Magical Mandrake Root History, Folklore and Uses
In this article, we take a look at one of world’s most famous magical plants – the mandrake root. We examine the mandrake root’s magical uses, it’s intriguing history and folklore from around the world.
What Is Mandrake Root?
The mandrake root is a plant in the nightshade family rich in folklore and history. Its scientific name is Mandragora officinarum, and it grows mainly in countries near the Mediterranean Sea. Mandrake is a perennial with a long stem and short trunk. The leaves resemble a cabbage or edible green, but they are not edible! The flowers range in color from white to purple and have a similarity to Belladonna blooms. The mandrake root produces berries yellow to reddish and look similar to tomatoes. The root of the plant itself takes on strange human-like characteristics, hence the name man-drake.
Mandrake Root Toxicity!
The mandrake root’s toxicity is due to the chemicals inherent in the entire plant, mostly the stem and leaves: anticholinergics, hallucinogenics, and psychotic alkaloids. This magical plant is found in Southern European countries like Italy and Spain but is also in North African countries like Morocco and Tunisia. If ingested, the mandrake causes one to stop breathing and die at worst, at best it causes profuse vomiting and diarrhea. Take heed if working with this plant!
“Mandrake or Mandragora is used to return those who have been petrified to their original state. It’s also quite dangerous. The Mandrake’s cry is fatal to anyone who hears it.” ~ Hermione quote from the Harry Potter Series
The Mandrake Root’s Ancient History
The mandrake is mentioned in the Bible: three times in Genesis and once in Songs of Solomon. Modern Arabs know the mandrake root as Beid el Jinn, which means Eggs of the Jinn (the Jinn are dangerous spirits in Islamic mythology). The mandrake root is viewed as dangerous and potentially evil in the modern Middle East. In ancient Middle East, this magical plant was used for medicinal and magical purposes. Some claimed to have used the mandrake plant to put their patients in a sedated state for surgeries or to relieve pain. Others claim use of the mandrake as an aphrodisiac (as mentioned in the book of Genesis in the story of Leah and Rachel), and also as a protective amulet against evil spirits.
The Deadly Scream of the Mandrake
Ancient legend tells us to pull up a mandrake root leads to sickness and/or immediate death. It was thought the mandrake “screams” when uprooted, and so people would tie a rope to an animal and then to the plant and allow the animal to pull the plant up. This consequently killed the animal and not the human. The magical plant was then sold for a high price. Some say the root was carved to look more like a human shape, while others claim they come out of the ground looking human-like. The root can grow up to two feet long, so maybe both assumptions were correct.
The Drug of Circe
The mandrake is also called the Drug of Circe. Circe is an ancient Greek goddess known for her transformation abilities. She’s mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, and was skilled in herbalism, particularly poisonous herbs like the mandrake. She employed toxins in her practice to control wicked men, turning them into animals and keeping them as servants in her house on a mystical island known as Aeaea.
Medieval Mandrake: The Witch’s Tool
The mandrake plant is called the alraun in Germany, dating back to the Medieval Ages. There are stories about the alraun being dug up, sold for lots of money, and kept in families to be passed down through generations. It was a powerful amulet to these families. They treated the alraun with great respect – by wrapping it in silk and preserving it in a box. The alraun was taken out and carefully bathed in wine or brandy four times a year. The remnants of the washing liquid would be sprinkled around the house as a protective ward. I’ve confirmed one can purchase the alraun in Germany today, and that it’s used in the same manner as it was centuries ago.
The Witch’s Flying Ointment
The mandrake root has a long history in witchcraft. Not only did the common people and royalty use it, but so did accused witches during the Dark Ages. While the mandrake grew naturally in the Mediterranean region, distribution spread through the Northern, Eastern, and Western European countries over time. The mandrake became an essential ingredient in the witch’s flying ointment, according to grimoires from that time. It was a powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac. If used with other toxic herbs and rubbed externally on the witch’s skin, it made the witch feel as if she is “flying”…or to put it simply got her high or sent her on a “trip”.
The Mandrake as a Familiar
The mandrake was seen during Medieval times as a sort of anthropomorphic vegetable – a plant that was also human-like. Therefore whoever possessed the mandrake also possessed a powerful familiar spirit to do his or her magical bidding. This is why they were so sought after and expensive. Witches were accused of having mandrake roots and keeping them as familiar spirits, as documented in the Witch Trials. In fact, Joan of Arc herself was accused of having a mandrake familiar spirit to which she denied to be true. The mandrake’s leaves were said to glow at night, adding to its mystique. Later it was discovered the glow worm was attracted to the leaves causing the leaves to shine at night.
Mandrake Root’s Magical Uses Today
The mandrake root is still thought of as magical in modern times. This is because of the resurgence of the “Old Ways”, if you will, in the form of neo-paganism and witchcraft. Pagans and witches the world over seek their own mandrake root as an amulet, familiar spirit, to use in flying ointments, or to simply have as a collectible because of the plant’s rich history.
Mandrake Root’s Magical Properties
In Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, the mandrake’s magical properties include: love, fertility, protection, money and health. It’s related to the fire element with a masculine energy, and is also associated with the deities Hecate and Hathor. Cunningham warns against the consumption of mandrake, due to its lethal toxins. He also states you can place a mandrake under your pillow for dream magic, as well as use it in a windowsill as a protective charm.
Harry Potter and the Mandrake Plant
Mandrake root is part of modern pop culture – featured in the Harry Potter books and movies. More specifically, Harry and his cohorts help cultivate and harvest the “screaming” mandrake root in a magical Herbology class. The purpose to the mandrake root, as stated by their teacher, was to craft a medicine to un-petrify students who had been petrified by a beast in the castle. Watch the mandrake roots scream as they’re pulled from pots in the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The mandrake will be talked about, written about, and loved for centuries to come!