Mandrake

(Mandragora officinalis) Elliot Smith derived the word from Greek mandros, sleep, and agpora, object or substance, the whole meaning 'sleep-producing substance'. The English word mandrake comes through the Latin from Greek mandragora, though folk etymology tends to associate the 'drake' part of the word with 'dragon' (Latin draco). The association man + dragon then is probably an allusion to the man-like form of the plant's root. Sorcerers of the Middle Ages looked on it as something half-way between the vegetable and human kind (Valiente). The human analogy is repeated in the medieval belief that when pulled, the plant gives a dreadful shriek, which brought madness or even death to anyone who heard it. Shakespeare knew the belief, and quoted it in Romeo and Juliet, iv. Iii:

And shrieks like mandrake torn out of the earth, That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.

It actually does make a small sound when pulled from the ground, as irises and most tuberous plants do (H F Clark).

Pliny and Theophrastus said that people pulling up mandrakes first trace circles on the ground with a sword, and cut it while looking towards the west (Borges). This is probably the earlier ritual, but popular tradition involved the use of a dog. The herbalist who wanted the plant would tie the dog to it, and then retire to a safe distance and stop his ears with wax. Then he should keep to windward of the plant, in case the smell overwhelmed him (Frazer. 1917). Then he would throw a piece of meat just out of the dog's reach; the dog tugged, and the plant was pulled up - but it was the dog that died (Clair). According to Grimm, the dog used had to be a black one without a single white hair on its body, and the plant had to be pulled on a Friday, which is the day of Venus, a fact that will have significance later on. The first recorded legend of the mandrake's scream occurs in a biblical story. Reuben, tending his father's ass during the harvest, tethered the animal to the root of a mandrake. When he returned, he found that in struggling to get loose, the ass had managed to uproot the plant, with fatal consequences (H F Clark).

The 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said that in the dungeons of the castle of Machaeras at Baras, there grew a root that was flame coloured and shone like lightning on anyone who attempted to approach. When the intruder drew near, the root retreated and could only be brought to a standstill by the exercise of some rather unpleasant rites. However, he says that if the hunter was skillful enough he could lasso the root and attach the ends of the rope to a dog. Aelian, in the 2nd century AD, described a plant which he called Aglaophotis, because it shone like a star at night. The assumption is that both these plants were mandrakes, which have always been said to have the power of shining in the night. A 13th century Arab herbalist called Ebn Beitan reckoned that there may be some basis in fact for the belief - for some reason, its leaves are attractive to glow-worms, something that may very well explain the Arab name that means 'devil's candles' (H F Clark).

Another set of traditions links mandrakes with the gallows. It grew beneath them (Clair), where a man had been unjustly hanged for theft (Randolph). The plant springs from the urine voided just before death, a belief mentioned in a sentence in Pio Baroja (La leyenda de Juan deAlzate): "En Errotazar, hacia el aldo de tierra, hay, colgando, tres ahorcados, y debajo de ellos crecen esplendidamente unas mandragoras con las deyecciones de los cadaveres ...". The word 'deyecciones', though, carries the sense of any bodily detritus, rather than just urine, it may be blood (Elliot Smith), or the sex of the root. Dioscorides said that the male mandrake was white and the female black (in English folklore they are known as Mandrake and Womandrake (Frazer. 1917) ), for the sex of the root was determined by the sex of the malefactor hanging on the gallows (H F Clark). If not under the gallows, mandrake could be found at cross-roads, where suicides had been buried.

People went to great lengths to get this gallows mandrake, for it was said to become a sort of familiar spirit, speaking in oracles when properly consulted, and bringing good luck to the household (Elton). Or it was said that being Satan's plant, and constantly watched over by him, the devil himself would appear to do one's bidding, so long as the proper ceremonies were observed when the plant was pulled, and again each time it was consulted. (Dyer. 1889). In 1579 a prosperous Leipzig burgher wrote to his brother in Riga; the latter had complained at the sudden death of his cattle, and the souring of his wine in the cellar. The Leipzig brother enclosed a mandrake which he had got from the town hangman for 65 thalers. He advised his brother to receive the mandrake into his house, to bathe it in warm water, and to sprinkle this water on the cattle and on the thresholds of his house. He had to do this every day for four years, keeping the mandrake wrapped in a silk cloth, and put in with his best clothes (H F Clark). Grimm confirmed the general belief, and said that a mandrake was so much of a valued family possession in Germany that it was customary for it to pass on the death of the father to the youngest son, on condition that he buried a morsel of bread with his father's body in the coffin. Such beliefs would provoke deep suspicion among those in authority - for instance, one of the accusations levelled at Joan of Arc at her trial was that of having a mandragora in her possession (Randolph). The plant was associated in medieval German belief with the Alraun, a devilish spirit in human form, and also the early name of the mandrake there. The Alraun revealed all secret things touching the welfare of the family; it made them rich, removed their enemies, doubled every piece of coin laid under it, and seems to have had an influence on the fertility of marriages (H F Clark), though you must not overwork it, otherwise it would go stale, or even die (Frazer. 1917). This gift of doubling money has an echo in Scandinavian and Icelandic folklore; there it was said that if the owner of a mandrake root were to steal a coin from a widow during a celebration of mass at either Christmas, Easter or Whitsun, and put it under the root, this coin would draw to itself from the pockets of the congregation all those of a similar denomination (H F Clark). There is a somewhat similar French belief. Mandrake, it was said, was to be found at the foot of oaks that bore mistletoe, as deep in the earth as the mistletoe was high on the tree. The man who found it was under an obligation to give it meat or bread every day, a service which must never cease, otherwise the mandrake would kill him. To make up for this, the plant would give back twofold next day what had been given it the day before (H F Clark).

