|Mandragora officinarum - Mandrake
- Solanaceae - Southern Europe, North Africa, West Asia, Himalayas
Mandragora officinarum, or mandrake, is most famous for its root, which can grow up to 100cm (39”), and often takes on an unusual shape. It is a perennial plant whose lengthy and wide leaves grow directly from its roots once each spring. These leaves form a rosette, from the center of which bell-shaped blue or violet flowers grow, making this rosette uniquely identifiable to the mandrake. At all other times throughout the year, the plant is hidden underground. The mandrake also produces yellow berries that smell fruity but are more similar in flavor to tomatoes, and its leaves smell much like fresh tobacco.
The mandrake holds a special place as the most famous of all magical plants, due to its many magical and medical uses and the immense amount of mythology it has generated.
Historians have determined that the earliest mention of the mandrake refers to its use in Babylon; various records are contained in the cuneiform tablets of the Assyrians and the Old Testament. The earliest evidence of ritualistic use occurs in an Ugaritic cuneiform text from Ras Shamra, dated between the fifteenth to fourteenth century B.C.E. There is also evidence in Mesopotamian cuneiform texts that mandrake root was combined with wine to create a psychoactive beverage called "cow's eye". This unusual name can probably be attributed to the dilating effect this concoction had on the pupils.
Ornamentation involving mandrake root was found in the grave of Tutankhamen in Egypt; the plant began to appear widely there after it was brought from Palestine during Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. It became popular as a houseplant and as part of sacred gardens devoted to the goddess Hathor. The yellow fruits were also mentioned frequently in Pharonic art and in love songs of the New Kingdom.
There are some instances of the mandrake in ancient Greek poetry and comedy, most particularly in the writings of Lucian and Alexis.
Ancient Germanic peoples also made use of the plant, especially their seeresses, who were known for their clairvoyant abilities far outside of Europe. The modern German name alraune can be traced back to the ancient Germanic term "Alrun", which translates to "all knowing" or "he who knows the runes". The demonization of mandrake begun once Germany became dominated by Christianity.
In the Middle Ages, mandrake was often counterfeited due to its popularity as a talisman. This trend continued even up until the previous century.
In more modern but still historic times, there have been many notable mentions of the mandrake by well-known authors, including Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Flaubert.
Closer to our own era, there have been several telling instances of the mandrake in comic illustrations, including in an early Smurfs comic from 1979. This can perhaps be attributed to comic authors' and readers' fascination with the magic and the occult, and mandrake's rich history in that realm. Various psychedelic rock bands have incorporated mandrake lore into their works as well, including Deep Purple and Gong.
Despite mandrake's rich history, it has become less significant in modern times, apart from the scant few references listed above. This is mostly due to its lack of availability. It has not attained a prominent place in subcultures that use psychoactive plants, and it has never been the subject of a modern scientific study.
TRADITIONAL USE: Although we have very few details due to the poor quality of the available sources, it is clear that in ancient times, the mandrake was most heavily utilized by erotic cults.
It's widely believed that the Old Testament contains multiple references to the "love apples" (fruits) of the mandrake as an aphrodisiac (though some disagree that the Old Hebrew term in question actually does translate to "mandrake"). The first of these instances is in Genesis, wherein the scent of the mandrake's yellow fruits were described as having aphrodisiac properties. These fruits are still prized today as aphrodisiacs in the Near East.
Some evidence exists that the mandrake was used in secret mystical rites in ancient Israel; one of the factors supporting this hypothesis is the significance of the mandrake in kabbalism as a symbol for "becoming one." Similarly, in ancient Egypt it appears that mandrake fruits may have been eaten as aphrodisiacs.
The ancient Greeks also used the mandrake as a sacred love plant. Records left by the botanist Theophrastus indicate that there was an elaborate ritual even for its collection, enacted under the auspices of the love goddess Aphrodite.
Elephants have even been observed eating mandrake directly before copulation.
Several accounts also exist throughout various ancient cultures of the mandrake root's use as a protective amulet. It has been carved into anthropomorphic "mandrake men", and in shamanic societies that were influenced by Christianity, it has even been made into crucifixes. Some of these latter specimens are still on display in certain churches throughout these regions.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Burning and inhaling the smoke of the mandrake is the least effective method of experiencing its psychoactive properties. The leaves are picked before the end of the fruiting season, dried in the shade, and used in a smoking blend (either with tobacco or other herbs) or as incense. The root works as incense as well; the smoke is rather easy to inhale, although its smell is not entirely pleasant.
Fresh leaves can also be chewed, and fresh mandrake fruits can be consumed. Consuming fresh mandrake fruits is incredibly safe; there have been no known overdoses even after consuming multiple fruits.
The root is hardly ever eaten. It is mostly extracted either into water or alcohol; it is about as effectively extracted into the former as it is the latter.
Since ancient times, tinctures have been made and consumed after being added to water. Today, a therapeutic dosage is considered to be fifteen - thirty drops, and an aphrodisiac/psychoactive dosage thirty - fifty drops.
