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Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora belonging to the nightshades family (Solanaceae). Because their curious bifurcations cause them to have a semblance to the human figure (male and female), their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in neopagan religions such as Wicca and Germanic revivalism religions such as Odinism. (It is alleged that magicians would form this root into a crude resemblance to the human figure, by pinching a constriction a little below the top, so as to make a kind of head and neck, and twisting off the upper branches except two, which they leave as arms, and the lower, except two, which they leave as legs.)
The mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, is a plant called by the Arabs luffâh, or beid el-jinn ("djinn's eggs"). The parsley-shaped 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, 6 to 16 inches long, somewhat resembling those of the tobacco-plant. There spring from the neck a number of one-flowered nodding peduncles, bearing whitish-green flowers, nearly 2 inches broad, which produce globular, succulent, orange to red berries, resembling small tomatoes, which ripen in late spring. All parts of the mandrake plant are poisonous. The plant grows natively in southern and central Europe and in lands around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as on Corsica.
In Genesis 30, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah finds mandrakes in the field. Rachel, Jacob's second wife, the sister of Leah, is desirous of the mandrakes and she barters with her sister for them. The trade offered by Rachel is for Leah to spend the next night in Jacob's bed. Soon after this Leah, who previously had had four sons but had ceased to become pregnant for a long while then became pregnant once more and gave birth to a son. There are classical Jewish commentaries which suggest that mandrakes help barren women to conceive a child.
Mandrake in Hebrew is דודאים (dûwôdãym), meaning “love plant”. Among certain Asian cultures, it is believed to ensure conception. Most interpreters hold Mandragora officinarum to be the plant intended in Genesis 30:14 ("love plant") and Song of Songs 7:13 ("the mandrakes send out their fragrance"). Numbers of other plants have been suggested, as bramble-berries, Zizyphus Lotus, the sidr of the Arabs, the banana, the lily, the citron, and the fig. None of these renderings are supported by satisfactory evidence.[neutrality disputed]
Magic, spells 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 (c. 37 AD Jerusalem – c. 100) 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 get away. The dog then endeavours 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.
... we will add a few words about mandragores (mandrakes) and androids, which several writers on magic confound with the waxen image; serving the purposes of bewitchment. The natural mandragore is a filamentous root which, more or less, presents as a whole either the figure of a man, or that of the virile members. It is slightly narcotic, and an aphrodisiacal virtue was ascribed to it by the ancients, who represented it as being sought by Thessalian sorcerers for the composition of philtres. Is this root the umbilical vestige of our terrestrial origin ? We dare not seriously affirm it, but all the same it is certain that man came out of the slime of the earth, and his first appearance must have been in the form of a rough sketch. The analogies of nature make this notion necessarily admissible, at least as a possibility. The first men were, in this case, a family of gigantic, sensitive mandragores, animated by the sun, who rooted themselves up from the earth ; this assumption not only does not exclude, but, on the contrary, positively supposes, creative will and the providential co-operation of a first cause, which we have reason to call God.
Some alchemists, impressed by this idea, speculated on the culture of the mandragore, and experimented in the artificial reproduction of a soil sufficiently fruitful and a sun sufficiently active to humanise the said root, and thus create men without the concurrence of the female. (See: Homunculus) Others, who regarded humanity as the synthesis of animals, despaired about vitalising the mandragore, but they crossed monstrous pairs and projected human seed into animal earth, only for the production of shameful crimes and barren deformities. The third method of making the android was by galvanic machinery. One of these almost intelligent automata was attributed to Albertus Magnus, and it is said that St Thomas (Thomas Aquinas) destroyed it with one blow from a stick because he was perplexed by its answers. This story is an allegory; the android was primitive scholasticism, which was broken by the Summa of St Thomas, the daring innovator who first substituted the absolute law of reason for arbitrary divinity, by formulating that axiom which we cannot repeat too often, since it comes from such a master: " A thing is not just because God wills it, but God wills it because it is just.
The real and serious android of the ancients was a secret which they kept hidden from all eyes, and Mesmer was the first who dared to divulge it; it was the extension of the will of the magus into another body, organised and served by an elementary spirit; in more modern and intelligible terms, it was a magnetic subject.
It was a common belief in some countries that a mandrake would grow where the semen of a hanged man dripped on to the earth; this would appear to be the reason for the methods employed by the alchemists who "projected human seed into animal earth". In Germany, the plant is known as the Alraune: the novel (later adapted as a film) Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers is based around a soulless woman conceived from a hanged man's semen, the title referring to this myth of the Mandrake's origins.
Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus (little man in a bottle) so praised by Paracelsus? Then find a 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 thirty days water it with cow's milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the thirty-first 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.
- In the Bible Song of Songs 7:13 KJV
"The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover."
- Machiavelli wrote 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 IV part II III.ii
- John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi:
- Ferdinand "I have this night digged up a mandrake..."
- John Donne's song:
- "Go and catch a falling star
- Get with child a mandrake root
- Tell me where all past years are,
- Or who cleft the devil's foot..."
- D. H. Lawrence referred to Mandrake as that "weed of ill-omen".
- Ezra Pound used it as metaphor in his poem "Portrait d'une femme":
- "You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
- And takes strange gain away: [...]
- Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
- That might prove useful and yet never proves, [...]"
- Samuel Beckett, in Act I of Waiting for Godot the two attendants discuss hanging themselves and reference is made to the belief that mandrake is seeded by the ejaculate of hanged men.
- In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the mandrake root is cultivated by Professor Sprout to cure the petrification of several characters who had looked indirectly into the eyes of the Basilisk; the author makes use of the legend of the mandrake's scream (see above), and anyone tending mandrakes wears earmuffs to dull the sound of the scream, if the plant must be transplanted.
- In Pan's Labyrinth, the main character Ofelia places a mandrake root shaped like a baby beneath the bed of her pregnant mother to cure her mysterious illness.
- In The Serpent's Kiss, Richard E. Grant's character adds powdered mandrake root to Meneer Chrome's (played by Ewan McGregor) snuff box in an attempt to poison him.
- In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the students have to repot Mandrake seedlings while wearing earmuffs to protect against the deadly screams.
- In Flesh & Blood, the characters Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Steven (Tom Burlinson) eat the mandrake root in order to fall in love with each other.
- pp. 402-403, The History and Practice of Magic by Paul Christian. 1963