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MANDRAKE IN PROFILE

© Kat Morgenstern, February 2002

CAUTION: THIS PLANT IS POISONOUS

mandrake - mandragora officinalis

MANDRAKE

(Mandragora officinarum)

Solanaceae

SYNONYMS:

Alraun, Satan's Apple, Mandragora, Devil's Testicles
The Greek name from which the word 'Mandragora' is derived implies a plant that is harmful to cattle.

DESCRIPTION:

There are 6 species in this genus, the most common of which is Mandragora officinarum. The perennial plants form a leaf-rosette with no stalk. The leaves can grow up to a foot in size and are between 4 - 5 inches wide with a sharply pointed apex. When they first emerge they stand erect, but gradually flatten out. The star like flowers are five pointed and somewhat bell-shaped. The officinarum variety is yellow-greenish; the autumnalis variety is purple. The flowers are born on separate stalks, which emerge from the centre of the leaf-rosette.  They later give rise to the golden yellowish fruits, that are often referred to as 'apples', which they resemble, though their size approximates more that of a crab-apple or mirabelle. The fruit has a pleasant scent. The root can grow to over half a meter (2 feet) in length and is often strangely forked, which has given rise to anthropomorphic associations, likening their appearance to a human male or female body shape. The root has a tough brown rind but is white inside. The leaves emerge directly from the crown of the root.

ECOLOGY:

Mandrake originates in the eastern Mediterranean region and is distributed throughout southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, where it grows in waste places and abandoned fields in sandy and rocky, well draining soil. There is also a species that is endemic to the Himalaya. Nowadays it is cultivated in gardens north of the Alps, but doesn't naturalize there, as it needs a warm and protected setting. It doesn't tolerate frost well and in cultivation needs to be mulched during the winter.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

Once shrouded in much mystery and lore, Mandrake, the most important magical plant of the Middle Ages, today has been all but forgotten. The preachers of the Age of Enlightenment have successfully dispelled all the myths and tales that have spun up around this plant through the Ages. Today it is not even used medicinally anymore. Yet back in the days of ancient Egypt it was well known and respected enough to get a mention in the famous Ebers Papyrus, an ancient document dating back to about 1700 BC, which lists about 700 medicinal plants. Back then it was thought to increase fertility and was valued as an aphrodisiac. Even the Bible attests to its powers - in the story of Rachael, Leah and Jacob, the originators of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis XXX, 14-16), Rachael trusted in the power of the Mandrake to rouse Jacob's interest in her, hoping that the herb would make her fertile so she could bear him a child. However, despite the Mandrake, God thought otherwise... The other mention of it is in the Song of Songs, Salomon VII 11-13, where it is mentioned as an allusion to passionate love-making (how did this piece of poetry ever end up getting into the Bible, I wonder?).

Mandrake was also known to have narcotic properties and in Antiquity was often used as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. The ancients were well aware of the fact that this powerful little plant could be dangerous if taken in excessive quantities and that the sleep it helped to induce could become a permanent state of being. However, since in those days safe and effective anaesthetics were not so easy to come by they felt compelled to experiment with the most promising plants they knew. Mandrake, along with Poppy, Thornapple, Henbane and Belladonna produced good results if one could get the dosage just right. The preferred method of administration was to make a concoction of some or all of these plants and let the patient inhale the vapours via a sponge, which if done properly, would induce a profound sleep, so the surgeon could go about his business of cutting and sawing off limbs.

Apuleius thought it an effective remedy to counteract possession by evil spirits.

'For witlessness, that is devil sickness or demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort Mandrake by the weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he may find most convenient - soon he will be healed.'

mandrake man and mandrake womanIt wasn't until the Middle Ages that Mandrake became popular as a magical plant, and was hailed as a miracle talisman, capable of curing just about anything. It was the root in particular that emanated this mysterious power to fascinate and entrance people - most likely due to its shape, which with a little stretch of the imagination could be seen to resemble a human body. Anthropomorphism (projecting human qualities onto non-human things or beings) was an important aspect of the medieval mindset and the Mandrake root lent itself perfectly to such projections. These magical roots came either as 'Mandrake women' or 'Mandrake men', depending on their shape, but either way they were thought to be powerful allies who could perform true miracles for their masters - anything from attracting love where previously there was none, to getting rich quick and striking unsuspected luck, to warding off misfortunes and evil spells, to becoming invincible in battle.

Such a powerful magical ally was of course not easy to come by. One couldn't just go out, find a plant and start digging - oh no! The Mandrake apparently did not take very kindly to being dug out from its haunt, in fact, it was reported to vanish before an irksome intruder could get to it. That was the best-case scenario. Far worse if it actually stayed in place and the gatherer had to face the task of digging it up, for the Mandrake would give off an ear-piercing scream as it was pulled from the earth, a scream so terrible that it would instantly kill anybody within earshot. Thus it was recommended to plug up one's ears tight and take a dog to carry out the ungrateful task. Before one could start digging one had to draw three magic circles around the plant. Once the root was reasonably free, one was to tie a string to the dogs tail and attach the other end to the root. Then, to avoid the deadly scream, one should speed away from the scene, maybe throwing a tasty piece of meat to the dog, but just out of reach so it would try to jump for it and thus uproot the Mandrake. If one were lucky one would be out of earshot by this time. The dog however, would be deadů or so the story goes.

