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The Mandrake

By Anthony Roe

Published at Beltane 2001

Pedanios Discorides, (flourished CE 60), the Greek physician, called 'the Father of Pharmacy', served in Nero's army, and travelled widely in Europe and the Near East. He investigated the properties of six hundred plants and produced On Materia Medica, a series of short accounts of plants and their uses. He is the main source of the old herbals. The earliest and finest manuscript was once the chief adornment of the Imperial Library in Vienna. It was thought worthy to form a wedding gift for the lady Juliana Anicia in CE 512, the daughter of Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West, and of his wife Placidia, herself the daughter of Valentinian III. A miniature therein shows the nymph Discovery (Euresis) presenting a mandrake to the physician Discorides. The mandrake is still tethered to the hound whose life is sacrificed to obtain it. Between 1652 and 1655, John Goodyer translated it, and his English version lies in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford. Discorides devoted a goodly space to Mandrake, "since that root seems to be a maker of love-medicines". But that was not the only virtue, for "some do seethe the roots in wine to thrids and straining it, set it up. Using a cyathus of it for such as cannot sleep or are grievously pained and upon whom being cut or cauterised they wish to make a no-feeling pain. Ye juice being drank . doth expel upward Phlegm and black choler, . but being too much drank it drives out life. It expels the menstrua and ye embryo and being put up ye seat for a suppository it causeth sleep".

The remedial properties of the mandrake are confirmed by modern chemical investigation. The root contains an alkaloid which, belonging to the atropine group, is a narcotic and a local anaesthetic. It is of the order Solanaceae, similar to deadly nightshade. From the old tradition that they excited amorous inclinations, mandrakes were called love apples. Hence Venus is called Mandragoritis, and the Emperor Julian, in his epistles, tells Calixenes that he drank its juice nightly as a love-philtre. Another superstition is that when the mandrake is uprooted it utters a scream, in explanation of which Thomas Newton, in his Herball to the Bible, says, "It is supposed to be a creature having life, engendered under the earth of the seed of some dead person put to death for murder". "Shrieks like mandrakes torn from the earth" says Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, iv.3. It was said of a very indolent and sleepy man that "He has eaten mandrake", from the narcotic and stupefying properties of the plant, well known to the ancients. The poet Juvenal (c.CE 60-130) blamed Roman women for administering it to their husbands, causing giddy spells, forgetfulness and even senility. There is a legend that the poet Lucretius (c.BCE 99-55), given such a potion by his wife, went mad and committed suicide.

The mandrake, according to legend, was moulded out of the same clay as that from which Adam was created. The Devil regarded the plant with great favour; therefore it was associated with underground demons and other supernatural powers, and highly prized as the roots were for their magical properties, their unearthing was considered a very perilous undertaking. It necessitated a magical procedure, which was usually enacted at sunset, but occasionally in the dead of night. First, the earth was loosened for mechanical reasons, then, with the point of a two-edged sword that had never drawn blood, three circles were scratched around the plant. The magical significance attending the latter act was to prevent the demons rising with the root. After these preliminaries were accomplished, the most impressive part of the ceremony followed. A dog, generally a black one, was secured to the plant by means of a stout cord, and the mandrake-gatherer, standing at a little distance with a trumpet to his lips, threw a piece of meat to the hungry, captive animal. Care was taken in aiming the titbit, so that it landed out of the dog's reach, with the result that the animal's frantic endeavours to seize its prize caused the root to yield. The moment it showed signs of leaving the ground, the gatherer made a loud shrill blast of the trumpet, for the uprooted mandrake emitted a shriek that brought death to all hearers. One treatise warns all to beware of a changing wind carrying the deadly sound. The blast on the trumpet effectually drowned the cry of the plant, but the dog, poor creature, whether he heard it or not, dropped dead as though felled with an axe, for the underground demons demanded a life for a life, and immediately took that of the mandrake's murderer.

The foregoing general technique was altered and added to throughout the ages. In the 16th century, a further precaution against hearing the dreadful cry of the stricken mandrake was to fill the ears with cotton and seal them with wax. The dog, which had, by this period of history, developed an immunity to mandrake wrath, needed to be slaughtered at dawn on the day following the uprooting, and buried in the place previously occupied by the coveted root. The ceremony of burial was accompanied by incantation and secret rites, which were often blasphemous, the animal being elevated into a type of saviour who had given his life for the community.

