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
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...