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Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora, particularly the species Mandragora officinarum, belonging to the nightshades family (Solanaceae). Because mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine, apoatropine, and hyoscyamine, and the roots sometimes contain bifurcations causing them to resemble human figures, their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in contemporary pagan traditions such as Wicca and Odinism.
The 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, 5 to 40 cm (2.0 to 15.7 in) long, somewhat resembling those of the tobacco plant. A number of one-flowered nodding peduncles spring from the neck bearing whitish-green or purple flowers, nearly 5 cm (2.0 in) broad, which produce globular, orange to red berries, resembling small tomatoes. The only part of the mandrake that is not poisonous is the fruit.
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- The alkaloid chemicals contained in the root include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These chemicals are anticholinergics, hallucinogens, and hypnotics.
- Anticholinergic properties can lead to asphyxiation. Ingesting mandrake root is likely to have other adverse effects such as vomiting and diarrhea. The alkaloid concentration varies between plant samples, and accidental poisoning is likely to occur.
In the Bible
Two references to דודאים (dûdã'im)—literally meaning "love plant"—occur in the Jewish scriptures. The Septuagint translates דודאים (dûdã'im) as μανδραγόρας (mandragoras), and Vulgate follows Septuagint. A number of later translations into different languages follow Septuagint (and Vulgate) and use mandrake as the plant as the proper meaning in both Genesis 30:14–16 and Song of Solomon 7:13. Others follow the example of the Luther Bible and provide a more literal translation.
In Genesis 30:14, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah finds mandrake in a field. Rachel, Jacob's infertile second wife and Leah's sister, is desirous of the דודאים and barters with Leah for them. The trade offered by Rachel is for Leah to spend that night in Jacob's bed in exchange for Leah's דודאים. Leah gives away the plant to her barren sister, but soon after this (Genesis 30:14–22), 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. The predominant traditional Jewish view is that דודאים were an ancient folk remedy to help barren women conceive a child.
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 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 out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
A number of other plants have been suggested by biblical scholars, e.g., most notably, ginseng, which looks similar to the mandrake root and reputedly has fertility enhancing properties, for which it was picked by Reuben in the Bible, blackberries, Zizyphus lotus, the sidr of the Arabs, the banana, lily, citron, and fig. Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, ch. VII, suggested the dudai'im of Genesis 30:14 is the opium poppy, because the word dudai'im may be a reference to a woman's breasts.
The final verses of Song of Songs (Song of Songs 7:12–13), are:
לְכָ֤ה דֹודִי֙ נֵצֵ֣א הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה נָלִ֖ינָה בַּכְּפָרִֽים׃ נַשְׁכִּ֙ימָה֙ לַכְּרָמִ֔ים נִרְאֶ֞ה אִם פָּֽרְחָ֤ה הַגֶּ֙פֶן֙ פִּתַּ֣ח הַסְּמָדַ֔ר הֵנֵ֖צוּ הָרִמֹּונִ֑ים שָׁ֛ם אֶתֵּ֥ן אֶת־דֹּדַ֖י לָֽךְ׃
12 Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
13 The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
Magic 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 (circa AD 37 Jerusalem – 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."
Excerpt from Chapter XVI, Witchcraft and Spells: Transcendental Magic its Doctrine and Ritual by nineteenth-century occultist and ceremonial magician Eliphas Levi. A Complete Translation of Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie by Arthur Edward Waite. 1896
It was a common folklore in some countries that mandrake would only grow where the semen of a hanged man had dripped on to the ground; 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 on a soul-less 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 30 days, water it with cow's milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the 31st 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 its more sinister significance:
- Machiavelli wrote in 1518 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 VI part II III.ii
- John Donne refers to it in the second line of his song, 'Go and catch a falling star', as an example of an impossible task,
- "Get with child a mandrake root"
- It is in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, too. "Let's hang ourselves immediately!" "It'd give us an Erection!" "An Erection!" "With all that follows—where it falls, Mandrakes grow, that's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?"
- In Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, mandrakes can be found in the Hogwarts greenhouses. When pulled out of the earth, they resemble humans, and just as in the mythology, the cry is fatal. The mandrake can also revive those who have been petrified.
- In The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Ethan Hawley mentions both the form and legend of the mandrake root in chapter eight when describing a collection of "worthless family treasures" as follows: "We even had a mandrake root—a perfect little man, sprouted from the death-ejected sperm of a hanged man ..."
- In Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, a reference to the mandrake is made, describing a plant that lets out a supersonic scream when it is uprooted.
- In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Devil's Foot (contained in the Sherlock Homes collection His Last Bow) a crystalline extract of "Devil's Foot Root", also called mandrake, is at the root, so to speak, of two bizarre and related murders.
- Piccillo, G.A.; Mondati, E.G.M.; Moro, P.A. (2002). "Six clinical cases of Mandragora autumnalis poisoning: diagnosis and treatment". European Journal of Emergency Medicine 9 (4): 342–347.
- "Genesis 30:14–16 (King James Version)". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 6 January 2014.
- "Song of Songs 7:12–13 (King James Version)". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 6 January 2014.
- A Dictionary of the Bible: Volume III: (Part I: Kir -- Nympha), Volume 3 http://books.google.com/books?id=-WC7UgQHQlcC&pg=PA234&lpg=PA234
- pp. 402-403, The History and Practice of Magic by Paul Christian. 1963
- Heiser, Charles B. Jr (1969). Nightshades, The Paradoxical Plant, 131-136. W. H. Freeman & Co. SBN 7167 0672-5.
- Thompson, C. J. S. (reprint 1968). The Mystic Mandrake. University Books.
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- Erowid Mandrake Vault
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- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Mandrake". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Translation of Grimm's Saga No. 84 The Mandrake