Friday, May 17, 2013

Mandrake: Magical Roots in History

Though this plant is unfit for consumption, it deserves special mention.

Shrouded in mystery and lore, Mandrake, one of the most important magical plants of the Middle Ages, has been all but forgotten. The myths and tales that have followed this notorious human-shaped root through the Ages have been dispelled. However, recent films, such as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Harry Potter" have brought it back into the limelight once again.

 The Greek name from which the word mandrake stems is 'Mandragora', which simply implies that it is a plant which is harmful to cattle. Some of its infamous nicknames include Satan's Apple and Love Apple, due to its sweet apple-scented fruits.  It is in the same botanical family as the the edible tomato, potato and eggplant (deadly nightshade) and originates in the eastern Mediterranean region. It can be found throughout southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.

Mandrake Mythology 

Mandrake has long been used in magic rituals. It's said to be a key ingredient in love magic and a bringer of luck if worn in an amulet. It is still used today in contemporary pagan traditions such as Wicca
It contains hallucinogenic alkaloids and the roots have bifurcations, or divisions, which can cause them to resemble human figures. According to legend, when the root is dug up it screams and kills all who hear it. Literature includes complex directions for harvesting a mandrake root in relative safety.

Josephus (c. AD 37 – c. 100) gives the following directions for pulling it up:
A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then tries to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear. 

The Doctrine of Signatures

  • The Doctrine of Signatures is a philosophy of medicinal plant use embraced until the 17th century, dictating that plants are used to treat problems based on the part of the human body the plant resembles. For example, the idea that walnuts, which resemble the brain, help improve memory (and has been proven). Since the mandrake root resembles a human body, it was considered useful for curing sterility and many other diseases. 

    Medieval Medicinal Uses 

    Today it is not used medicinally, but Mandrake was known to have narcotic properties and was often used as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. The ancients were well aware of the fact that this powerful little plant could be dangerous if taken in excessive quantities and that the sleep it helped to induce could become a permanent state of being. However, since in those days safe and effective anaesthetics were not so easy to come by they felt compelled to experiment with the most promising plants they knew. 

Mandrake, along with Poppy, Thornapple, Henbane and Belladonna, produced positive results if one could get the dosage just right. The preferred method of administration was to make a concoction of some or all of these plants and let the patient inhale the vapors via a sponge, which if done properly, would induce a profound sleep so the surgeon could go about his business of cutting and sawing off limbs. Thank goodness for modern medicine!

Interested in growing your very own Mandrake plant?

Visit Hermione's Garden

Mandrake potting scene from "Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets"

1 comment:

  1. In Genesis (30 15) Rachel pimped out her husband, Jacob, for mandrakes found by her sister Leah's son. God was happy, and opened Rachel's womb.