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The Magic History of Mandrake

Updated on May 29, 2013

Plant extracts containing alkaloids have been used as medicine, poison, ointments or potions since the dawn of human societies. Among those most used plants are some species of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and within this family there is one in particular that has been known and used since Greek times – mandrake; Mandragora officinarum L. as its scientific name coined by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Probably, in Europe, its use and popularity peaked in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period during which it had many uses, from medicinal, ritual, religious or simply as a lucky charm. As we will see the reasons behind its popularity and wide use are several, many of which related with some peculiar morphological features of this perennial European plant.

Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum
Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum
Detail on mandrake flowers.
Detail on mandrake flowers. | Source
Mandrake root.
Mandrake root. | Source

The Unusual Looks of Mandrake

Mandrake is a perennial herb native from Central and Southern Europe, especially the Mediterranean basin, with a very large brown taproot compared to the rest of the plant body. The root, of carrot shape, can grow as large as 1.2 m in length. It is usually forked and much branched and sometimes takes a form resembling the human body, although here one must add that this feature is much dependent on the opinion and eyes of the observer. Nevertheless, this particular and unusual form of the root has been one of the factors behind its wide use and popularity. Although roots resembling the human body are not specific to mandrake as they have been observed in other plant species (e.g. ginseng (Panax sp.), Chinese knotweed (Fallopia multiflora)). The leaves of mandrake are wrinkled, dark green and ovate, usually up to 50 cm long, arranged in rosette from which stalks of whitish-green or purple flowers emerge. The plant is also famous for its strong and unusual scent which some attributed narcotic effects. Also, for some reason, mandrake attracts fireflies that make the plant leaves glow at night. This fact can be so impressive that one of the many names for which mandrake was known was Devil’s candles. The fruits are fleshy orange to red aromatic berries, resembling small tomatoes. Arabs called them Devil’s apples because they considered them with aphrodisiac properties, thus prone to temptation. Like many members of the Solanaceae family, all parts of mandrake are poisonous to humans. The most toxic part of the plant is the root due to its function as a reserve organ, thus presenting higher concentration of several toxic chemicals, namely alkaloids: atropine; scopolamine; hyoscyamine (daturine) among others. Its effects can cause many other symptoms that go from delusions, hypnotic state, bradycardia, delirium, vomiting and even death.

Detail on mandrake fruits.
Detail on mandrake fruits. | Source

The Screaming Mandrake

It was believed that mandrake had magical powers, having a spirit of its own and was thus often used in witchcraft rituals. Mandrake was considered in many societies as having medicinal, narcotic and aphrodisiac properties. Its use and properties were referred by many Classical authors such as Socrates, Demosthenes, Macrobius and Theodoret of Cyrus who wrote about the soporific and anesthetic properties of this plant. In traditional herbal medicine, in the Middle Ages, the shape of the plant, or any of its parts, namely their resemble with any aspect of the human body was indicative of its medicinal use. Thus, the peculiar human body shape of the mandrake root indicated that it could be used to treat the whole human body, meaning that it could be used to treat and heal from different illnesses or conditions affecting different organs.

How to harvest mandrake.
How to harvest mandrake.
One of the many depictions of mandrake root in medieval European herbals.
One of the many depictions of mandrake root in medieval European herbals.

According to Theophrastus, the famous Greek philosopher who wrote the first treatise on plants, Historia Plantarum, the herbalist could only collect mandrake at night. First, one would have to lean toward the setting sun and honor the infernal deities, i.e. telluric forces. One should draw three circles around the plant with a virgin iron sword. Then, facing west to avoid the spells cast by the plant, one should cut portions of the secondary roots. One should not try to harvest the plant himself because as it was torn off from the ground, the plant uttered a shriek that would drive mad or even kill those hearing it. Therefore, having carefully covered ones ears with wax, the herbalist tied a dog to the plant and threw it a piece of flesh just beyond its reach. The dog would run and drop dead, but the mandrake was torn off. After harvested, the root was involved in a piece of white linen and later root and leaves would be separated and handled according to the different uses and purposes. In some cases, the root, preferably with a human shape, was dressed in red tunics with small magical symbols drawn and stored in a box wrapped in silk and bathed four times a year with wine. The liquid that was left after the bath had magical properties and could be used to cast spells.

It was also believed that mandrake would only grow on a site where a criminal was sentenced to death, e.g. under a tree where it was hanged. For this reason, and due to the common observation that hanged men often suffer erection, mandrake was believed to be an aphrodisiac plant that contained the hanged man semen. Therefore, mandrake was also used treat infertility. In addition, mandrake root was also used to put patients about to undergo surgery in a state of deep sleep, during which the operations could be performed. The root was infused or boiled and the solution was thus given to the patient to drink or applied externally in dressings over wounds. However, here dosage was crucial as many would not wake up. Mandrake is probably the oldest anesthetic known to man.

Apart from its vast medicinal use, mandrake was also believed to bring luck and fortune to those who possess it. Locked in a safe, mandrake root would double the number of coins in it. People often paid exorbitant amounts for a mandrake root in good condition and of human form, keeping it as an important amulet. Its value was so high that were some who mastered themselves on the art of sculpturing human forms in roots of plants and sell them as originals mandrakes. There were books written describing step by step how to make your fake mandrake root.

European Origins of Mandrake

Joan of Arc. Victim of mandrake?
Joan of Arc. Victim of mandrake? | Source

Mandrake in Popular Culture

Once a medicinal wonder and weapon of much jobbery and conspiracies, with a long history populated by legends involving Hebrew, Greek and Roman civilizations, today mandrake still arouses curiosity and is present in many cultural forms, from songs, novels to movies and tv. In her trial, Joan of Arc was accused of using mandrake and thus hearing God. Who does not remember Professor Sprout, Head of the Herbology Department at Hogwarts, and the famous screaming mandrakes from "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" by JK Rowling? Aphrodisiac powers of mandrake are also mentioned in the Bible and Shakespeare refers to its narcotic and poisonous effects in several of its works. Mandrake was also one of the main stars and the name of the famous theatrical success published by the Italian Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli in 1524. More recently, one can see the healing powers of mandrake that cure Ofelia’s mother in the famous 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

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      Paulo Cabrita 5 years ago from Germany

      Thank you dilipchandra12. I am glad you found this hub useful.

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      Dilip Chandra 5 years ago from India

      This is informative. Your work is useful and interesting. I voted it UP

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