The aphrodisiac properties of the mandrake are referred to in Genesis when Reuben, finding sweet yellow berries, each about the size of a small plum, took some of them to his mother, Leah. Rachel, Leah's sister, seeing the fruit, said: "Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes". After some bartering, Leah complied with Rachel's request, with the gratifying result that the hitherto barren woman conceived and bore Joseph. Although the aphrodisiac and the narcotic effects of mandrake were known in Ancient Egypt, the origin of the superstition surrounding the herb belongs to the Early Greeks, to whom the poisonous properties of, for instance, belladonna, hellebore, hemlock and poppy were well known; and the herb-gatherers, considering their occupation extremely risky, took elaborate precautions to guard against the vindictiveness of the disturbed plants. One of the ill-consequences to be reckoned with was prolapsus ani. They deemed that, before drawing even the least potent of the magic roots, it was necessary to anoint the hands and face with oil, and during the process of uprooting to stand carefully to windward; hence, the mandrake, 'Aphrodite's plant', demanded the employment of the greatest possible caution, and ultimately developed into the ceremony in which the dog received the inevitable death-blow from the lurking demons.

In Homer's Odyssey the hero sets forth to rescue his men, who had been changed into swine by the machinations of Circe; but the god Hermes, aware that even a hero's sword was powerless to break the spell, gave Odysseus "a charmed herb . a herb of grace", which the poet described as "black at the root, but the flower was like to milk. 'Moly' the Gods call it, but it is hard for mortal men to dig". This reputed difficulty experienced in digging 'the moly of Homer' has resulted in its being regarded as mandrake; however, subsequent translators and commentators were sceptical of this because of the mandrake's having a white and not a black root; and yellow, not white flowers. The 'plant of Aphrodite' was also the 'plant of Circe', and it is contended that this (mandrake) was the drug that the sorceress gave to Odysseus's men and so brought about the disastrous metamorphosis. In his Historia Planatarum , written about 230 BCE, Theophrastus of Eresus, pupil of Aristotle, and 'the father of botany', says that men digging for hellebore needed to protect themselves with garlic, which is accredited with power to preserve the bearer from sorcery, witchcraft, and particularly from vampires. Therefore wild garlic, which is called Allium Moly, is conceivably 'the herb of grace' supplied by Hermes as a counter-charm to the goddess's enchantment. Hence it is not unreasonable to suppose that garlic was employed as an antidote also when mandrakes were to be extracted.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, describes a herb called 'baaras' (from the Hebrew ba'ar , to burn), which is certainly none other than the mandrake. Josephus is the first to record the practice of employing a dog to assist in the plucking. According to him, the plant has the virtue of attracting demons out of the bodies of persons possessed. It was also used under the name morion or 'death wine' to render insensible those about to suffer torture. Hence under Roman rule, Jewish women would administer it to those who were being crucified. It would allay suffering and wrap the soul in night. It was on account of the occasional recovery of the crucified after they had been removed from the cross as dead that the Roman soldiers were ordered to mutilate the bodies before they were handed over to their friends for burial. Pythagoras gave it the name of 'human bodied'. Bacon said of the mandrake that it was "a root whereof witches made an ugly image, giving it the form of a face on the top of the root".

Ibn Beithor, the Arab herbalist, refers to the mandrake as 'The Devil's Candle', a title suggested by the plant's glistening appearance at night. This luminosity is accounted for by the presence of numerous glow-worms at rest on the plants's ample leaves. The Moors, for the same reason, call mandrake 'The Lamp of the Elves'. According to Ibn Beithor, sometimes styled 'the Arab Discorides', King Solomon had a portion of mandrake set in his famous signet ring, and by its power he held dominion over the jinn; further, the learned Arab tells us that Alexander the Great owed his conquest of the East to the magical power of mandrake, and that it cures numerous maladies, including in its wide range elephantiasis and loss of memory. One Arab name for mandrake is Abdul Selam, 'servant of health'.

