Mandrake - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Mandragora officinarum, also classified as Atropa mandragora)

Mandrake’s claim to fame lies in the magical resemblance of its roots to the human figure. Individual specimens are identifiably female or male (and a few very special ones may be both). There is no plant more identified with magic and witchcraft.

Mandrake’s main magical uses have to do with love, sex, fertility, and wish fulfillment. Because it has narcotic properties, mandrake also has a long history as an early anesthetic.

In Arabic, mandrake is known as Father of Life (referring to its fertility-inducing powers) and Djinn’s Egg or Devil’s Apple (these aren’t demonic references but are instead intended to refer to mandrake’s power as an aphrodisiac to provide forbidden pleasures. Islam has no demonology comparable to that of witch-hunt era Europe.) In Hebrew, the word for mandrake is translated as “love-apples,” referring to its aphrodisiac properties.

The mandrake plant is indigenous to Mediterranean regions, especially Crete, Sicily, and the Levantine coast, as well as Iraq, North Africa, and Spain. It grows wild and is not uncommon in these areas. Nineteenth-century missionaries traveling to the Middle East wrote that women used this plant in the same manner and for the same purposes as described by the Bible. Mandrake’s natural range extends as far north as Mount Vicentia on the southern edge of the Venetian Alps.

Although it grows rampant in warm, dry climates, it may be cultivated with care in areas not naturally conducive to its growth. The master herbalist John Gerard (1545—1612), for instance, cultivated it in his greenhouse.

Magical references almost inevitably discuss just the roots; the whole plant is lovely and useful, although potentially poisonous if taken internally. Mandrake has apple-like fruit (all those apple names aren’t mere affectation) and lovely flowers possessing a strong aroma.

Mandrake is a member of the Nightshade family, many of whose members contain deadly poisons. Mandrake, too, is poisonous—the berries are particularly toxic. However, for magical purposes, mandrake is virtually always used as an amulet. It is carried, placed under the mattress, or shaped into a doll. It is safe to handle mandrake root (unlike wolfsbane, for instance, which is so toxic, even touching the plant may cause irritation) but not to take any part of the plant internally or to otherwise apply it to the body.

Many tales and legends describe mandrake’s magic powers but the most famous occurs in the Old Testament. This is significant because although biblical injunctions are frequently used as the rationale for persecuting witches, in this case, the Bible recounts a magical success story. The biblical patriarch Jacob is married to two sisters. He loves the younger one, Rachel, passionately but she’s infertile and desperately wants to conceive. He doesn’t love the older sister, Leah (who desperately loves him) although that hasn’t stopped him from fathering her many children. One day, Leah’s oldest son, Reuben, old enough to understand his mother’s situation, finds a mandrake root and brings it to her so that she can use it to magically gain Jacob’s love. Word gets around and Rachel shows up, demanding the mandrake so that she can use it to magically conceive. The two negotiate and, ultimately, Rachel gets the mandrake, conceiving soon afterwards.

The Bible carried mandrake’s reputation around the Eastern Hemisphere; the name “mandrake” developed an aura of allure and power but there was one problem: true mandrake doesn’t grow wild in cold climates. People in these colder areas wanted mandrake too but it wasn’t available. What were they to do? They began referring to local plants with similar uses and human-shaped roots as “mandrake” too. Thus the name “mandrake” may refer to a variety of different and unrelated plants. True mandrake belongs to the Mandragora species.

If you purchase mandrake in Greece or the Middle East or North Africa, it’s quite possible that you’re receiving the real thing. If you’re anywhere else, you’re most likely receiving some substitute. These substitutes can be very powerful—some even prefer them; however be aware that the prices charged should reflect what you’re actually getting. There is no need to spend huge sums on Devil’s Apple, black bryony, May Apple, white bryony or ginseng.

These all have human-shaped roots similar to mandrake. Many possess a similar magical nature and most are, like mandrake, intended for use as amulets not for internal use, because they are poisonous if consumed.

True mandrake has been an important medicinal plant for just as long as it’s been an important magical one. When discussing any sort of medicinal use, that information applies only to true mandrake, the Mandragora species.

Along with opium poppies, mandrake was among the very first anesthetics in existence. Mandrake was first administered either as a potion made by boiling the root in wine, or as an inhalant made by soaking cloth in mandrake infusions. Greek physicians offered their dental patients mandrake root to chew as a local anesthetic. Hippocrates, the author of the Hippocratic oath and considered the founder of modern medicine, wrote of mandrake in approximately 400 BCE, “a small dose in wine, less than would occasion delirium, will relieve the deepest depression and anxiety.”

