I took a course called Plants and Civilization at Colorado State University in the spring of 2011. It was based around the book Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and is where I think my love of plants became truly solidified. I wrote this piece for my final paper and am very proud of it so I now have it published on the interweb for those who, like me, love plants and how they relate to humans.
Throughout history the mandrake has been given a reputation as both sacred and sinister in many aspects of human culture. Evidence of both views can be found in language, uses and the rituals surrounding it. The words people used to describe this plant include the ancient Greek word, “Love apples,” and the Arabic word, “Devil’s testicles;” (Thompson, 1968) other words in other cultures depended on the sex, use and part of the plant a person is referred to (Zarcone, 2005). Various reasons are given for why this plant became a thing to cherish and a thing to fear; the mandrake was loved because it was considered an aphrodisiac and could increase fertility but it was also distressing due to it’s magic and it’s poison (Bennett, 1991).
The mandrake is a perennial herb and member to a family that includes both foul and beneficial plants: the Solanaceae family (Simoons, 1998). Some relatives include edible plants such as the potato and the tomato and poisonous plants like deadly nightshade. (Simoons, 1998). The substances that make up a mandrake are also conflicting. All mandrake species contain up to 0.4% alkaloids (Rätsch 1992). The chief active ingredient is scopolamine, a hallucinogen and a poison (Bennett, 1991). Another major substance in mandrakes is atropine, which is found in highest levels in the roots of flowering mandrake and is known to cause the pupil dilation and got it’s name from Atropos, one of three Greek Fates who chose how a person would die (Hanus et al., 2007). The heavy, fruity, provocative odor of the fruit of a mandrake, which is mentioned in a love poem in the Christian Bible, comes from over 100 different components including ethyl butyrate, hexanol and hexyl acetate (Hanus et al., 2005).
There were many rituals surrounding the collection of a mandrake, some due to the evils associated with the plant, others due to the good. The evil associations begin in Europe where it was believed that mandrakes only grew beneath the gallows from the matter of the hanged person (Simoons, 1998). Daleschamps went so far as to say that mandrakes only were produced from the sperm of hanged men or men crushed on a wheel but not from women because “female sperm cannot be prolific on its own” (Zarcone, 2005). In Iran, it was believed that the mandrake was produced from the blood of a god or primeval giant that was killed violently (Zarcone, 2005). Because of these beliefs, one rule for collection stated that mandrakes could only be collected beneath gallows or at crossroads, especially where suicide was involved (Simoons, 1998).
New rules and formulas for digging up mandrakes began popping up in various areas of the world; the most common ritual involved the use of a dog. In Roman, Greek, Persian and Turkish there are various forms of words that refer to the mandrake and mean human plant (Simoons, 1998) because it is thought to look like a man due to the thick, fleshy root’s resemblance to the human-form (Beahm, 2005), and the rootlets give the impression of hair for a beard (Zarcone, 2005). Many cultures believed that the mandrake was a living spirit that would shriek when uprooted killing the digger (Rätsch, 1992). In a Persian engraving a man is seen wearing a turban to protect his ears and pulling up a mandrake with the assistance of a dog (Zarcone, 2005) because dogs were often employed to pull up the roots. The owner of the dog would starve the dog for a few days then they would tie a string between the dog and the plant and lure the dog with food (Thompson, 1968). The dog would pull up the plant and die from the shriek; the digger would be safe to collect the mandrake (Rätsch, 1992). In South Europe and Southwest Asia, the dog’s that were used to pull up mandrakes were sometimes honored, and the bodies were burned (Simoons, 1998). If one wanted to avoid the loss of a dog when digging the plant, a pole was used instead. If you stuck the pole deeply in the ground and bent it before tying a string between its end and the mandrake, the pole would pull the mandrake from the ground as it righted itself (Zarcone, 2005).
Some good rituals involved circles, dancing and love poems. The circles were used both to prevent the mandrake from fleeing and to mark possession over the mandrake (Simoons, 1998). One rule said that the herbalist must surround the mandrake when trying to collect it or it will run away (Zarcone, 2005). Theophrastus said that three circles should be drawn around the plant with a sword (Simoons, 1998). One person should face west and cut the mandrake from the ground while the other dances around it speaking of love (Simoons, 1998). In Romania, girls would collect mandrake in the nude, they would then prostrate themselves three times toward the east and walk around the plant three times while reciting magic formulas, each of these actions were meant to increase fertility (Simoons, 1998).
