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The Common Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)

This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell.  Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous.  Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests.  The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on.  All aconite plants are extremely toxic.  You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).

Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root.  In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations.  The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals.  The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names).  The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different.  For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.

The Yellow Wolfbane (Aconitum anthora)

Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden.  Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple.  Perhaps their failure was a good thing.  Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.

The flower I planted--Bicolor Monkshood (Aconitum x cammarum, var. Eleanor & Stainless Steel)

My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history.  Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces.  These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life.  Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.

Aconitum ferox (Dr. J. Bhunia)

Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature.  According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life.   The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).

Medea (Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, painted 1866-68)

It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant.  In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression.  Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love.  On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings.  Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own.  Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm).  It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

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