Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora, particularly the species Mandragora officinarum, belonging to the nightshade family.
Because mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine, apoatropine, and hyoscyamine, and the roots sometimes contain bifurcations causing them to resemble human figures.
Their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in contemporary pagan traditions such as Wicca and Odinism.
The root is often branched. This root gives off at the surface of the ground a rosette of ovate-oblong to ovate, wrinkled, crisp, sinuate-dentate to entire leaves, 5 too long, somewhat resembling those of the tobacco plant.
A number of one-flowered nodding peduncles spring from the neck bearing whitish-green or purple flowers, nearly 5 cm broad, which produce globular, orange to red berries, resembling small tomatoes. The fruit and the seeds are poisonous.
The alkaloid chemicals contained in the root include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These chemicals are anticholinergics, hallucinogens, and hypnotics.
Anticholinergic properties can lead to asphyxiation. Ingesting mandrake root is likely to have other adverse effects such as vomiting and diarrhea.
The alkaloid concentration varies between plant samples, and accidental poisoning is likely to occur.
In its more sinister significance:
Machiavelli wrote in 1518 a play Mandragola (The Mandrake) in which the plot revolves around the use of a mandrake potion as a ploy to bed a woman. Shakespeare refers four times to Mandrake and twice under the name of Mandragora.
“… Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday.” Shakespeare: Othello III.iii
“Give me to drink mandragora … That I might sleep out this great gap of time My Antony is away.” Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra I.v
“Shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth.” Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet IV.iii
Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan” King Henry VI part II-III. John Donne refers to it in the second line of his song, ‘Go and catch a falling star‘, as an example of an impossible task, “Get with child a mandrake root” Alraune (German for Mandrake) is a novel by German novelist Hanns Heinz Ewers published in 1911.
It is in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, too:
“Let’s hang ourselves immediately!” “It’d give us an Erection!” “An Erection!” “With all that follows—where it falls, Mandrakes grow, that’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?”
In Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, mandrakes can be found in the Hogwarts greenhouses. When pulled out of the earth, they resemble humans, and just as in the mythology, the cry is fatal. The mandrake can also revive those who have been petrified.
In The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Ethan Hawley mentions both the form and legend of the mandrake root in chapter eight when describing a collection of “worthless family treasures” as follows:
“We even had a mandrake root—a perfect little man, sprouted from the death-ejected sperm of a hanged man …”
In Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, a reference to the mandrake is made, describing a plant that lets out a supersonic scream when it is uprooted.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot (contained in the Sherlock Homes collection His Last Bow) a crystalline extract of “Devil’s Foot Root“, also called Mandrake, is at the root, so to speak, of two bizarre and related murders.
In Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” Lettie Hempstock trades a Mandrake for a shadow-bottle to attempt to send Ursula Monkton away “Mandrakes are so loud when you pull them up, and I didn’t have earplugs”
Magic and Witchcraft
According to the 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.
For example, Josephus (circa 37–100 AD) of Jerusalem 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 getaway.
The dog then endeavors 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.
Excerpt from Chapter XVI, “Witchcraft and Spells“, of Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual by nineteenth-century occultist and ceremonial magician Eliphas Levi.
The following is taken from Paul Christian’s The History and Practice of Magic by Paul Christian 1963:
Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus (little man in a bottle) so praised by Paracelsus? Then find the root of the plant called bryony.
Take it out of the ground on a Monday (the day of the moon), a little time after the vernal equinox. Cut off the ends of the root and bury it at night in some country churchyard in a dead man’s grave. For 30 days, water it with cow’s milk in which three bats have been drowned.
When the 31st day arrives, take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with branches of verbena; then wrap it up in a piece of a dead man’s winding-sheet and carry it with you everywhere.
*This article was originally published at www.gbif.org.