Other rituals stated suitable times for collection including: midnight, on Fridays before sunrise, or on Tuesdays in December or March when the sun is shining (Simoons, 1998). The collection of mandrake in Romania often required the assistance of a sorceress, or “old wise woman” and was conducted in secret at night when there was a full moon (Simoons, 1998). Another ritual stated that to reveal the roots, or feet and hands of the mandrake, one must use an ivory spade (Zarcone, 2005).
Mandrakes were heavily traded throughout Europe (Simoons, 1998). The plant was rare and it was perilous to collect, therefore it was often extremely expensive (Rätsch, 1992). The plants were so important to families that they were often passed down through wills (Simoons, 1998). Mandrakes were carved to render them more lifelike, increase their value and to fool barren women who were eager to buy them (Gordon, 1977). Soon, many false mandrakes began to appear on the market: ginger, ginseng, May apple, orchids, celandine and the English mandrake; (Rätsch, 1992) bryony and deadly nightshade were most often used as fakes especially in Romania (Simoons, 1998). Often the falsifier would go to great lengths to create a false mandrake: carving, pressing, and wet-molding (Simoons, 1998). After creating a human shape, the counterfeit was placed in the ground to hide any bruises and imperfections with re-growth; (Simoons, 1998) this practice was exposed in 1567 (Gordon, 1977). For the next hundred years misguided people still bought the counterfeits and herbalists continued to speak out against them (Gordon, 1977). Why did people want mandrakes so badly that they’d spend a fortune on one, even a fake?
Uses for the mandrake, both the noble and the criminal, are found in many cultures around the world. One such use was as an aphrodisiac and a fertility boost, therefore witches in medieval Europe used them in love potions (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889). Egyptians believed that the mandrake increased fertility (Rätsch, 1992). Jewish people used to lay a mandrake under the bed to ensure conception (Simoons, 1998). The possession of a mandrake meant many things for the owner especially awakened love and fertility (Rätsch, 1992). In Persia if you gave a mandrake to a person of desire without their knowledge they would return your feelings (Simoons, 1998). Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love was often called Mandragoritis, which means “she of the mandrake” (Simoons, 1998). The plant was also often worn as an amulet for purity (Simoons, 1998). In Romania the mandrake was used as a charm or talisman, in bath water for washing, and in food and drink as well as many other ways; these uses resulted in early marriage because young girls received more invitations, became better dancers and aroused passions in young men (Simoons, 1998).
The Christian Bible mentions the word dudaïm twice, which nearly all scholars now believe to mean mandrakes (Thompson, 1968). Genesis 30:14 states “During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the field and found mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’” Rachel was having a hard time conceiving and wanted the mandrakes for fertility (Thompson, 1968). In the Song of Solomon there is a love poem that says, “The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover” (Thompson, 1968). The mandrake is also mentioned in six of William Shakespeare’s plays and was a common theme in many German and French novels of the Romantic period (Zarcone, 2005)
In the Physiologus, or “Naturalist” bestiary of the medieval times there is a story called “On the Elephant.” In the story there are two elephants, one male, one female. They go off to the land of paradise and the female elephant tricks the male into eating some mandrake. The female then becomes pregnant (Simoons, 1998). The story is reminiscent of that of Adam and Eve in the Christian Bible with the mandrake representing the forbidden fruit of knowledge. A story about an ancient king, Hermanos, states that the king, who had no children and was not attracted to women, asked a sage for advice. The sage told him to wait for an astrologically opportune time to obtain a mandrake and put some semen on it to create a child by alchemy. In the legend this is how the king had children (Simoons, 1998).
The mandrake, when used as a protector was worn or kept safe rather than ingested (Simoons, 1998). The possession of a mandrake could mean that good fortune would be found in both business and play, health, protection from spells and ghosts, divination would become possible and immortality would be within reach (Rätsch, 1992). In Silesia, Thuringia and Bohemia, the mandrake was connected to hidden treasure (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889). In Turkey, mandrake was used as a talisman to protect the owner against blows, stabs, and bullets (Simoons, 1998). It was also believed that the owner could become invisible while wearing it (Simoons, 1998). In Southern Slovakia people bathed their mandrake in milk, dried it carefully and watched over the chest it was kept in (Simoons, 1998).