If the Alraun looked after the fertility of German married couples in its care, in Greece the mandrake became a symbol of the golden apples of Aphrodite, or of Aphrodite herself. Elliot Smith discussed this connection at some length. As its name Love-apple (this is what the Hebrew name dudaim means) suggests, it was reckoned to have aphrodisiac as well as narcotic properties. This was the reason it was dedicated to the goddess. So also, it should be gathered on a Friday, the day of the goddess (Bonser). Theo-phrastus, in the 4th century BC, recommended the root, scraped and soaked in vinegar, as an aphrodisiac (Dyer. 1889). One of the Egyptian names means phallus of the field, and an Arabic name was devil's testicles (Ellis). It was the fruit that was to be used; it had the power, so it was said, to put an end to barrenness, quite independently of sexual intercourse. See Genesis 30; 14-16. Rachel bargained for the mandrake with her sister Leah (by giving up her husband to her). She afterwards bore, though she had previously been barren, her first-born, Joseph (Hartland. 1909). The plant had been found in the fields by Reuben, and given by him to his mother Leah on the night of the conception of Issachar (Bonser). Palestinian women quite often used to bind a piece of the root to their arm (for it could only exert its magical influence if worn in contact with the skin) (G E Smith), to promote their fertility (Emboden. 1979), and figures cut from the roots were also worn as amulets by both men and women (Budge). Henry Mandrell, travelling in Palestine in 1697, was told that it was then customary for women who wanted children, particularly male children, to put mandrake under the bed. The Persians used it for the same purpose - they called it man's root, or love-root, and used it as an amulet (Hartland.1909). Even in the early part of the 20th century, American Jews still believed in the power of the mandrake to induce fertility. They used to import specimens of the root from the Near East just for this purpose (Randolph).

Of course, mandrake had been known from early times in Greece as a medicinal plant, but probably all the complicated ritual for pulling it up was to ensure its efficacy as a love charm. By the 17th century the root had become so sought after that itinerant hawkers began to make mandrake figures, which they sold very profitably to childless women. The carvers became so skillful that these images were preferred to natural roots. They are still sold in the Near East - they reveal hidden treasures underground, and cure their owner of chronic illnesses, by absorbing it into themselves. But a new owner was apt to contract the malady that the previous owner had transferred to the plant (Frazer. 1917). In modern Cairo, drug sellers give pills made from the roots to young couples about to be married, and wanting a large family of boys. The ultimate testimonial to mandrake's aphrodisiac effects occurs in a Middle English bestiary of about the middle of the 13th century. Speaking of elephants, it says "they are so cold by nature that they think of no lasciviousness till they partake of a plant whose name is mandragora" (Bonser). It was the female that brought the mandrake to the male. Then, legend has it, the two journey eastward to Paradise, where they eat the root, copulate, and the female immediately conceives, remains pregnant for two years, and finally gives birth - but only once. Medieval bestiaries would depict the elephants standing near the mandrake root (see Hassig).