It seems to have been from Greek sources that Pliny the Elder drew his knowledge of mandrake. Pliny, following Theophrastus, observes: "The diggers avoid facing the wind, first trace round the plant three circles with a sword, and then do their digging while facing west . The pounded root, with rose oil and wine, cures fluxes and pain in the eyes" ( Historia Naturalis , 25:94), In his Natural History, in describing the plant, he states: "There are two varieties ( mandragora vernalis ) which is generally thought to be male . and the black ( mandragora autumnalis ) which is considered to be female". This dual classification made a strong appeal to the popular mind, and spreading through the folklore of all European peoples, has survived to this day. In England, we have the Spring mandrake and the Autumn womandrake; actually the former is more robust than the latter, but they are essentially identical. St Hildegard ( Physica , liber 1, " De Plantis ") devotes a fairly long notice to the mandrake. "It is hot", she says, "something watery, and formed of the moistened earth wherewith Adam was created; hence it is that this herb, being made in man's likeness, ministers much more than other plants to the suggestion of the Devil; according to man's desire good or evil may be aroused at will, as was done aforetime with idols". The saintly abbess does not omit to point out the plant's odd habit of dividing into two kinds - the male, made in the image of man, " species masculi hujus herbae ", and the female, made in the image of woman, " species feminae hujus herbae ". All writers of the Middle Ages who have spoken of the mandrake have drawn this distinction. The work by Johannes de Cuba, Hortus Sanitatis , gives a double figure of the plant strongly emphasizing its alleged resemblance to man and woman.

The mandrake plant was first introduced into Britain about the 11th century, but its fame had gone before it. A certain Apuleius Platonicus, who flourished during the 5th century, composed a botanical treatise, entitled Herborium , and devoted the last chapter to a very thorough exposition of the properties, both actual and magical, of the mandrake, which, he declares "shineth at night like a lamp". He further gives advice to would-be gatherers: "When thou seest its hands and its feet, then tie thou it up. Then take the other end and tie it to a dog's neck so that the hound be hungry .". This manuscript, which unfortunately has been damaged by fire, is now in the British Library, but the illustration accompanying the description is comparatively clear, and depicts a dog secured by a chain to the plant, which is delineated as a human being with leaves growing in place of hair on the head. The forked root of the mandrake roughly resembles the human body, which probably accounts for its role as a magic plant, particularly with a sexual connotation. It has been used as an aphrodisiac in various cultures. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was also the 'lady of the mandrake' and in some parts of Europe it was laid under the marriage bed. There was a medieval tradition that elephants consumed this plant to arouse sexual desire.

The Maid of Orleans was reputed to make use of mandrake. There were various factors which exposed La Pucelle to charges of witchcraft. Joan of Arc said the 'voices' which inspired her came from St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret - saints whose statues stood in Domremy village church - but her enemies declared that she spoke to evil spirits. Some said the voices were hallucinations induced by chewing mandrake, a narcotic which they believed Joan carried in her bosom. Clairvoyants favoured the root to enhance their powers. Some said that the mandrake only grew in the dark; hence its use was cognate with affiliation to the dark powers.

An additional superstition applied in Europe to the mandrake was that it grew from the moisture that dropped from a felon hanged, and was sometimes to be found beneath the gallows. Some believed that the most efficacious roots grew under a gallows or where suicides had been buried at crossroads. As to why the most potent mandrakes were supposed to grow under gallows, they were believed to be produced from the semen involuntarily ejaculated by a hanged man. In his Herball John Gerard wrote: "There hath beene many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives, or some runnagate surgeons or physicke-mongers I know not . that it is never or very seldome to be found growing naturally but under a gallowes, where the matter that hath fallen from the dead body hath given it the shape of a man; and the matter of a woman, the substance of a female plant; .". That the mandrake is supposed to grow from the semen ejaculated by a hanged man is noted by the researcher Albert-Maris Schmidt in his La mandragore , published in Paris (1958). The severing of the nerves in the spinal column when the neck is broken through hanging does produce erection of the membrum virile in a hanged man.The fact that mandrake did not always grow after a hanging needed to be accounted for, and this was done by the invention of two sets of special circumstances: one, that the hanged man was innocent but forced to 'confession' by torture; the other, that the miscreant was a thief born of a family of thieves, whose mother stole while he was in her womb. In either case the mandrake was called 'Little Gallows Man', and it had to be uprooted by the conventional means on a Friday evening before sunset. As soon as it was out of the ground it needed to be cut free from the body of the dog, then washed clean in red wine; after which it was wrapped in a garment of either white or red silk, and placed in a casket. Every Friday at the evening hour it had to be rewashed in red wine, and provided with a new garment at each new moon. If these rules were carefully observed, the 'Little Gallows Man' would speak when spoken to and answer all questions concerning future events. Its happy possessor would henceforth have no enemies, and never again be poor, because a gold coin laid beside the mandrake overnight was sure to become doubled by morning; however, it was not wise to repeat this process too often, for possibly the 'Little Gallows Man' would suffer fatigue, and might even die. Youngest, and not eldest sons inherited these precious possessions, but it was necessary for a piece of bread and a coin to be put in the dead man's coffin and buried with him. In default of this last office the mandrake was deprived of its magical virtue.

