40-90 A.D. and served as a botanist in Nero’s armies. … George Henry Lamson in 1881 was convicted of using aconitine for the murder of his brother-in-law, Percy John. This was reported to be the first homicide using aconitine. The details of the trial were published in 1913 as part of a series of Notable English Trials by William Hodge company. One of the interesting facts of the case is the methods used for the analysis of the poison. One method was taste, “they applied some of the alkaloid obtained from the body to their tongues, which produced a 'biting and numbing effect'; a precisely similar effect was produced by a similar application of aconitine …”.

Traditional Uses

The most common plant in this genus, Aconitum napellus (the Common Monkshood, European) was considered to be of therapeutic and toxicological importance. Its roots have occasionally been mistaken for horseradish. It has a short underground stem, from which dark-colored tapering roots descend. The crown or upper portion of the root gives rise to new plants. When touched to one's lip, the juice of the aconite root produces a feeling of numbness and tingling. This plant is used as a food plant by some Lepidoptera species including Dot Moth, The Engrailed, Mouse Moth, Wormwood Pug, and Yellow-tail.

The roots of Aconitum ferox supply the Nepalese poison called bikh, bish, or nabee. It contains large quantities of the alkaloid pseudoaconitine. Aconitum palmatum yields another of the bikh poisons. The root of Aconitum luridum, of the Himalaya, is said to be as virulent as that of A. ferox or A. napellus.

Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. The Minaro in Ladakh use A. napellus on their arrows to hunt ibex, while the Ainus in Japan used a species of Aconitum to hunt bear. The Chinese also used Aconitum poisons both for hunting, and for warfare.

Many species of Aconitum are cultivated in gardens, having either blue or yellow flowers. Aconitum lycoctonum (Alpine wolfsbane), is a yellow-flowered species common in the Alps of Switzerland. As garden plants the aconites are very ornamental, hardy perennial plants. They thrive well in any ordinary garden soil, and will grow beneath the shade of trees. They are easily propagated by divisions of the root or by seeds; Aconitum Fischeri, Reichenbach, is found in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States; also in other sections of the world. There are many cultivars some with bicolor monkshood such as Aconitum x cammarum Eleanor which has white flowers outlined in blue-violet. …

Aconite (term for dried tubers or root stocks of aconitum plants) has long been used in the traditional medicine of Asia (India, China and Japan). In Ayurveda the herb is detoxified according to the samskaras process and studies show that it no longer possesses active toxicity. The carmichaeli species is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for Yang deficiency, "coldness", and general debilitation. The herb is one of the more toxic species equal to the European variety and is prepared in extremely small doses. More frequently ginger processed aconite, of lower toxicity, "fu zi" is used. Aconite is one ingredient of Tribhuvankirti, an Ayurvedic preparation for treating a "cold in the head" and fever. Aconite was mixed with patrinia and coix, in a famous treatment for appendicitis described in a formula from the Jingui Yaolue (ca. 220 A.D.) Aconite was also described in Greek and Roman medicine by Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder, who most likely prescribed the Alpine species Aconitum lycoctonum. The herb was cultivated widely in Europe, probably reaching England before the tenth century, where it was farmed with some difficulty, but came to be widely valued as an anodyne, diuretic, and diaphoretic. In the nineteenth century much aconite was imported from China, Japan, Fiji, and Tonga, with a number of species used to manufacture alkaloids of varying potency but generally similar effect, most often used externally and rarely internally. Effects of different preparations were standardized by testing on guinea pigs.

In Western medicine preparations of aconite were used until just after the middle of the 20th century, but it is no longer employed as it has been replaced by safer and more effective drugs and treatments. The 1911 British Pharmaceutical Codex regarded the medical uses and toxicity of aconite root or leaves to be virtually identical to that of purified aconitine. Aconite first stimulates and later paralyses the nerves of pain, touch, and temperature if applied to the skin or to a mucous membrane; the initial tingling therefore gives place to a long-continued anesthetic action. Great caution was required, as abraded skin could absorb a dangerous dose of the drug, and merely tasting some of the concentrated preparations available could be fatal. The local anesthesia of peripheral nerves can be attributed to at least eleven alkaloids with varying potency and stability. Internal uses were also pursued, to slow the pulse, as a sedative in pericarditis and heart palpitations, and well diluted as a mild diaphoretic, or to reduce feverishness in treatment of colds, pneumonia, quinsy, laryngitis, croup, and asthma due to exposure. …

Toxicology

… Marked symptoms appear within a few minutes of the administration of a poisonous dose of aconite. The initial signs are gastrointestinal. There is a sensation of burning, tingling, and numbness in the mouth, and of burning in the abdomen. Usually death ensues before a numbing effect on the intestine can be observed. After about an hour, there is severe vomiting. Pronounced motor weakness and cutaneous sensations similar to those above described soon follow. The pulse and respiration steadily fail until death occurs from asphyxia. There are some discrepancies in the literature on this point as some of the recent cases indicate that death may be from ventricular arrhythmias. The treatment is to empty the stomach by tube or by a non-depressant emetic. The physiological antidotes are atropine and digitalis or strophanthin, which should be injected subcutaneously in maximal doses. The historic antidotes of alcohol, strychnine, and warmth were employed, although with limited or no success.

The above description of poisoning is characteristic of an oral administration. However, poisoning may occur simply by picking the leaves without wearing gloves; the aconitine toxin is absorbed easily through the skin. From practical experience, the sap oozing from eleven picked leaves will cause cardiac symptoms for a couple of hours. In this event, there will be no gastrointestinal effects. Tingling will start at the point of absorption and extend up the arm to the shoulder, after which the heart will start to be affected.

"Aconite" American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Toxin Library Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.
Harry Potter Wiki, "Aconite"

“As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.”
—Severus Snape during Harry’s first Potions class

Aconite (also known as monkshood or wolfsbane) is a plant with magical properties. Once widespread, this plant is now only found in wild places. Its flowers are useful in potion-making, but its leaves are very toxic. Aconite is most commonly known as an ingredient of Wolfsbane Potion. The root of aconite can be used as a potion ingredient.

Behind the scenes

There are over 250 species of Aconitum, the most common of which are known as aconite, monkshood, or wolfsbane.
Aconitum species are highly toxic, although they were used in medicine as a pain-reliever, diuretic, heart sedative, and to induce sweating.
In medieval Europe, aconite was often used as poison in animal bait or on arrows used when hunting wolves, hence the herb also became known as wolfsbane.
Aconite, a member of the buttercup family, was believed to be an important ingredient in witches’ flying ointments. Wolfsbane is used in Wideye or Awakening Potion on Pottermore.
The closed captions for the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone erroneously refers to aconite as “akamite.”

“Aconite,” Harry Potter Wiki