In countries where the mandrake was not a native, it quickly became identified with plants that had some similarity, usually in the way the root grew. In Britain, Black Bryony, Cuckoo-pint, Enchanter's Nightshade, and White Bryony, particularly the last named, were known in local dialects as mandrake (Watts. 2000), and drew many mandrake superstitions to themselves (see below). True mandrake is not common as a wild plant, nor is it easy to grow, facts that added to its assumed value. In all probability it was either in order to protect it from indiscriminate use and consequent possible extermination that the myth of danger in digging the plant was allowed to grow up (H G Baker), or to keep the common man from getting hold of the drug by his own efforts, and so destroying the market (Emboden. 1979). That drug was important. The root juices were extracted by boiling; it was probably the first anaesthetic, and could be prepared simply by steeping the root, or boiling it in wine, then a draught could be given before surgery, and the pain possibly dulled (H F Clark). A 5th century work has the observation "If anyone is to have a member amputated, cauterized, or sawed, let him drink an ounce and a half in wine; he will sleep until the member is taken off, without either pain or sensation", and so on through the early herbals (see, too, Blunt & Raphael). Mixing it with lettuce seed and mulberry leaves would make it more potent. It is said that the first volatile anaesthetic was a sponge boiled in such a mixture and held under the face of the patient. Roman women, out of compassion, used to offer a soporific sponge of this "gall" to the victims of crucifixion, and it has been said that the sponge of vinegar offered to Christ on the Cross was in fact this anaesthetic (H F Clark) - it has even been said that it put Christ into trance state for three days, and he never died at all (Emboden. 1979). Mixed with morphine, mandrake has been used to produce "twilight sleep" (H G Baker). But of course, it is a powerful poison, and too much of it could bring on madness, paralysis or death- what the myths in fact said about the dangers of pulling it up.

For a very long time, it has been known that mandrake has a smell which could have some effect on the nervous system (H F Clark), like depriving one of the power of speech (Borges). Pliny warned his readers about it. In the Song of Solomon there is written, "the mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved". No suggestion there of unpleasant effects produced by the smell; it is probably a reference to a belief that the smell itself is a sleeping draught. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was the custom to put a mandrake at the head of a labour bed, more from the belief in its magic than with any idea of dulling the pain. It was used also for mental disorders of various kinds, the idea being generally to produce sleep. Many ancient writers alluded to it as a remedy for insomnia (Randolph). The leaves have been used in various ways; they have been read as tea leaves, applied to ulcers, taken as emetics (so has the root). Even today, they are sometimes used in ointments (Brownlow); they seem to have a soothing and cooling effect, good for erysipelas and other similar complaints (Randolph). But the modern mandrake of the pharmacists is that of the North American Podophyllum peltatum, the May-apple.

Anthropomorphism is carried to its extreme in one of the early medical texts. St Hildegard, inspired by the shape in which the root habitually grew, says in her Physics, "if a man suffers from any infirmity in the head, let him eat of the head of this plant; or, if he suffers in the neck, let him eat of the neck", etc., (Bonser).

But in England it was BRYONY, both WHITE BRYONY (Bryonia dioica) and BLACK BRYONY (Tamus communis), two entirely unrelated plants, that was taken to be mandrake, and credited with the same powers and attributes. Imitation mandrake puppets used to be made out of the roots, often used by witches in malevolent charms: "they take likewise the roots of mandrake, according to some, or, as I rather suppose, the roots of briony, which simple folk take for the true mandrake, and make thereof an ugly image, by which they represent the person on whom they intend to exercise their witchcraft" (Coles). People could open the earth round a young bryony, taking care not to disturb the lower fibres, and then put a mould round the root, after which it could all be covered up again, and then left. The mould, of course, would have to bear some resemblance to a human figure. Bryonies grow very quickly, and the object was generally accomplished in one summer. The leaves were also sold for those of mandrake, though there is no resemblance. The chief use of the root in England was as a fertility stimulant, and in some parts, Lincolnshire, for instance, it was looked on as a specific for ensuring that women conceived (Gutch & Peacock). In East Anglia, a childless woman would drink "mandrake tea" (Porter. 1969), presumably made from the roots, but not necessarily so. They were even given to mares as an aid to conception (Drury. 1985). All this had by 1646 attracted the attention of Sir Thomas Browne, who dismissed it like any other superstition: "... for the roots [of mandrake] which are carried about by impostors to deceive unfruitful women, are made from the roots of canes, briony, and other plants; for in these, yet fresh and virent, they carve out the figures of men and women, first sticking therein the grains of barley or millet where they intend the hair to grow; then bury them in sand until the grains shoot forth their roots which, at the longest, will happen in twenty days; they afterwards clip and trim these tender strings in the fashion of beards and other hairy teguments.".

English Mandrake is a widespread name for white bryony (Brownlow), though Mandrake itself is even more widespread. There is a Lincolnshire form, Woman Drake, that shows that the word has been misunderstood. Granted, bryony is dioecious, so the male and female are different plants, but is this sufficient explanation of the name? Especially as in that county it is the Black Bryony (Tamus communis) that is the mandrake (Rudkin).

The forked root of GINSENG was treated like the human form, just like Mandrake; it would seem that the whole of the mandrake legend spread to China, and became attached to ginseng (G E Smith).

-Manihot esculenta > CASSAVA

MANIOC > CASSAVA

Enneagram Essentials

Enneagram Essentials

Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment