Photo Credit: Piyawan Charoenlimkul / Shutterstock
The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book The Witching Herbs: 13 Essential Plants and Herbs for Your Magical Garden by Harold Roth (Weiser Books, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, March 2017):
British herbalist John Gerard (1545–1612) grew mandrakes in his garden for treating insomnia and infertility. He noted that, no matter how many he dug up, he never saw any that looked like the amulets sold for luck. Predictably, mandrakes were used to treat barrenness in Jewish traditional medicine. Sephardic women in Jerusalem either ate them or tied them around their bodies; Samaritan women of the 17th century put them under their beds. In his book Theatrum Botanicum (1640), herbalist John Parkinson says that women who want children should carry a mandrake fruit close to their person, which implies that it was not ingested but merely carried around. Mandrake fruits have been noted for their scent since ancient times. Carrying mandrake fruit in your pocket reminds me of the Tudor habit of carrying pocket melons for their scent. Perhaps that practice was originally based on carrying around mandrake fruits for fertility.
Mandrake and Aphrodite
Mandrake is also considered an aphrodisiac. The name in Hebrew, dudaim, is a combination of daled-vav-daled (which means “love,” “carnal love,” or “passion”) and ayim (aleph-yod-mem, which means “terror”). According to the Song of Solomon 7:13(14), mandrake smells good, but once again, it’s probably the fruits being described:
The mandrakes give forth fragrance;
And at our doors are all manner of precious fruits,
New and old,
Which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
The major chemical component in mandrake-fruit scent is esters, especially light ones, which also occur in apples and other fruits. The scent of mandrake fruit is often described as similar to an apple with a touch of clean sweat. Other mandrake scent constituents occur in guava, feijoa, papaya, mango, and passionfruit, but it also has sulphurous notes similar to onion, garlic, and cabbage just to add a little funk.
Renaissance Jewish physician Ovadia Sforno says that the mandrake fruit’s apple-like scent excites men’s passion, although this is not said of ordinary apples. So there has to be something more to the scent of mandrakes. Perhaps it excites the spirit rather than the body—the Talmud says that scent affects not the body but the soul (Berachot 43:2). And we now know that so much of sexual desire has to do with the mind.
If the scent of mandrake fruit is enticing, or at least exciting, the root of the plant has quite the opposite kind of scent. The freshly dug root is described in Saxon leechdom and sorcery as having a “powerful narcotic odor.” I’ve smelled these roots quite often when digging them up, and they do have a very rootlike, earthy scent, with some pungency similar to horseradish.
In conjunction with mandrake’s aphrodisiac aspect, some consider this plant to be the personification of Aphrodite. Alternatively, perhaps the connection between mandrake and Aphrodite exists precisely because of its use as an aphrodisiac. The word, in fact, derives from the name of this goddess.
Aphrodite, who is often depicted holding an apple, may actually be holding a mandrake fruit, especially in one image where she has a poppy in one hand and a small round mandrake-like fruit in the other. This makes sense, since, like poppy, mandrake can bring sleep. But it would make just as much sense if it were an apple, since then Aphrodite would be holding a Moon symbol in one hand and a sun symbol in the other.
Mandrake is associated with deities and spirits in various cultures. For instance, although the present-day Arabic name for mandrake may be translated as “apples of djinn” or “testicles of djinn,” an ancient Arabic name for it is abu’lruh, which means “master of the breath of life” or “lord of the spirit.” This name implies that mandrakes were connected to a pre-Islamic deity, although who that might have been is now unknown.
Mandrake and Hekate
It’s common in contemporary occulture to ascribe the mandrake to Hekate, but no ancient sources seem to back this up. This association may have arisen from the black dog once sacrificed in the harvesting of mandrakes. According to medieval reports, the mandrake made a deathly scream when it was pulled out of the ground, so it was harvested by tying a dog (often described or painted as a black one) to the root and enticing the dog to run off, pulling the root out of the ground. This killed the dog instead of the root-hunter and the dog acted as a sacrifice to the root.
I have never been sure how someone could entice a dog to pull the rope without ending up hearing the deadly mandrake scream. Also, yanking a mandrake root out of the ground with a rope would cause the root to snap, because it’s very brittle. In fact, that’s the primary way it reproduces itself. It’s true, however, that root-diggers of the ancient world may have used dogs to help them find roots, especially when the plants were dormant (i.e., seeming to be dead). And this may be how a dog was introduced into the stories about harvesting this plant. In that case, these dogs were not sacrifices, but work partners. In fact, at least one illustration shows a woman presenting dioscorides with a mandrake root while she gives a treat to a dog she has on a leash.
Still, the black dog that dies as a kind of sacrifice to the mandrake is reminiscent of the black puppies that were the traditional sacrifice to Hekate in ancient Greece. Moreover, Hekate is often depicted in the company of dogs. So perhaps, in this story, we have a mangled version of an older story about sacrifice to Hekate.
The opposite may be true as well. It is possible that the mandrake was attributed to Hekate because it became associated with witchcraft. Hekate, of course, was the goddess of witchcraft and was associated with black dogs. Still, it is interesting, especially considering Datura’s association with black dogs. Curiously, the Romans called mandrake fruits mala canina (dog apples).
Mandrake didn’t become strongly connected with witchcraft and flying ointments until between 1500 and 1700, the era when witches came to be identified as having made pacts with the devil. At this point, it pretty much lost most of its medicinal uses. This is also the time when the idea of witches’ flight became a major part of the authorities’ accusations of witchcraft. We have to wonder whether, prior to that time, mandrake was much used in witchcraft.
