In folklore Old women are believed to control all aspects of Nature – Fire, Earth, Air and Water, but in myth and story they have a special relationship with water.
The title “witches in the weeds” emerged after I did some research on the Datura plant. This plant is usually associated with old women and sorcery in myth and story. For example, in European mythology, the dark goddesses, Hecate, and Baba Yaga are associated with Datura. Datura is considered to be a ‘witch weed’ and is categorized as a poison along with deadly nightshade, henbane and mandrake. The seeds and flowers have a history of creating visions, delirious states, and causing death. Datura thrives in wilderness areas. Old women, dark goddesses and Datura have a lot in common.
Women and birds have been associated since Neolithic times. Scholar and mytho-archeologist Marija Gimbutas unearthed many bird-women sculptures that were fashioned out of clay in “Old Europe”. Old women in particular are most often associated with owls, herons, crows, ravens, and black birds of all kinds. It is probably the relationship between women and birds that is one of the roots behind the belief that old women can fly. The other root behind flight can probably be found in the relationship between women healers and the plants they used. Plants like Datura contain alkaloid properties (scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine) that are capable of producing visions of flight and are used by folk healers and medicine women and men.
The reference to marshes in the title is important because it is in liminal space – that place between earth and water – that lends itself to transformations of any kind. Goddesses like Hecate inhabit such places, and with good reason because “transformation” requires suffering and death to old ways of being. It’s important to have a Guide.
According to Wikipedia, Datura “was known as an essential ingredient of potions and witches’ brews.” Since there is no such entity as a witch, I was surprised to see the above sentence in print on a research site. The word witch was first coined by the King James version of the Bible which appeared in the 1600’s. A women’s holocaust occurred in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when thousands, perhaps a few million rural women of all ages were burned as witches. In a nutshell, women have been healers since ancient times. When men became “doctors” they took over the role of healer from women, and conveniently dispensed with the latter by burning them alive.
Whenever I see the word witch I stop to consider the context because inevitably the word is associated with older or old women who have power. Women healers were naturalists who observed, experimented with plants to learn about their medicinal properties, and used these herbs to heal, to birth a child, to abort an unwanted fetus, and to help humans die peacefully at the end of life. It takes a lifetime to acquire the necessary skills, so younger female healers were usually apprenticed to their elders and their secrets passed from one generation to another.
Patriarchy continues to dismiss women as needing equal rights, including the right to end life if it becomes necessary. Our need to have sovereignty over own bodies is a threat to this system of oppression. We are rejected as folk healers, and as leaders out of fear. If we dare to speak out we become witches, bitches, or nasty old women. We are irrational and emotional, unpredictable, incapable of making sound decisions due to our biology according to this Patriarchal story. We are also a genuine threat because as thinking/feeling women we can reject the either or/black or white perspective of Patriarchy and seek “both and” solutions. We are capable of thinking with both parts of our brain, and have access to Nature’s secrets because we can develop intimate relationships with plants (and animals). Many women recognize that we are a part of nature and can choose to advocate for the Earth understanding that to do so is also to advocate for all life on this planet. We can choose not to separate the parts from the whole. Women and the Datura plant belong together because both are potential visionaries.
Datura flowers are startling, huge, trumpet shaped – pearl white and luminous, tinted with pale to deep lavender around the edges – and in northern Mexico, intensely fragrant after rain. Last summer, like the bees that hummed around the flowers from dawn to dusk, I too couldn’t get enough of the sweet scent of literally hundreds of undulating lace edged trumpets that opened each day. These plants are also known as devil’s trumpet, moonflowers, devil’s weed and thorn apple. Datura plants also are capable of removing lead from the soil and storing it in their roots and leaves. While the plant provides nectar to several creatures in the desert food chain it has formed a partnership (mutualism) with the Hawk moth, an insect almost as large as the human hand. The Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and a shelter for its eggs.
The newly hatched larvae are served a tasty leafy meal by the plant. In return Datura are pollinated. The plants’ male pollen is transferred by the moth to the female flower parts, enabling fertilization to take place. The Datura can then produce fruit and seeds for another generation.
The seeds of Sacred Datura are used by Native peoples like the Navajo to bring on visions during ceremony. It’s important to understand that Indigenous peoples who use this plant for visioning also have learned how to detoxify it (as women healers have) and are not sharing this information with outsiders. Overall, Datura species are considered to be highly poisonous; even bees that drink the nectar of the flowers can produce honey that is deadly. All parts of the plant are poisonous but especially the flowers and seeds.
The plants’ precise and natural distribution is uncertain owing to its extensive cultivation and naturalization throughout the temperate and tropical regions of the globe. It’s distribution within the Americas and North Africa is most likely restricted to the Southwest regions of the United States and Mexico in North America, and Tunisia in Africa where the highest species diversity occurs. (Brugmansia, a South American cousin with similar properties differs from Datura in that it is woody, reaches the size of small trees and has pendulous trumpets).
Strangely, all nine Datura species can also change the size of their individual plants, leaves and flowers! The plants’ size, shape etc. apparently depends upon the location of the plant. I find the correspondence between the plant’s ability to create visions or to poison, and its physical ability to change its shape, color, size, leaves, depending on location fascinating. It’s as if the plant is advertising its literal ability to shapeshift, to alter its identity in the wild where it can thrive even as a weed. This kind of co-creating between plant and (powers of) place is probably much more common than we realize.
Sara is a naturalist, writer, a Jungian pattern analyst, ethologist ( person who studies animals in the their natural habitat) who is currently splitting her time between living in her home in Maine and residing here in Northern New Mexico. She has Passamaquoddy/Maliseet Indigenous roots which many be why she has dedicated her life to writing stories about animals and the Earth. Her work is regularly published.