Bartholemew thought it dangerous to dig for the root in adverse winds and also pronounced it necessary to dig for it all night till sunrise. Other stories insisted that the only Mandrake root powerful enough to perform all these magical tasks was one that was gathered from beneath a gallows at midnight. Apparently, so the story goes, the most potent Mandrake sprouted where the blood or semen of a true criminal had fertilized the earth. A great deal of fuss was made over these gruesome gathering stories and they certainly worked their trick - at least for the crooked vendors, who invented them. Given the ordeal and risked involved in gathering this magickal plant, many a gullible soul preferred to leave the ghastly task to someone else, and rather than going out at night and digging around at the witches hour for this eerie plant, which was at any rate likely to kill either oneself or one's dog or both in the process, they gladly parted with large sums of money to obtain their talisman from a vendor.mandrake poppet

The Mandrake roots sold at the market were often 'improved' to enhance their human features by being carved into more recognizable male or female shapes, and fetching up to 30 gold coins a piece. Some of these Charm sellers were quite creative and carved fanciful little figurines from the roots. A particularly prized item was a root, which had not only been carved but made to 'sprout hair' which could be trimmed into a beard or hair-do. This was achieved by inserting millet seeds into the right places of the carved figurine and re-burying it until these sprouted, creating a kind of 'Chia-Mandrake' effect. Capitalizing on people's gullibility, the vendors, usually quite unscrupulous thieves made whatever profit they could from these magical poppets, as Turner observes:

'they are so trymmed of crafty theves to mocke the poore people withall and to rob them both of theyr wit and theyr money.'

Of course, in northern latitudes it was not always easy to find adequate supplies to satisfy the large demand. In this case the charlatans would substitute another root and sell it off for the genuine article. In Europe the preferred substitute was White Bryony, a completely unrelated species, which happens to have a vaguely similar looking root formation. In America there was even less of a chance to come across a genuine article, since Mandragora officinalis does not grow there at all. The most commonly used substitute was 'American Mandrake', or May-Apple, (Podophyllum peltatum) also a completely unrelated species.

Once in possession of the precious root, one's troubles were by no means over, as it was no easy task to satisfy a Mandrakes' whims. It had to be bathed in milk or wine on a regular basis, fed specific kinds of food (its exact dietary requirements were an endless source of debate) and wrapped in the finest red or white silks. Even if all its demands were met it was possible that it would just stop to perform its duties, in which case it was best to get rid of it as quickly as possible. The difficulty was, that it could be hard to find a buyer for a used up talisman like that. One couldn't just give it away either. If no buyer could be found the Mandrake root would have to stay, sometimes to the distinct disadvantage of the owner, for its power could, in some cases, turn against him, causing bad luck to haunt him. Needless to say, such a root was a liability rather than an asset and in the worst case scenario, (if it was impossible to get rid of), it would eventually end up getting buried with its owner and demand its share of rewards at the gate of heaven.

Parallel to this popular 'rub-the-buddha-for-money' type of magic, Mandrake also featured as an important 'Witches Herb', and constituted one of the key ingredients of the fabled Flying Ointment. Considering its chemical composition it was probably a lot more effective in this context than as a good luck charm.

It wasn't until the early 1500s that herbalists tried to dispel the myths surrounding this plant, assuring their readers that most Mandrake roots look very little like human beings, but rather more like parsnips and that nothing should be feared with regard to collecting the root, which in their own experience behaved much like any other when being pulled from the ground. Still, the belief in its magical powers persisted well into the beginning of the last century and in some rural areas people still murmur something about 'he must have his mandrake working' when someone in their midst happens upon unsuspected luck or riches.

Magickal Uses:

As a talisman or amulet; aphrodisiac, love magic, good luck in business or gambling, counter-magic, protector, warding off of evil spirits or spells, invincible against any kind of weapons, flying ointment

MEDICINAL USES

This plant contains powerful toxic substances, which if ingested can be fatal. Do not use internally and apply extreme caution even with external uses.

PARTS USED:

roots, leaves, fruits

ACTIONS:

sedative, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory hypnotic and hallucinogenic, emmenagogue, abortive, emetic, anodine

CONSTITUENTS:

tropane alkaloids: scopolamine, hyoscyamine, atropine, mandragorine, (cuscohygrine), (tropane alcaloids have a powerful effect on the central nervous system, extreme caution is advised)

INDICATIONS

Though similar in composition to Belladonna and Datura, Mandrake finds little use in modern medical or herbal practice. However, in ancient times it was regarded as a powerful and important medicine. The roots were pressed for their juice, which was combined with wine and then reduced by boiling. This was taken as an anaesthetic prior to surgery. The dosage was rather crucial, as too much would put the patient to sleep permanently. Dioscurides recommends a concoction of this juice mixed with honey mead as a purgative to eliminate 'mucous and gall', though again, the dosage was crucial. The juice was also added to a suppository, which would act as a powerful emmenagogoue and abortive. Inserted anally it would induce sleep. The leaves were applied as a poultice to swellings, inflammations and hardened glands. The 'apples' are narcotic, milder than the root, but still powerful enough to kill if taken in excessive quantity (its not clear how many that might be). In Disocurides' age, shepherds seemed to have used it as a natural high, though he did not report any casualty statistics, it is likely that fatal incidents occurred as a result of excessive use. The scent of the apples was also regarded as an aphrodisiac and believed to enhance potency and fertility (used as an amulet).

For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.