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Mandrakes: Histories, myths, and legends April 6, 2009

Posted by woodtree0587 in Plants/Civilizations.
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How’s this for you, your reading or watching the first Harry Potter book/movie and Hermione Granger does her famous drawl about the Mandrake. Is this starting to perk a few ears? Jog a few memories? Now the next question is how many of you thought that the Mandrake was a fictional plant thought up in the minds of writers and poets?

Well to tell the truth the Mandrake is real and it is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora, which belongs to the Solanaceae or Nightshades family. The Nightshades family is full or plants that are mainly thought and definitely does have the properties to be “poisonous and deadly” BUT, many are not to the point of being completely deadly, such as the common potatoes that many of us eat on a regular basis (potatoes are not in the Mandragora genus).

The mandrake Mandragora officinarum has parsley-shaped roots that are often branched. The root gives off at the surface of the ground a rosette of ovate-oblong to ovate shaped, 5 to 40 centimeter (2 to 16 inches) long leaves, which somewhat resemble tobacco leaves. It also gives of many single flowers that nod on a peduncle from the neck that are whitish-green and almost 3 inches (5 centimeters) broad. These produce globular, succulent, and orange to red berries that look like small tomatoes. All parts of this plant are poisonous and they grow natively in southern and central Europe and in land around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as on Corsica. In Arabic it is called luffâh, or beid el-jinn “djinn’s eggs”.

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Anyhow back to the Mandragora genus, these species do contain deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids, such as hyosyamine (a secondary metabolite found in members of the Solanaceae family that is used as a secondary growth compound, which actually inhibits growth of the plants) and the roots contain bifurcations causing them to resemble human figures.

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The roots have long been used in religions such as Wicca and Germanic religions such as Odinism. It is also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Bereshit 30: 14 – 16:

14 And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: ‘Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes.’

15 And she said unto her: ‘Is it a small matter that thou hast taken away my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said: ‘Therefore he shall lie with thee to-night for thy son’s mandrakes.’

16 And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: ‘Thou must come in unto me; for I have surely hired thee with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night.

In Bereshit 30, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah finds mandrakes in a field. Rachel, Jacob’s infertile second wife and Leah’s sister, is desirous of the mandrakes and barters with Leah for them. The trade offered by Rachel is for Leah to spend the next night in Jacob’s bed in exchange of Leah’s mandrakes. Leah gives away the plant to her barren sister, but soon after this (Bereshit 30:17-22), Leah, who had previously had four sons but had been infertile for a long while, became pregnant once more and in time gave birth to two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Only years after this episode of her asking for the mandrakes did Rachel manage to get pregnant. There are classical Jewish commentaries which suggest that mandrakes help barren women to conceive children. Mandrake in Hebrew means “love plant” and is believed by many cultures that Mandragora officinarum is the mandrake of the biblical times.

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It is also said that musicians and those that participate(d) in witch craft also used this plant to twist and contort into a crude visual of a human being, by pinching or constricting just below the top so that is looked like a head and neck, and then they would twist off all the upper branches except two which would look like arms, and then they would two of the lower branches to make them look like legs.

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It has long been rumored that when the roots of the mandrake is dug up it screams and is deadly to anyone who hears it without protection (hence why in Harry Potter the kids had to wear protective ear muffs). There is great bouts of literature that includes complex directions for harvesting mandrake roots in relative safety. A rather humorous extract from Josephus (who lived around 37 AD in Jerusalem) states that:

“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 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.”

Another interesting common belief in some countries is that a mandrake would grow where the semen of a hanged man dripped on to the earth. This appears to be the reason why alchemists “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.

So to say the least there is a whole lot more information on mandrakes that has to do with many different cultures, religions, and magical myths.

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