A native of southern Europe and Turkey, the mandrake grows in open woodland, uncultivated fields, graveyards and stony places. Its flowers, which appear in early spring, form a pale mauve-blue rosette, surrounded by large fleshy leaves. If you enjoy wandering through the countryside in this part of the world, you may have spotted this plant.

To be blunt, it is rather nondescript – seen one and you’ve seen them all. But what you may not know is that its fascinating and spooky past, even today, accounts for its notorious reputation.

Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
Mandrake – Steve Parsley

What makes this plant so interesting is not its beauty. It is that, in terms of written lore, it has more mythology, mystery and magic associated with it than any other plant in western tradition.

Mandrake is the common name for the plant genus Mandragora – the word roughly translates from the Greek as ‘not suitable for cattle.’ This is because all parts of the mandrake contain toxins.

One of its other names is Satan’s Apple, which may provide a clue. It also has the name Love Apple, due to its sweet apple-scented fruits. It is in the same botanical family as the edible tomato, potato and aubergine. But don’t let that fool you. All these may be members of the deadly nightshade family – but it’s the mandrake that most deserves the name deadly.

A root in human form or a love potion?

Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
Mandrake – in human form

Someone, somewhere, in the mists of time, imagined that the roots had a body, a head, arms and legs, resembling the human body. Both the Greeks and Romans had also spotted this, so who came up with the idea in the first place remains a mystery.

Whatever the case, the idea caught on and by the Middle Ages descriptions of the plant appears many ancient botanical tomes, together with illustrations showing the mandrake root in human form. Some of the pictures are a bit over the top.

A medieval description of the mandrake

But what the text does show is that the mandrake played an important role in magic rituals. They also say it was a key ingredient in love magic and aphrodisiacs and would bring good luck to the wearer if worn as an amulet.

Even today, the mandrake continues to cast its spell. It is a plant species that fascinates and intrigues herbalists and botanists, as well as mythology scholars and occultists.

The curse

Having read all this, you may decide to investigate the mandrake root for yourself. But beware! The idea that the root has a human form resulted in a curious legend: if a human pulls a mandrake root from the ground, it screams a curse, which is fatal to any who hear it, particularly the perpetrator. So, if you are in any way superstitious, perhaps it is better to leave well alone. Just in case.

But if you simply have to pull one from the ground, Josephus (c. AD 37 – c. 100) offers some advice:

“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 tries 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.”

Poor dog.

Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
Tacuinum Sanitation – Wikipedia commons

Medicine and madness

In addition to its magical powers, the mandrake played a role in early medicine. There are references to it in the bible as an aid to conception but it was also known to have narcotic properties. Indeed, our ancient forbears knew that, although this unassuming plant was dangerous it could knock you out, sometimes permanently. It is said that a potion made from mandrake was occasionally used to anaesthetise patients who required surgery, at a huge risk to the person concerned.

The active ingredients were also used as remedies for ‘melancholy, convulsions, and mania.’ The problem was that large doses could cause ‘excite delirium and madness.’

Mandrake under the spotlight

Mandrake plays no part in medicine these days and no one (hopefully) uses dogs to uproot them. Even so, the myths associated with this plant have left their mark on the west’s collective consciousness.

Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
Professor Pomona Sprout (Miriam Miriam Margolyes) with a newly born mandrake in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
Mandrake quote from Harry Potter – www.nlm.nih.gov

So it is no surprise that this plant has, as if by magic, begun to appear on the silver screen. The mandrake now stars in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Mandrake: mythology, mystery, magic and madness
The mandrake scene from Pan’s Labyrinth with Ofelia / Princess Moanna (Ivana Vaquero)

Once again, in these films at least, the magical mandrake is centre stage.

Please note: Every part of this plant contains toxins, so please leave them alone. Even if you have a willing dog.

Charlie

Thanks go to Keith Lovelock for the headline photo – which he took in Didim – and also to Steve Parsley for his photo – taken in Kayaköy.

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