Mandrake root has long been implemented in the making of beer and wine, either as an additive or the basis of the fermentation. When mandrake root is the main ingredient in the brewing process, cinnamon and saffron are sometimes added to improve its taste. Mandrake beer is quite potent, with dosages rarely exceeding one liter--drink with caution!
The ancient Greeks used fresh or dried mandrake in wine as an aphrodisiac. To make mandrake wine, add a handful of chopped mandrake root to a .75 liter bottle of wine and steep for a week. For maximum potency, it is best not to filter the root pieces out until the wine is gone, and the more sour the wine, the more effective the extraction. Two or three cinnamon sticks and a tablespoon of saffron can be added to improve the flavor.
Another popular recipe involves chopping up a large handful each of cinnamon sticks, rhubarb root, vanilla pods, and mandrake root, and steeping in a bottle of white wine for two weeks. The plant matter is then drained, and is then colored with St. John’s wort or saffron and sweetened if desired, most effectively with a combination of royal jelly and honey.
The spirits are also an effective choice for mixing with mandrake. The only place in the world where this practice is still prevalent is Romania.
MEDICINAL USE: It has been said that the mandrake had perhaps the greatest number of uses of any medicinal plant of ancient times. It was variously used as a an analgesic/anesthetic, abortifacient, antidote, aphrodisiac, inebriant, and as a sleeping agent. And indeed, it was the most heavily utilized narcotic/anesthetic of ancient/late ancient times and into the Middle Ages.
Specifically, mandrake root was used for the following conditions: abscesses, arthritis, bone pains, callosities, cramps, discharge, erysipelas, eye disease and inflammation, gout, headaches, hemorrhoids, hip pains, hysteria, infertility, inflammation, labor complications, liver pains, loss of speech, melancholy, menstrual problems, pain, painful joints, possession, scrofula, skin inflammation, sleeplessness, snakebite, spleen pains, stomach ailments, swollen glands, tubercles, tumors, ulcers, uterine inflammation, worms, and wounds. It was also used as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
Mandrake was used by the ancient Assyrians in two main medical contexts: an analgesic and an anesthetic. More specifically, mandrake was commonly used as a treatment for toothaches, childbirth complications, hemorrhoids, and stomach ailments. This latter use involved adding powdered root to beer.
Since at least the New Kingdom in Egypt, mandrake has been used there medicinally. There is some evidence to indicate that its use goes back even further to ca. 1600 b.c.e. as a cure for pend worms, pain, skin inflammations, and bone pain. It was also used as a skin cream and joint stabilizer, and to treat a “sick tongue”.
The Hippocratics in ancient Greece used mandrake as a cure for melancholy. Aristotle categorized it as a sleeping agent, while Plato described it as a powerful anesthetic. The physician Aretaios used it for this purpose when performing surgery. Another physician and scientist, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, used mandrake fruits as sedatives, and root extract as a cure for runny eyes and toothaches.
Early medieval Persian manuscripts show that they used mandrake as sleeping aid, along with hemp and opium.
Within the realm of Romanian, Russian, and European folk medicine, mandrake has often been used as part of a salve to treat skin ailments externally. The fresh leaves are also chewed to ward off pain from toothaches, while the smoke from burning dried leaves is inhaled to help with coughs and headaches.
Homeopathic physicians prescribe mandrake for headaches (and certian other maladies) as well, but in the form of root extractions.
Brandy infused with mandrake root is said to be effective in combating the sympotms of chronic rheumatism.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Surprisingly, there are not many accounts from the modern era of experience with the mandrake.
The ancient lexicographer Suidas noted mandrake's "hypnotic" effects, while Hildegard von Bingen claimed it produced "illusions".
In 1950's, one experiential report described mandrake as bringing on "inebriation, narcosis, hallucinations, visions".
More modern research, including within the realm of homeopathy, has shown that the effects of mandrake are very similar to belladonna, including the following clinical symptoms: dry mouth, nose, and throat; muscular atony; an increase in pulse frequency; eye issues such as farsightedness and pupil dilation; and the immediate short-term memory loss.
Other modern accounts with mandrake wine describe a more enjoyable experience, including sensations of pleasure coursing through the body, a mild euphoria, and dream activity, with a greater frequency of sexually oriented dreams. Slight cranial pressure and visual hallucinations can occur. An increased proclivity towards music, particularly rhythm, has been noted, as has a diminished sense of ego. Farsightedness and dry mouth are both reportedly very mild. The sensations begin roughly 15 - 20 minutes after consumption, and the effects of the alcohol are negligible.
More recent accounts of the consumption of mandrake fruits, on the other hand, do not contain any mention of direct psychoactive effects, but an increase of erotic dreams has been noted.
Grieve, Maud. "Mandrake." A Modern Herbal. 1931. Web. 6 Dec. 2009 < http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mandra10.html>.
Ratsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2005. Print.