Plant Lore: The Magical Mandrake
What Is a Mandrake?
A mandrake is a plant in the nightshade family that is rich in folklore and history. Its technical name is Mandragora officinarum, and it grows mainly in the countries closest to the Mediterranean Sea, though gardeners around the world now grow it for its unique aesthetic and history. Mandrake is a perennial with a long stem but barely any trunk. The leaves almost resemble a cabbage or some sort of edible green, but they are not edible! The flowers range in color from white to purple and have a similarity to the Belladonna's blooms. The mandrake also produces berries that are yellow to reddish and look similar to tomatoes.
The mandrake's toxicity is due to the chemicals inherent in the entire plant, mostly the stem and leaves: anticholinergics, hallucinogenics, and psychotic alkaloids. This plant can be found in Southern European countries like Italy and Spain but is also found in North African countries like Morocco and Tunisia. If ingested, the mandrake can cause one to stop breathing and die at worst, at best can cause profuse vomiting and diarrhea. Take heed if working with this plant!
Ancient History of the Mandrake
The mandrake has been known widely in the Middle East since ancient times. The proof of this is that it is mentioned in the Bible: three times in Genesis and once in Songs of Solomon. Modern Arabs known this plant as Beid el Jinn, which means Eggs of the Jinn (the Jinn are spirits in Islamic mythology often related to demons). Just by this name, we can deduce that mandrakes are thought of as dangerous and potentially evil in modern Middle East. In ancient Middle East, the mandrake was used for various purposes, both medicinal and magical. Those in the medical field claimed to have used the mandrake to put their patients in a sedated state in order to perform surgeries or to relieve pain. Others claim use of the mandrake as an aphrodisiac (as mentioned in the book of Genesis in the story of Leah and Rachel), and still more claim the mandrake as a protective charm against evil spirits.
Ancient legends claim that to pull up a mandrake root would certainly lead to sickness and/or immediate death. It was thought that the mandrake would let out a "scream" when uprooted, and so often people would tie a rope to an animal and then to the plant and allow the animal to pull the plant up consequently killing the animal and not the human. The mandrake root was then typically sold off for a high price, as its magical properties were popularly known. Some say the root was then carved to look more like a human shape, while others claim they come up out of the ground looking human-like. The root can grow up to two feet long, so maybe both assumptions were correct.
The mandrake was also called the Drug of Circe. Circe was an ancient Greek goddess known for her transformative and lusty powers. She is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey from the eighth century BC, and she is said to have been skilled in herbalism, particularly poisonous herbs like the mandrake. She employed toxins in her practice to gain control over men, turning them into animal-like creatures and keeping them as servants in her house on a mystical island known as Aeaea.
The Medieval Mandrake: The Witch's Tool
The mandrake plant is known as the alraun in Germany, dating back to at least the Medieval ages. There are stories about the alraun being dug up, sold for copious amounts of money, and kept within families to be passed down from generation to generation. It was thought to be a very powerful talisman and protective charm to these families, and out of respect for the plant they would wrap it in silk and keep it in a box. The alraun would be taken out and carefully bathed in wine or brandy up to four times a year. The remnants of the washing liquid would then be sprinkled about the family's house as a protective charm. We can see animism was a big part of the origins of this tradition, as the mandrake is treated almost like a small human being. I have confirmed that one can still purchase the alraun in Germany today, and that it is still used in the same manner as it was hundreds of years ago.
The mandrake has a long history in the realm of witchcraft. Not only did the common people and royalty use it, but so did a plethora of accused witches during the Dark Ages up through the Early Modern Period in various countries throughout Europe. While the mandrake grew naturally in the Mediterranean region, the distribution of it spread out through the Northern, Eastern, and Western European countries over time. The mandrake became an essential ingredient in the infamous and dangerous witch's flying ointment, according to grimoires dating to the Dark Ages. It was thought to be a powerful hallucinogen, but also a powerful aphrodisiac (this probably relates to the use of it in biblical times to help a woman conceive). If used in conjunction with other toxic herbs and rubbed externally on the witch's skin, it could make the witch feel as if she is "flying"...or to put it simply get her high or send her on a "trip". This is thought to be the origin of the image of the "flying witch" on her broomstick through the night sky. Witches didn't actually physically fly...they got high and flew in their minds or potentially engaged in astral projection by means of the mandrake root along with a few other well-known toxic plants such as belladonna, henbane, and poppy.
The mandrake was seen during Medieval times as a sort of anthropomorphic vegetable - a plant that was also human-like. Therefore whoever possessed the mandrake might also possess a powerful familiar spirit to do his or her bidding. This was known to many all over Europe and this is why they were so sought after and expensive to purchase. Witches were accused of having mandrake roots and keeping them as familiar spirits, as documented in Witch Trial cases. In fact, Joan of Arc herself was accused of having a mandrake familiar spirit to which she denied to be true.
The mandrake's leaves were said to glow at night, giving it an even more magical air and adding to its mystique. Later it would be discovered that the glow worm was attracted to the leaves and the worms gave the leaves their iridescent shine at night...not the plant itself.
There is no plant quite as magical and mysterious as the mandrake.— Nicole Canfield
The Mandrake Today
The mandrake root is still thought of as magical in modern times. This is mainly because of the resurgence or revival of the "Old Ways", if you will, in the form of modern day paganism and witchcraft. Pagans and witches the world over seek their own mandrake root to use as a talisman, protective charm, to use in flying ointments, or to simply have as a collectible because of the plant's rich history.
In Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, the mandrake's magical properties include: love, fertility, protection, money and health. It is related to the element of fire with a masculine energy, and is also associated with the deities Hecate and Hathor. Cunningham warns against the consumption of mandrake, as he should, due to its lethal toxins. He also states you can place a mandrake under your pillow for dream magic, as well as use it in a windowsill as a protective charm.
Mandrakes are even popular in modern pop culture, as they are featured in the books and films of Harry Potter by JK Rowling. More specifically, Harry and his cohorts help cultivate and harvest the "screaming" mandrake root in Herbology class. The whole purpose to the mandrake root, as stated by their Herbology teacher, was to help create a medicine that would un-petrify a few of the students who had been petrified in the castle. You can watch the mandrakes scream as they are pulled from their pots in the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
With such a rich history and unique characteristics, the mandrake does not seem to be disappearing in the annals of time. The mandrake will be talked about, written about, and loved for centuries to come!
Make Your Own Mandrake!
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© 2017 Nicole Canfield