Afton Lorraine Woodward: Plants, Domesticity, and the Female Poisoner

24 September 2019


Poison is traditionally, though not always, a female mode of attack. Classical lore features many women accused of poisoning their spouses, lovers, or rivals: Medusa, Hecate, Circe, Medea, and Agrippina the Younger, to name a few. In particular, witches of literature and accused witches of real life are often associated with potions and spells that make use of poisonous plants found around the home and garden: oleander, hemlock, castor beans (ricin), foxglove, various kinds of berries, and nightshades. Men, of course, make use of poison as well, like Shakespeare’s Claudius and Romero. But the subtle and seductive art of poison is often used as a storytelling device to comment upon the nature, and especially the flaws, of women. Poison is a deceptive weapon, and stories about it play on fascinations with, and anxieties about, what women are hiding. It also offers a violation of proper female domesticity and the same traits that are supposed to make women good botanists. When a woman uses plants or food as poison to subvert rather than maintain the domestic order, she defies her assigned roles of observer, cataloger, and nurturer. Depending on one’s perspective, poisoning can be used to warn of or promote a woman’s independence.

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