Mandrake can induce deep sleep, however the incorrect dosage can cause the big sleep from which one never awakens. Fatal doses are very possible, demonstrating that, then as now, anesthesia can be among the most dangerous parts of the surgical process. The medicinal was usually prepared from the root, as is the magical amulet.

During antiquity mandrake root was used as an anesthetic, antiseptic, narcotic, and tonic. Until the early modern era, mandrake wine was used to treat insomnia.

Diluted mandrake root juice was used as an anesthetic during surgery in first-century Greece. Mandrake was used as an anesthetic by the Romans and by the renowned Arabic physicians. Its most dramatic use, however, was in Roman-occupied Judea. Crucifixion was not a unique punishment; the Romans crucified masses of people. Jewish women brewed draughts from mandrakes and soaked sponges in the liquid to offer men nailed to the crosses, causing an anesthetic effect. Depending upon the dose, this could be fatal—a mercy killing. Sometimes, however, the person only had the appearance of death, often fairly long-term. The body would be returned to their family. Eventually they would recover. When the Romans discovered what was going on (perhaps witnessing too many dead men walking) policies were changed: it was decreed that before any man was released from the cross, his legs would be broken and/or he was to be brutally pierced with a spear.

Magically, mandrake is always used as an amulet and never taken internally.

Image For purposes of enhancing fertility, mandrake is carried as a charm or placed under the bed.

Image Men traditionally carried mandrake in mojo bags to serve as love charms.

Image Breton and Norman fishermen once wore jewelry made from mandrake root pieces as protective talismans.

Even when mandrake was an important medicinal (and perhaps because mandrake was such an important medicinal) it has always been associated with witchcraft and magic. The ancient Greeks associated mandrakes with Circe and called it Circaea, although that is now the modern botanical classification for Enchanter’s Nightshade, not mandrake (see page 161). Other European folk names include Witch’s Herb (Hexenkraut), Satan’s Apple (this time meant demonically), and Monster Root. Its medicinal background is recalled in the nickname Doctor Root.

In France, it was such common practice to carry a mandrake that, in 1429, the Franciscan Friar Richard denounced the practice and destroyed great numbers of them. Her inquisitors accused Joan of Arc of carrying one for wealth, although she claimed to be unfamiliar with them. The French fairy Magloire presides over the use of the mandrake root. Some believe that the concept of the Hand of Glory (in French main de gloire) derives from mandrake’s classical name, Mandragora.

Nowhere was the magical use of mandrake root more popular or inventive than in Germany. Historically, virtually nowhere on Earth has there been harsher treatment of witches than in Germany or more concentrated effort to exterminate them; however, ironically or not, there are equally few other places on Earth where magical and botanical knowledge has ever been more persistent. In sixteenth-century German lands, a synonym for witches was Alraundelberin or “mandrake bearer.” “Alraune” already indicated a witch; it now came to mean mandrake, as well (well, really black bryony) so that mandrake and witch became synonyms.

Although technically alraune just means “mandrake” more is implied. The alraune describes a magical system, whereby the mandrake root (the alraune) is cared for, fed, and bathed by a person; in return the alraune provides that person with magical wish fulfillment, protection, and good fortune. This is very similar to various African rituals and to modern African-derived root-working.

The alraune became a staple of medieval German magical practice. Every Friday the root was bathed in wine, wrapped in white silk and laid in a box that was as beautiful or magically empowered as possible. One would whisper one’s desires to the mandrake and hopefully watch them come into fruition.

A slightly different variation existed too: the mandrake root might be surgically enhanced to further its resemblance to a human being (a bit of plastic surgery, in effect), dressed in little clothes, and placed on a throne to serve as oracle or household guardian. Because this practice was extremely illegal (this was at the height of the witch-trials), the seated doll might be kept upright in a small hidden closed cabinet or box (rather than laid flat as in the other method). A popular modern collector’s doll from Germany is known as the Hexen or Walpurgis doll; these tend to be fairly demonic creations, packaged in coffins as if they were vampires. They offend those who resent the false demonization of witches. However, they may also be understood as a corruption and continuation of this alraune tradition, the little “witch” in a box.

The concept of a wish-fulfilling mandrake doll is very ancient; allegedly Thessalian witches were able to animate mandrake mannequins and send them out to do various magical jobs. (A similar scenario exists in Abraham Merritt’s pulp novel, Burn Witch Burn.)

Although some loved and venerated alraunes, others perceived them as diabolical conduits to Satan. Many believed that it was impossible to get rid of an alraune. One’s only option was to sell it. Otherwise, no matter what you did—burn it, toss it in the sea, stamp it to bits—it would be right back, hale and hearty and intact upon your shelf.

