MEDICINA ANTIQUA: LIBRI QUATTUOR MEDICINAE, 13TH CENTURY. Codex Vindobonensis 93. Facsimile. (Washington University, Becker Library)

Mandragora officinarum is a southern European plant that has greenish-yellow flowers and a branched root. This plant was once believed to have magical powers because its root resembles the human body. The mandragoras are one of the most strange magic plants in the world. The mandragoras can undo powerful charming spells. You should be very careful with these plants, because the mandragora is dangerous. The cry of the mandragora is fatal to anyone who hears it. They like the light and the heat. Instead of roots at the bottom, there is a baby-like creature, with leaves that are purple-green on his head. This boy's skin is tufty and purplish green. It is recommended to fertilize these unusual plants with dragon manure.

The remedial properties of the mandrake are confirmed by modern chemical investigation. The root contains an alkaloid which, belonging to the atropine group, is a narcotic and a local anaesthetic. It is of the order Solanaceae, similar to deadly nightshade. From the old tradition that they excited amorous inclinations, mandrakes were called love apples.

The mandrake, according to legend, was moulded out of the same clay as that from which Adam was created. The Devil regarded the plant with great favour; therefore it was associated with underground demons and other supernatural powers, and highly prized as the roots were for their magical properties, their unearthing was considered a very perilous undertaking.

The aphrodisiac properties of the mandrake are referred to in Genesis when Reuben, finding sweet yellow berries, each about the size of a small plum, took some of them to his mother, Leah. Rachel, Leah?s sister, seeing the fruit, said: “Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes”.

In Homer?s Odyssey the hero sets forth to rescue his men, who had been changed into swine by the machinations of Circe; but the god Hermes, aware that even a hero?s sword was powerless to break the spell, gave Odysseus “a charmed herb ? a herb of grace”, which the poet described as “black at the root, but the flower was like to milk. ‘Moly’ the Gods call it, but it is hard for mortal men to dig”. This reputed difficulty experienced in digging ?the moly of Homer? has resulted in its being regarded as mandrake; however, subsequent translators and commentators were sceptical of this because of the mandrake?s having a white and not a black root; and yellow, not white flowers.

The ‘plant of Aphrodite’ was also the ‘plant of Circe’, and it is contended that this mandrake was the drug that the sorceress gave to Odysseus?s men and so brought about the disastrous metamorphosis. In his Historia Planatarum, written about 230 BCE, Theophrastus of Eresus, pupil of Aristotle, and ‘the father of botany’, says that men digging for hellebore needed to protect themselves with garlic, which is accredited with power to preserve the bearer from sorcery, witchcraft, and particularly from vampires. Therefore wild garlic, which is called Allium Moly, is conceivably ‘the herb of grace’ supplied by Hermes as a counter-charm to the goddess?s enchantment. Hence it is not unreasonable to suppose that garlic was employed as an antidote also when mandrakes were to be extracted.

The mandrake plant was first introduced into Britain about the 11th century, but its fame had gone before it. A certain Apuleius Platonicus, who flourished during the 5th century, composed a botanical treatise, entitled Herborium, and devoted the last chapter to a very thorough exposition of the properties, both actual and magical, of the mandrake, which, he declares “shineth at night like a lamp”. This manuscript, which unfortunately has been damaged by fire, is now in the British Library, but the illustration accompanying the description is comparatively clear, and depicts a dog secured by a chain to the plant, which is delineated as a human being with leaves growing in place of hair on the head. The forked root of the mandrake roughly resembles the human body, which probably accounts for its role as a magic plant, particularly with a sexual connotation. It has been used as an aphrodisiac in various cultures. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was also the ‘lady of the mandrake’ and in some parts of Europe it was laid under the marriage bed. There was a medieval tradition that elephants consumed this plant to arouse sexual desire.

An additional superstition applied in Europe to the mandrake was that it grew from the moisture that dropped from a felon hanged, and was sometimes to be found beneath the gallows. Some believed that the most efficacious roots grew under a gallows or where suicides had been buried at crossroads. As to why the most potent mandrakes were supposed to grow under gallows, they were believed to be produced from the semen involuntarily ejaculated by a hanged man.

Albert-Maris Schmidt in his La mandragore, published in Paris (1958). The severing of the nerves in the spinal column when the neck is broken through hanging does produce erection of the membrum virile in a hanged man.The fact that mandrake did not always grow after a hanging needed to be accounted for, and this was done by the invention of two sets of special circumstances: one, that the hanged man was innocent but forced to ‘confession’ by torture; the other, that the miscreant was a thief born of a family of thieves, whose mother stole while he was in her womb.

In either case the mandrake was called ‘Little Gallows Man’, and it had to be uprooted by the conventional means on a Friday evening before sunset. As soon as it was out of the ground it needed to be cut free from the body of the dog, then washed clean in red wine; after which it was wrapped in a garment of either white or red silk, and placed in a casket. Every Friday at the evening hour it had to be rewashed in red wine, and provided with a new garment at each new moon. If these rules were carefully observed, the ‘Little Gallows Man’ would speak when spoken to and answer all questions concerning future events.

Its happy possessor would henceforth have no enemies, and never again be poor, because a gold coin laid beside the mandrake overnight was sure to become doubled by morning; however, it was not wise to repeat this process too often, for possibly the ‘Little Gallows Man’ would suffer fatigue, and might even die. Youngest, and not eldest sons inherited these precious possessions, but it was necessary for a piece of bread and a coin to be put in the dead man?s coffin and buried with him. In default of this last office the mandrake was deprived of its magical virtue.

Many strange superstitions have gathered round the mandrake. One cannot but marvel at the stories about the plant that were received in olden days. In folklore and legend it is associated with the symbolism of fertility and wealth, provided that it is treated with care and reverence. It is a plant most prolific in superstitious and magical practices. As a manikin it foretells the future. In magical practices, although the mandrake may be found in both male and female shape, it is always regarded as the male principle. In this context it esoterically signifies the consort of Artemis-Hecate, whose presence is heralded by the howling of dogs.

Its medicinal virtues and spiritual efficacy depend upon the extent to which it has a tap-root. It is however, poisonous and must be carefully prescribed to be beneficial. The narrations above regard the mandrake in its singular efficacy. Those who would study its use in combination are advised to consult such works as Picatrix, wherein it is employed in over a dozen recipes; all the traditional ingredients of sorcery accompany it there, as bat?s blood and the brain of a black cat, and it is a main ingredient in the incense of Saturn, regarded of old as the most potent, evil and malignant of all the planets.