Mandrake and the Hanged Man
Some say that the root of a mandrake is no more like a human being than that of a parsnip, but I disagree. They are often curiously fascinating in shape. Around the same time that mandrake became associated with flying (the 1500s), little amulets called mandrakes or alraunes became popular. These were dressed and fed, and kept in a container. Even Joan of Arc was accused of having one. The image of a gibbet often appeared on the container’s cover. And that brings us to the hanged man.
The belief that mandrakes grew from the urine and semen of a hanged man first became prevalent in the 16th century, coinciding with the era in which accusations of witches flying and making satanic pacts also rose to prominence. Jakob Grimm records a legend of mandrake growing from the urine or semen of a hanged man, especially a thief.
To me, the story of mandrake springing from the semen or urine of a hanged man seems very reminiscent of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and the myths of his blood. However, the concept of the mandrake springing up beneath the gibbet may derive from Greek mythology. The ancient witch Medea dug up a plant, perhaps mandrake, which had been fed with the ichor (divine blood) of the wrongly chained and punished Prometheus, the thief who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Here we have a sort of forerunner of the hanged man/mandrake connection. Even in the story of the dog harvesting the mandrake, a noose is involved. The grimoireLe Petit Albert (1706) describes the making of the talismanic Hand of Glory (see chapter 8). In the traditional formula, the hand is taken from a hanged man. However, it seems very much more likely to have been crafted from a mandrake root. “Hand of Glory” in French is main de gloire, which so closely resembles the French word for mandrake (mandragore).
Mandrake is also associated with the biblical fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and evil. In Genesis, the fruit eaten by Adam and eve gives them knowledge, but gets them kicked out of the Garden of Eden. They become mortal on the one hand and start having children on the other. The mandrake seems to partake of this very same binary split between life and death. It can increase life through fertility, or decrease it by causing death or being associated with death (the hanged man). In the same way, the hanged man of the mandrake origin legend produces life as he is executed. Often in mandrake folklore, the hanged man is someone wrongly executed, so his mandrake-producing semen is a kind of talking back to the authorities who execute him.
Urine is a fertilizer and semen, of course, is related to fertility. By the time the use of the mandrake fertility amulet became popular, women who wished to conceive were rubbing themselves with a hanged man’s hand. This may have been because of the belief that, since a man ejaculates when hanged, he must be in an especially fertile state—and this state may be contagious.
Even when the mandrake/hanged man story comes down through the centuries and is moved to another continent, we can still see its outline and the mandrake’s connection to both death and life. For instance, a Pennsylvania folk belief related to odd sounds heard in the woods described this noise as coming from an American mandrake being uprooted. These were said to grow from the skeletons of Indians or black panthers.
A possible key to the importance of mandrake to European witchcraft and magic is the fact that the root resembles a human being and can therefore be used as a substitute in a sacrifice. This may be connected to the black dog sacrificed for the mandrake harvest and may be an echo of earlier sacrifices of black dogs to Hekate. Apparently, in ancient Cyprus, sacrifices to the goddess Aphrodite included a person wrapped in the fleece of a sheep. If mandrake is Aphrodite’s plant, then human sacrifice may be tied to it. Perhaps the roots evolved into a substitute for a human being. We see this in the way the roots are dressed, for instance—often in white, as a shroud or a fleece—and kept in a little coffin. This does connect the root up to the hanged man, but it also reflects what happened in a human sacrifice.
The word “mannekin” fits with the concept of a figure that stands for a real human being. So again we have a connection between mandrake and hanging, thieves, death, sex, fertility, dogs, and sacrifice. In addition to the dog story, various ways of ritually harvesting mandrakes have been described, as is the case with other herbs important in magic, like vervain. Theophrastus (371–287 BCE) instructs us to dig up mandrake root with a sword while saying “as many things as possible about the mysteries of love,” which is a neat combination of life (sex) and death (sword).
Pliny (23–79 Ce) advised us to keep windward of mandrake and use a sword to trace three circles around it while facing west. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was far more wary of this plant, and her attitude indicates that mandrake may already have had associations with witchcraft. She advised that the mandrake root be put into a spring for a day and a night as soon as it was harvested, because it has the devil in it and will be a good tool for dark magic if left unwashed for too long after harvesting.
The first mention of wrapping a harvested mandrake root is found in 1429 in Godefroy’s Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, which recommended swathing it in silk or linen. Jakob Grimm (1785–1863) described how mandrake roots were washed in red wine, dressed in red and white silk, and placed in a small chest if they were to be kept as amulets. This mannekin was then fed every Friday and given a new white shirt every new Moon. Both of these directions indicate that this folk practice came from the Jewish tradition, as they wear new clothes on the Sabbath, which starts on Friday night. And the new Moon is the beginning of the month in the Jewish calendar. In return, these mandrake amulets brought luck and money and answered questions.
Mandrake serves as a hinge, in the same manner as belladonna and henbane. Here, however, the hinge turns between life (fertility, aphrodisia) and death (the hanged man, the sacrificed dog or human). This coincides with the concept of the Crooked Path and with the ambiguity of witches, who now heal and now curse. This is part of why mandrake has become the witchcraft herb par excellence. It is the ultimate combination of two very different states.
I also think that there is some vestigial memory of human sacrifice associated with mandrake that peeks out through the folklore associated with it. It is the ultimate herbal code, in the manner of those masks mentioned as far back as the Greek Magical Papyri, in which an animal part in a spell formula is revealed to be a plant part instead. In this case, rather than a human being wrapped in a fleece, we have the mandrake root wrapped in silk. I believe that this substitution makes witchcraft all the more powerful—and all the more occult, hidden, and mysterious.
Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Weiser Books, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, THE WITCHING HERBS by Harold Roth is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087.