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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 24th March 2012

When I wrote about this week’s talk, I didn’t mention that one of the questions asked was about herbal medicine/homeopathy. I didn’t mention it because it is a very common question and, quite often, reveals the confusion between herbal preparations, that may contain a high percentage of a plant extract, and homeopathy, which contains nothing.

Herbal remedies may have a beneficial effect as a result of the plant extract though that effect may not be as great as a mainstream alternative, which is why they remain herbal medicines rather than just medicines. And, of course, they carry the same risk of overdose as any other substance. Homeopathic preparations rely entirely on the placebo effect for any changes in a patient’s condition.

Homeopaths deny that it is simply a placebo and talk about the memory of water for a substance it once contained provided it is prepared in accordance with the procedures laid down by the ‘founder’ of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, whose first writing on the subject was published in 1796.

I’m not, today, interested in debunking homeopathy. I’ve done that in my book, ‘Is That Cat Dead – and other questions about poison plants’ and plenty of other people have done it, almost certainly, better than I. What I want to do is suggest that Hahnemann was not the founder of homeopathy and that it was always seen as a means of using the placebo effect.

My current bedtime reading is ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ by Charles Mackay. Sadly, I don’t have the 1841 original but a reprint of the 1852 second edition. You can get the second edition for around £1,200 but my reprint, from 1995, cost me 20p at a jumble sale. Mackay was a journalist and his book looks at a number of subject areas where human beings have allowed themselves to be deluded by false science and hysterical rantings.

I’ve read the section on witchcraft and may write about it later since so much plant folklore involves witches and I have yet to read the long section on alchemy but I see from the section headings that there are a number of familiar names. But what provokes this blog is the one on ‘Magnetisers’. These are the people who believed that magnetism was an invisible fluid present throughout the planet that those in the know could manipulate to produce healing. These days we’d, probably, describe such people as spiritual healers or exponents of reiki.

Mackay sets out his position in the first sentence of the piece;

‘The wonderful influence of imagination in the cure of diseases is well-known.’

He talks about ‘a pill made of bread, if taken with sufficient faith’ as being a better cure than any drug and he gives an example from the early 17th century, 170 years before Hahnemann’s first paper on homeopathy.

‘The Prince of Orange, at the siege of Breda, in 1625, cured all his soldiers, who were dying of the scurvy, by a philanthropic piece of quackery, which he played upon them with the knowledge of the physicians.’

A footnote explains that the Prince sent a small quantity of a decoction of camomile, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and camphor and told the physicians to pretend it was a most rare and expensive remedy that had been obtained from the East in spite of great danger and that it was so strong that two or three drops in a gallon of water was all that was required. Mackay says that the soldiers trusted their commander and all were rapidly cured.

I think the fact that the remedy came from the prince contributed to the strength of the induced effect. It calls to mind two other situations where status contributes to effect.

On the Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, page of this site, when discussing its use of psychoactive purposes by the Koryak people, I write;

‘In rituals, the order of rank of the tribe was reinforced by the ingestion of fresh mushrooms by the headman followed by progressive drinking of urine down through the social structure. It is not known if the urine retains its effects through repeated 'recycling' in this way but the junior members of the tribe would almost certainly have exhibited similar behaviour to avoid giving offence to someone from a higher level.’

It is possible that those drinking urine that was many bladders away from the actual fungus did not need to feign intoxication because the placebo effect was strongly enhanced by the cultural hierarchy. (Of course, it could be that the urine does retain psychoactive properties regardless of how many human waste systems it passes through but finding enough people willing to join a proper trial is a barrier to determining that.)

The other possible involvement of hierarchy in psychoactive effects concerns Catha edulis, khat. In north-east Africa and those parts of the Middle-east where khat chewing is a daily, afternoon ritual, it is usual for someone to provide a room for the khatting session. Rather like Alcoholics Anonymous, attendance is open to anyone; you don’t need to be invited.

The host sits furthest from the door of the room and everybody else positions themselves according to social rank, with the lowliest ending up either side of the door.

Generally, khatting sessions are ‘bring your own’ affairs but some very affluent hosts may offer everyone khat from their personal ‘stash’. With khat, there is a reverse correlation between texture and alkaloid content and rich people, generally, favour younger stems because of their tenderness. Though not as potent, these tender stems command a higher price because they are picked early reducing the yield for the grower.

So, someone from low on the social ladder would, normally, find the sort of khat favoured by the rich to not have enough kick for them. But, if presented with some in a khatting session by someone from a higher social class, they will exhibit the same level of intoxication as if it were their usual high strength chew.