A Tuscan doctor named Andrea Matthioli (whose New Herbal was published at Prague in 1563), when practising in Rome cured a vagabond of an illness, and received from him, by way of a fee, the secret of forging mandrakes. The process confided to the doctor was without question known much earlier in history, and probably it is the method still employed. Roots of bryony are roughly carved into human shape, and seed of barley or millet attached to both the head and the chin; thus treated, the roots are buried for several weeks, during which the seed sprouts, appearing like hair, and knife-marks become invisible owing to new growth of surface tissues; hence the manikin, upon disinterment, gives the impression of being a natural formation. John Parkinson, herbalist to Charles I, in his Theatrum Botanicum (London 1640), says: "Mandrakes and Womandrakes, as they are foolishly so called, which have been exposed to publicke view both in ours and other lands and countries, are utterly deceitful, being the work of cunning Knaves onely to get money by their forgery". In north European countries, where mandrake, not being indigenous, was hard to come upon, the witches also employed bryony as a substitute.

To German believers, where it was unlucky to pull mandrake without making three signs of the Cross, mandrake was 'sorcerer's root' and 'hag's mannikin', and the figure made from it Erdmann ('earth man'). A Leipzig burgess told his brother in Riga, in a letter of 1675, that he had heard of his troubles and was sending him with full instructions, a mandrake (which cost 60 thalers). "Leave the Erdmann untouched for three days, then put it in warm water," he was told. "Sprinkle the water over the animals, the house sills and everywhere about the premises. Thou shallt come to thy own if thou serve the Earth-mannikin right". Betweeen uses the Erdmann must be bathed four times a year, wrapped in silk and laid with the household's best possessions. The bath water in which it had laid would be particularly useful. It was not necessary to do anything more. In Germany false mandrakes are called 'alraun', ('the all-wise one'), and are prized almost as highly as true mandrake. Until quite recent times it was believed that to imprison an alraun in a bottle resulted in its changing shape constantly in a wild endeavour to escape. A bottled-imp was considered a valuable chattel because the creature was forced to perform for its owner all sorts of miracles, from gold-divining to maleficium. However, to possess such an imp was to invite great danger, for to die, and have it among one's effects, brought the Devil post haste to claim the soul. Robert Louis Stevenson's story, "The Bottle-Imp", is based on this theme. Following the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War there was was a recurrent rumour amongst superstitious Russian troops that a broken phial had been found in Hitler's bunker. Not a discarded bottle emptied of poison, but the vessel that had contained the Leader's familiar spirit, and which had at last taken vengeance following years of thankless toil in sustaining the Reich! (This may have been the one, enclosed in a little crystal tube, that before the Second World War used to be on display in the remarkable gallery of ancient pharmacy at the Germanic Museum in Nuremberg.) Even now, this superstitious belief in the mandrake root has not been entirely obliterated. The descendants of the mujiks of pre-war Russia prize them as exceptional talismans that will bring them fame and fortune. They are given the name of Adamova golova , Adam heads. The proper title for mandrakes as familiar spirits taking the form of little men is mandragoras.

Mandrakes were once widely distributed in Germany, and were utilized, among other ways, in medicine. Theophrastus had referred to the medicinal properties of mandrake: "The leaf mixed with meal is useful for wounds, and the root for erysipelas. When scraped and steeped in vinegar, it is also used for gout, for sleeplessness and for love potions. It is administered in wine or vinegar". Pliny had recognised mandrake as an anaesthetic, securing relief from pain. Oil of mandrake (or bryony) cured a horse's broken bones, always difficult to treat. Other writers state that it was used as an antidote for snake bites. As mandragoras, familiar demons who appear in the figures of little men without beards, Delrio wrote of an instance. He states that one day a mandragora , entering at the request of a sorcerer, who was being tried before a court for wizardry, was caught by the arms by the judge, who did not believe in the existence of the spirit, to convince himself of its existence, and thrown into the fire, where it escaped unharmed. Mandragoras were also thought to be little dolls or figures given to sorcerers by the Devil for the purpose of being consulted by them in time of need; and it would seem as though this conception sprang directly from that of the fetish, nothing else than a dwelling-place made by a shaman or medicine-man for the reception of any wandering spirit therein. The author of the work entitled Petit Albert says that on one occasion, whilst travelling in Flanders and passing through the town of Lille, he was invited by one of his friends to accompany him to the house of an old woman who posed as being a great prophetess. This aged person conducted the two friends into a dark cabinet lit only by a single lamp, where they could see upon a table covered with a cloth a kind of little statue or mandragora , seated upon a tripod and having the left hand extended and holding a hank of silk very delicately fashioned, from which was suspended a small piece of iron highly polished. Placing under this a crystal glass so that the piece of iron was suspended inside the goblet, the old woman commanded the figure to strike the iron against the glass in such a manner as she wished, saying at the same time to the figure: "I command you Mandragora in the name of those to whom you are bound to give obedience, to know if the gentleman present will be happy in the journey which he is about to make. If so, strike three times with the iron upon the goblet". The iron struck three times as demanded without the old woman having touched any of the apparatus, much to the surprise of the two spectators. The sorceress put several other questions to the Mandragora , who struck the glass once or thrice as seemed good to him.