In both Germany and France, where the mandrake was a popular theme of many novels of the romantic period, the owner of a well cared for mandrake would not become impoverished (Simoons, 1998). In both countries, people washed their mandrake regularly in water or red wine, clothed it in silk or velvet, fed it and gave it drink twice a day and stored it in an upholstered box (Simoons, 1998). They also believed that money placed beside a planted mandrake would increase or double (Simoons, 1998). Also in France, the mandrake was considered a special elf called a main de gloire (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889). Whoever found one of these mains de gloire was to give him food everyday and he would bring good fortune otherwise the main de gloire would cause the finder to die (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889). In Saintonge, Bay of Biscay, France, fisherman would wear necklaces and bracelets of mandrake to prevent accidents (Simoons, 1998). In Germany the mandrake was made into little idles (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889) and were kept in sealed glass bottles because they were believed to be familiar spirits that would bring good fortune and prosperity to the household (Simoons, 1998). But the magic of the mandrake was also feared.
Due to the Christian fear of the mandrake the writers of the Bible when writing the Song of Solomon lists plants that are associated with the Virgin Mary: grapevines, apples, figs and pomegranates. Mandrakes are decidedly not on the list because of their poison they are associated with poisonous women such as witches (Bennett, 1991). Witches were those women who were learned in plant lore, the mandrake was a common ingredient in witches’ philters (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889) and ointments, which allowed witches to go on magical internal journeys (Rätsch, 1992). Black witches practiced dark magic and white witches worked toward good, there were also half-hearted gray witches; (Gordon, 1977) the Christian Church oppressed these women equally. In France in 1603 a woman was hanged for owning a mandrake and in Germany in 1630 three women were executed, also for possession; mandrakes were also burned by order of Franciscans (Simoons, 1998). The mandrake was one of many plants that were dedicated to Hecate, the Greek goddess who taught magic. Mandrake is sometimes called “Plant of Circe,” circaea, circaeum or circaeon, because Circe is one of Hecate’s two daughters (the other is Medea) who used magic brews to turn men into swine, as seen in the Odyssey by Homer (Gordon, 1977). Another use for the mandrake was for medicine.
The mandrake was used both as a useful, healing treatment and a vicious, harmful venom. It was thought to be a cure-all by medieval naturalist who believed it could heal everything but death (Simoons, 1998). The roots, fruits seeds and leaves were used variously for juices, wine, oil, ointment, plaster, pills, etc. (Simoons, 1998). Mandrake was applied externally as a painkiller, both internally and externally to treat snakebites, and internally to treat fever (Simoons, 1998). Plasters and poultices made of mandrake were used to reduce inflammation; other mandrake mixtures were used as eye medicine, and to treat tumors, abscesses, ulcers, wounds and gout (Simoons, 1998). Mandrake was also used as an emetic to expel phlegm, bile, menstrua or embryo (Simoons, 1998). St. Hildegard of Bingen believed that if you had a sore foot you should eat the foot of a mandrake, if your head ached, eat the head of the plant, for neck or back problems eating the neck or back of a mandrake would restore you, etc. (Simoons, 1998). In many cultures the mandrake was believed to take a disease from the owner (Simoons, 1998). The mandrake could recover from the disease if it was not well cared for but it could also pass the disease on to the next owner (Simoons, 1998).
The juice of the mandrake was used as an anti-inflammatory for the eyes and as a means to regulate the menstrual cycle (Zarcone, 2005). According to Dioscorides, the mandrake could be used to treat insomnia and to reduce the sensitivity to pain (Zarcone, 2005). The mandrake leaves shine brightly at night, because of this it was often associated with the moon and used to treat illnesses associated with the moon such as epilepsy and possession (lunacy) (Simoons, 1998). In the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, mandrakes are the only effective cure for “petrification.” When Hogwarts students are petrified from the indirect glare of a basilisk (a giant serpent) they are taken to Madam Pomfrey. She uses a potion made from sliced mandrakes to cure petrified students (Beahm, 2005).
