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Today we feature a special treat from the ancient world. This is the Arimaspi Calathos, a gold headdress for a priestess of Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, and fecundity. It was crafted in the second half of the 4th century BC by master Greek goldsmiths out of thirty sheets of fine gold plate hammered into shape and cunningly joined together (plus some enamel and other bits). The headdress is commonly known as “the fighting griffins calathos” for the magnificent eagle-headed mythical beasts on it. The central griffin is proudly uninterested in fighting, but its two companions rip into Greek women who are sinking to the ground beneath the onslaught. I can’t find any images of the remaining crown, but it looks like it is probably similarly violent and enigmatic. Greek jewelry was beautiful, dark, and interesting: you never see celebrities these days wearing anything featuring griffins killing lots of people.

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The piece was found during excavations of the Bolshaya Bliznitsa burial mound, a funerary complex for the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Phanagoria was the largest city of the Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Greeks founded a trade colony there in 543 BC in order to trade with the Scythians and the Sindi (and perhaps with people from much farther to the east as well. Judging by the hats worn by their priestesses, it was a good place to trade, although the imagery of the votive crown suggests that it was also a life of robust competition and fearsome struggle.

Gold Headdress-The Arimaspi Fighting Griffins Calathos -Greek work-Second half of the 4th century BC

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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