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By Caroline Tully

This series of articles is a result of Caroline's research into traditional herbs found in many flying ointment recipes and is intended to be shared with other plant historians.  Caution: Shadowplay does NOT recommend or advocate use or consumption of any of these herbs. (Use can kill you - warning!)


Mandragora Officinarum has become surrounded, throughout the ages, by so much mystery in folklore that it was eventually regarded not only as the most powerful but also the most dangerous of all the magical herbs. It came to represent everything that is mysterious and enticing in the strange world of plants.

The Mandragora species, which contain the alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscyamine, were originally indigenous to the countries in and around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is still very common around there in uncultivated wastelands and stony, uninhabited places.

The ancient Persians and Egyptians knew of the healing properties of the yellow or golden-red berries and, in particular, of the root and certainly used both parts of the plant as aphrodisiacs. Pieces of mandrake root have been found together with other burial artifacts in the royal burial chambers of the pyramids and the mandrake is discussed among other medicinal plants in the famous Ebbers Papyrus from the period 1700-1600 B.C. The mandrake is also discussed in the Old Testament of the Bible. In Genesis XXX,14-16, Rachel bartered for them with Leah so that she might become fruitful with their aid, and in the Song of Solomon VII, 11-13, the lovely young Shulamite invites her beloved to go out with her into the country where she will give him her love where the mandrakes give forth their perfume (Obviously hoping that the Mandrakes will make her lover ardent in the act of love).

It may be mentioned, as a curiosity, that an English writer Hugh J. Schofield has a theory that there is a hidden reference to the Mandrake in the story about Jesus hanging on the cross - When Jesus was given the sponge of vinegar to drink, while on the cross, it was full of mandrake juice as well, which was to have produced in him a condition resembling death so that he might sooner be taken down and then with the aid of doctors, be brought back to life. The plan miscarries when one of the soldiers unexpectedly stuck a lance into his side. Make of this what you will.

There are various ways of harvesting this mysterious plant. The Greek doctor Theophrastus (c.370-328 B.C.) says that first, three circles must be drawn around the plant with a knife, with one's face to the west the top part of the root can be cut off, then more of the root is uncovered, but before the last bit is cut free, one must dance around the plant, reciting as much as one can remember about the mysteries of love.

Pythagoras, born about 582 B.C. is said to have called the Mandrake an anthropomorph, a herb resembling a human being, and with little effort it is quite easy to imagine the root of the plant could be a little human. Not until the Roman Empire were the dangers of the Mandrake rumored. Direct contact with the plant was dangerous and so it was said that to get it out of the ground it should be tied to a dog and when the dog tries to walk away up comes the Mandrake and the dog dies; then the dog's master can safely possess the plant. This method was complicated but well worthwhile as the plant had the property of being able to drive out demons if it was merely brought into the vicinity of a possessed victim.

Elsewhere, it is stated that the dog does not have to die. Only if it enters the first of the previously mentioned circles is its fate sealed. However, later it was said that the plant utters a blood-curdling shriek when pulled from the ground and whoever heard it would die of terror.

Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian and diplomat who died in 95 A.D. relates that in a valley near the Dead Sea, there grows a wonderful plant which, at night emits a glowing red light. It is difficult to get close, for the plant withdraws when it notices someone approaching. But if one succeeds in pouring menstrual blood on it, it will keep still.

Josephus' statement that the plant shines in the dark is not without foundation. In certain weather conditions, it may happen that shall chemical particles in the night dew and on the surface of the berries combine together to produce a faint glow of light. A similar phenomenon may be observed on warm, northern summer nights where blueberries are growing.

A few generations later Aelian introduces new details; the Mandrake cannon be seen in the day because it hides among other plants, however at night it shines like a star in the darkness and one can mark the spot where it is growing and the next day be certain of which plant it is.

A radical innovation in the popular belief was that the Mandrake, now known as "gallows man" and "dragon doll", can only be grown at the foot of a gallows and only comes up where either urine or seamen from a Hanged Man has wetted the earth. But not just any old bodily fluids - they had to be the ones from an arch-criminal who acquired his thieving nature in his mother's womb.

It was not everyone's cup of tea to go out to the gallows hill to dig the mandrake root from the earth which also housed the moldering remains of rogues who had been hanged or broken on the rack. Most people would prefer to buy it. A new mandrake root cost lots of money, not surprising considering the origins and the qualities attributed to it. It made its owner invulnerable in battle and granted him deadly accuracy in the use of weapons. It cured all sicknesses and was particularly effective against those ones brought home from the battlefield of Love. It helped discover hidden treasure, become esteemed by one's fellows and lucky in love because no woman could resist the compelling power of the Mandrake!

The newly acquired mandrake should be bathed in wine, wrapped in white and red silk and covered with a black cloak. Every weekday it should be bathed again and fed, but there is disagreement as to what it should eat. The most popular opinion was that it should get communion bread which one had refrained from swallowing at church. Others thought that "a portion of fasting spittle" was what it liked best, and the learned insisted that it should be fed on the red earth of Paradise. This last idea seems hardly to agree with the medieval alchemists who coveted the Mandrake precisely because it contained some of this unique kind of earth which was so necessary as a catalyst in the production of the philosophers stone.

When the belief in the Mandrake was at its strongest, in the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, doubts began to be expressed. John Gerard (1547-1607) whose herbal was published in 1597 says about the Mandrake: "All which dreames and old wives tales you shall henceforth cast out of your books and memory, knowing this, that there are all and everie part of these stories false and most untrue. For I myselfe and my servants have also digged up, planted and re-planted very many and never could either perceive shape of man or woman, but sometimes one straight root, sometimes two and often six or seven branches coming from the maine great root, even as Nature list to bestow upon it as to other plants. But the idle drones who have nothing to do but eat and drink have bestowed some of their time in carving the roots of Brionie, forming the shapes of men and women: which falsifying practice has confirmed the error among the simple and unlearned people who have taken them upon their report as the true Mandrakes."

However, the belief in the North about the Mandrake was strongly upheld right into the 18th century, when the ironical Holberg in "Witchcraft or false alarm" lets Apelone declare that "when a wizard begets a son, he will be a dragon-doll (mandrake) which will bring money to its mother."

Not until the introduction of compulsory education did the belief in the mandrake legend die out. And yet in a few places it still lingers. Only a few years ago was there a Danish Television broadcast where an old man from South Juteland claimed in deadly earnest that one of his neighbors practiced evil witchcraft and went as far as to set his mandrake on him and others whom he did not like.

In Central and Southern Europe both the fruit and the roots were used as ingredients in aphrodisiacs and flying ointments. It is unsure whether the witches in the South always understood that the dragon-doll of the gallows hill and the beautiful little herb were identical.

The Mandrake thrives only when cultivated in light sandy soil. The seeds are sown shortly after the berries ripen. The herbs are carefully transplanted in late summer, to a sheltered, sunny and well-drained plot which is covered lightly with sprigs of spruce in the autumn.

As far as the dragon-doll is concerned, it survives only in the comic strip character Mandrake, created by Lee Falk, an American journalist. Falk's Mandrake is a mighty magician who, since 1934 has been engaged to Narda, beautiful but naive blond. The relationship has been unfruitful so far...

Published in Australia  1984 - 1990
In Seattle & Sydney 1990-1994 - and Sydney/Seattle Webzine 1999
Copyright Shadoplay 2000. All rights reserved. 
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