In rural areas, people may have obtained their own alraunes, but in urban areas professionals sold them on the magical black market. The risk was tremendously great, to both purchaser and vendor, however the price the alraune demanded was very high: fortunes were made. Real practitioners may have been wary of exposing themselves; however black marketeers, often petty swindlers, knew a hot property when they saw one. You must recall that what was being sold as “genuine mandrake” was already really black bryony, a local root. By the sixteenth century it had become common practice to doctor these roots.

Mandrake roots have always been embellished to enhance their human resemblance. However what was based on tradition soon became fraud. The most authentically human-looking mandrake roots are old ones that have years’ growing but who wants to wait that long to make a profit, especially when witch-hunters are expected in town? A potential buyer would explain why they wanted a mandrake (for fertility usually or for sexual magnetism); the vendor would tell them that he had a mandrake growing in a pot and to come over tomorrow. The vendor would hurry home, doctor a bryony root to look as if it would fulfill the purchaser’s desires and then stick the root into a pot of dirt, so that when the buyer arrived it would look as if it emerged from the Earth in exactly that form. Specimens may be found today in museums in Germany as well as in London and Vienna. They are cut to resemble women, men, couples, even a woman cradling a child.

All kinds of superstitions were associated with mandrake, particularly regarding the manner in which it must be gathered. Although it can be carefully dug out the same as any other root, it became traditional to pull the entire mandrake plant from the ground in one fell swoop.

Because it’s the intact root that desired, it must be pulled from Earth without damaging it. Various legends and traditions sprang up including one that suggests that pulling mandrakes is the equivalent of a game of tug-of-war. If you fail to dislodge the mandrake, it might pull you in return, causing you to disappear into the depths of the Earth.

According to another legend, mandrake screams when it is pulled; hearing the scream is fatal. Another version suggests that the first one to pull up the root dies. All kinds of complex machinations for harvesting mandrake developed: one had to stuff up one’s ears with wax, tie a dog to the plant and then somehow induce him to jump away with such force that the entire root is pulled out of Earth in one piece. This practice allegedly kills the dog. Once this sacrifice has been made, the plant is believed safe to handle and use and exists as an object of wish fulfillment. (These are all superstitions, although they are based on tradition: see below. Mandrakes are grown in nurseries today; no dogs are killed during the harvest nor are there any other mandrake-induced fatalities involved in the harvest. Let’s just say that if any dog ever died during mandrake harvests—and these legends may have no basis whatsoever in fact—the mandrake’s scream isn’t what killed it.)

A later legend that developed in places where mandrake was considered diabolical suggests that it grew only at crossroads, the home of the devil, or underneath gallows—usually erected at crossroads—where the mandrake was nourished by emanations from the corpse. (One cheerful tradition suggests that mandrake isn’t any ordinary plant root but is, in fact, a hanged man’s congealed urine or semen.) Along those lines, it was believed that mandrake’s form reflected that of the dead man, especially if he died a virgin or lived as a congenital thief. (These legends inspired the German novel Alrauna by H. H. Ewers, which in turn inspired no less than five film adaptations. See CREATIVE ARTS: Literature.)

These superstitions are rooted in metaphysical beliefs that had become distorted and demonized. Frequently they are cover-ups for pagan traditions, simultaneously beloved (or at least the potential results are desired) and feared. The machinations with the dog, for instance, may be cover-up for a canine sacrifice that was once intrinsic to the harvest.

The tradition that the mandrake kills the one who initially pulls it from the ground may be based on a Jewish legend (recounted among Louis Ginzburg’s multi-volume Legends of the Jews) that Reuben found the mandrake lying near a dead donkey. (The donkey’s link to the mandrake has sexual connotations that aren’t immediately grasped today.) Interestingly, according to Transylvanian Romany tradition, the root of an orchid used similarly to mandrake is gathered in the same manner by attaching a dog to it. The dog doesn’t die but is encouraged to lunge away by luring it with donkey’s meat.

In Poland, mandrake was gathered by laying bread and money on the ground. The root was carefully pulled up; the offerings were laid in the resulting hole as payment and the hole carefully covered with Earth. The root was bathed in milk, carefully dried, and then wrapped in silk and carried home in a box. In Abruzzi, Italy, mandrake, like other magical plants, was believed best harvested on Midsummer’s Eve.

Sometimes a living plant was desired, not just the root. Having a living mandrake plant on one’s property allegedly brings great fortune, health, and happiness. However, one must take care in transplanting it—any injury to the plant allegedly results in insanity for the guilty party.

See ANIMALS: Donkeys; DICTIONARY: Alraune; Mojo.