Mandrake was most commonly used as an anesthetic and a sleep agent. The words mandros means “to sleep” and agora means “an object or substance” (Bennett, 1992). In Roman texts, there is a place called the “Isle of Dreams,” the harbor city was called Sleep and the trees surrounding the place were poppies and mandragoras (Simoons, 1998). In early Greek and Latin writings it is said that the mandrake was placed under the patient’s pillow to induce sleep, a concoction of the roots and dried fruit was made into sleeping pills, a mixture of mandrake with wine or vinegar was another sleep stimulator (Simoons, 1998). Dioscorides said that the mandrake “would send people to sleep during medical procedures” (Zarcone, 2005).
Simoons writes of three stories in which the drugging power of the mandrake is prominent. Plato wrote the first of a ship captain who’s mutinous crew drugged him and took over. A Roman soldier and author told the second story of a soldier named Maharbal who led his troops into Africa to end a rebellion. Marharbal knew of the African’s fondness for wine and staged a minor skirmish before retreating. He left baggage and some mandrake wine behind, which the Africans drank. When all the Africans were asleep Marharbal returned and took them prisoner. Polyaenus, a Macedonian who lived in Rome wrote the third story in which Caesar escaped his kidnappers using mandrake. Caesar had been kidnapped by pirates and requested to send a message to his troops demanding ransom. His soldiers brought many treasures, including mandrake wine, to barter for Caesar’s life. The pirates drank the wine and fell asleep allowing Caesar to escape with all the treasures and his troops. To contrast these healing medicinal uses there are also harmful medicinal uses or side-effects of usage.
Symptoms from ingestion of a tincture in a 19th century study included pupil dilation, vision enlargement and confusion, exaggeration of sound, brain fullness, hysterical excitement (Simoons, 1998). A Welsh saying states that a person who uproots a mandrake (black byrony) will die within a year, while groaning, raving or reciting prayers for having committed the offense. (Simoons, 1998) An Arabic belief was that sufficient quantities could bring elation and agitation to the point of insanity (Simoons, 1998). A Persian belief was if you give an unaware person mandrake they would develop a violent passion. If you add some mandrake to lemon juice or curdled milk the person will go insane (Simoons, 1998). In Southern Slovakia they thought that if a mandrake were cut open while being dug up the digger would go insane (Simoons, 1998). Even today in Romania some people believe the mandrake brings madness (Simoons, 1998). Other symptoms include increased blood pressure, an increase or decrease in muscle tonus and a decrease in secretion activity like saliva and gastric juices (Hanus, 2007).
From the time it was introduced to Dioscorides by the Greek goddess of discovery (Thiselton, 1889) to present day when the mandrake is still considered sacred among Bedouins of Israel (Rätsch, 2005), the mandrake has had it’s ups and downs in human culture. The mandrake is the oldest known narcotic plant (Rushman, 1996). The fruit was found in the tomb of Tut Ankh Amun (Gordon, 1977) meaning it was important to that Pharaoh. The decline of the mandrake can be attributed to the availability of better painkillers and to the fact that the claims about its powers were never tested or confirmed (Simoons, 1998). Phillip Miller discovered that the mandrake did not scream when pulled up (Gordon, 1977), dogs were no longer needed and the magic of the plant was lost. Soon after his discovery the mandrake became a mere good luck charm (Gordon, 1977). After the mandrake was removed from the English pharmacopoeia in 1746 it was never restored. In modern medicine it is completely obsolete and considered only in folk medicine (Simoons, 1998).
Today mandrakes are still found hanging on the walls in Palestinian houses, but the meaning is unknown. Both the use of a dog and a pole to dig up a mandrake were used in Italy (Zarcone, 2005) and in various Germanic countries the pole method was used within the last century (Zarcone, 2005). The only medical use for mandrake today is that it is found in many eye drops that are used to paralyze the eye muscle and dilate the pupil (Kramer, 2007). The former magic and mystery surrounding the mandrake, which made it so popular in so many cultures, is now gone. This may not prove the mandrake to be evil but it is certainly no longer useful or good.