Pictorius (1569), pointing out the errors in other authors, asserted that Avicenna, Albertus Magnus and even Theophrastus "have impudently erred in the description of the root mandragora". The mandrake is not native to Briatain; it was often replaced by the similarly formed white bryony, invested with similar virtues and, in the United States, by the American mandrake, or May apple ( Pseudophyllum peltatum ), with a thick, yellowish, fleshly root in the mandrake tradition. The true mandrake is native to the Near East. In Israel, the leaves of the mandrake ( Mandragora vernalis ) are said to grow to be a foot long and four inches wide, but our colder climate so checks its development, that, growing in a garden bed, it looks but little larger than a well-grown primrose. It much resembles that plant also in its general appearance, since all the short-stalked flowers rise from the middle of the rosette of leaves. Its bell-shaped flowers are a pale greenish colour, have a five-cleft tubular corolla, botanically called gamopetalous, and five pale purple sepals. The blossoms appear to open but one at a time, and are succeeded by a large yellow berry or 'apple', possessing highly poisonous qualities. In the Near East the vernalis mandrake is the one which flowers in Spring and ripens about the time of the Eastern harvest. Another species, autumnalis , is described as being a very handsome plant, with rich blue flowers and wavy leaves. This plant is not often found now in the south of Israel, but upon Mount Tabor, some valleys in Nazareth, and to the south of Hebron it still grows abundantly.

There are many literary allusions to the mandrake. We have already referred to Shakespeare. "Mark how the mandrake wears his human feet, his human hands", wrote the poet Longhorne. That it was also said to shriek when torn out of the ground is echoed by Longfellow: "Or teach me where that wondrous mandrake grows,/ Whose magic root, torn from the earth with groans/ At midnight hour, can scarce the fiends away,/ And make the mind prolific in its fancies". Its shape made mandrake an obvious conception charm. Italian woman were said to pay up to thirty ducats in gold for a mandrake charm (more often than not of bryony - or even, at a pinch, of parsnip!). Many ready-made mandrake charms came into England during the reign of Henry VIII and trade was brisk. As late as 1810 the roots were sold on stalls in French seaports for use as sexual charms. In one of its various forms the mandrake charm survives to this day. Similar roots, in Japan ( Ninjin ) and in China ( Ginseng ), are held in high repute, and the prices they realize are dependent upon the extent to which they resemble the human form. In China today it can be exceedingly expensive, as in some instances the human resemblance is remarkable. At the time of the occult revival in the 1960s here in England one could be had from a reputable dealer for about four pounds sterling. Prices are now many times that valuation. Good European specimens come from Romania, from the foothills of the Carpathians, where the Transylvanian shepherds who harvest them still adhere to the old beliefs.

Many strange superstitions have gathered round the mandrake. One cannot but marvel at the stories about the plant that were received in olden days. In folklore and legend it is associated with the symbolism of fertility and wealth, provided that it is treated with care and reverence. It is a plant most prolific in superstitious and magical practices. As a manikin it foretells the future. In magical practices, although the mandrake may be found in both male and female shape, it is always regarded as the male principle. In this context it esoterically signifies the consort of Artemis-Hecate, whose presence is heralded by the howling of dogs. Its medicinal virtues and spiritual efficacy depend upon the extent to which it has a tap-root. It is however, poisonous and must be carefully prescribed to be beneficial. The narrations above regard the mandrake in its singular efficacy. Those who would study its use in combination are advised to consult such works as Picatrix , wherein it is employed in over a dozen recipes; all the traditional ingredients of sorcery accompany it there, as bat's blood and the brain of a black cat, and it is a main ingredient in the incense of Saturn, regarded of old as the most potent, evil and malignant of all the planets.