Mandrakes, from Mythology to Museum Collectable

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

“… 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 [1]

Earmuff-clad, Harry Potter and his friends wrench unyielding mandrake plants from their cozy earthen beds to replant them in pots large enough to accommodate their growing bodies. The mandrakes are described as having anthropomorphic forms and features. While the wails of the adult mandrakes are fatal, Professor Sprout assures her herbology students that the cries of the young plants would only “knock them out for a few hours.” [2] As the narrative of the Chamber of Secrets unfolds, the mandrake’s power to revive victims of petrification proves crucial to the plot.

As Harry Potter was (as you may have guessed) a much-adored part of my childhood (and, ahem, adulthood) I was familiar with J.K. Rowling’s vision of mandrakes. Imagine my delight when I learned, while sifting through pharmaceutical artefacts within the Museum’s collection, that the Museum of Health Care possesses eight mandrake medication containers or trading cards.

Flint's Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care,   996001419
Flint’s Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 996001419

What, I thought to myself, were such whimsical fancies doing outside the herbology classroom and in my very own hands? Fans of Rowling’s series are likely aware that many characters, names, and objects within Harry’s world were inspired by a variety of mythological traditions. As I take you on a whirlwind tour of various perceptions of the mandrake, you will discover how firmly rooted Rowling’s mandrakes are within long histories of medical, literary and folklore practices.

Mandrake root box, J.L. Hopkins & Co., Collection of the Museum of Health Care,  1970.4.9
Mandrake root box, J.L. Hopkins & Co., Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1970.4.9

The mandrake surfaces in a wide array of religious, scholarly, literary and popular culture texts. The root’s human-like form and properties as a narcotic (as well as, allegedly, an aphrodisiac and fertility aid) may partially account for the wealth of attention lavished on the plant, as well as its associations with magic and magical practitioners.

Many of the oldest known references to the mandrake suggest it was long understood as an aphrodisiac and a fertility aid. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the earliest known reference to the mandrake appears in the Ugaritic literature of the 14th century B.C.E., from a region which forms part of modern-day Syria. The plant is mentioned in connection with the Ugaritic goddess of love and war, Anat, within a message from her brother, Baal, concerning love, peace, and passion. More widely familiar are the passages of the Bible which refer to the plant and its properties. The mandrake is known as the “love fruit” in Hebrew and is featured in the Book of Genesis and the Song of Songs, both in contexts pertaining to fertility and sex. In the Book of Genesis (30:14–17) childless Rachael procures mandrakes from her sister and co-wife Leah and she soon becomes pregnant. [3] In the Song of Songs (7:14) the mandrakes are used to woo in a love poem, as they “send out their fragrance, // and at our door is every delicacy…” [4]

Other uses for the mandrake were studied by the Greek scholar often referred to as the founder of botany, Theophrastus of Eresus (c. 370-285 BC). Using interviews with folk-medical informants, Theophrastus described the plant as a narcotic, but also noted that it could induce madness. [5] Several other ancient Greek and Roman scholars left accounts of their studies of the mandrake, amongst whom the Roman physician (of Greek origin) Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 C.E.) is prominent for his thoroughness. Dioscorides recorded how and why the drug was administered by different users, and its effects, noting it could elicit a range of reactions, from wooziness to death. He noted the drug was well established as an anaesthetic for surgery and a sleep inducer for insomniacs, and that its leaves were used to treat skin wounds. [6] The mandrake’s fame in antiquity was furthered through extensive study by other prominent scholars of the day, including the celebrated Greek physician Galen (C.E. 129-c.200), and the famous Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (C.E. 23-79), who wrote extensively about the plant.[7]

Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Oil painting by Ernest Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Oil painting by Ernest
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Perhaps because the plant was so highly valued for its medical properties, rituals and beliefs regarding the difficulty and danger of extracting the plant emerged throughout the Mediterranean world that forms its natural habitat. A common theme in these traditions was that the mandrake not only was human-like in shape, but could cry, shriek, and kill. In Romano-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus’ (C.E.37-101) account of the First Roman-Jewish war (66-73 C.E., in which Jewish peoples rebelled against Roman rule), he writes about mandrakes at some length. In his account:

“Flame-colored and towards evening emitting a brilliant light, it eludes the grasp of persons who approach with the intention of picking it, as it shrinks up and can only be made to stand still by pouring upon it certain secretions of the human body. Yet even to touch it is fatal, unless one succeeds in carrying off the root itself, suspended from the hand.”[8]

By Flavius Josephus’ time of writing, a tradition had become popularized of using a dog as a proxy for extracting the plant. This practice, or at least knowledge of it, had some longevity, it is mentioned in a 14th century Italian text on alchemy, and appears on a 13th century engraving from the Ferghana valley, in modern-day Uzbekistan, Krygyzstan and Tajikistan.[9]

By the Middle Ages and early Modern era, a vast realm of lore surrounded the mandrake. By the 1400s, the mandrake was popularly endowed with magical properties, it was perceived as a talisman with miraculous powers to cure, to bestow fantastic luck on the wearer, and to entrance others.[10] Some took to wearing them as good-luck charms. This practice was vehemently discouraged by the Catholic Church, which argued its use was akin to practicing witchcraft. Part of the evidence against Joan of Arc during her trial of 1431 was an accusation of carrying a mandrake on her person.[11]  These beliefs circulated while enduring legends surrounding the plant’s aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancing qualities persisted, for in 1518 the Florentine theorist and writer Machiavelli (1469-1527) authored a comedy called The Mandrake Root, which revolved around a ploy for the main character to have sex with, and impregnate a local woman.

Interestingly, beliefs in the positive attributes of the Mandrake co-existed with sinister myths and connotations. Legends swirled in the Middle Ages that the plant did not reproduce through normal means, but instead sprung up on ground where either semen or blood had been spilt, particularly, underneath gallows. This idea surfaced in a 17th century French study of the plant written in Paris.[12] This theme also featured prominently in the work of English playwright John Webster (1578-1630), especially in his tragedy The White Devil. The conflicting, contradictory myths surrounding the mandrake in the 1600s are illustrated in Shakespeare’s use of mandrakes. The mandrake is a rather frequent trope in his work, surfacing in Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Henry V1, and appeared alternatively as a curse, a charm, and a sedative. [13]

A witch in the moonlight Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
A witch in the moonlight
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The mandrake’s use within 19th and early 20th century patent medicines seems to have escaped the notice of writers who have recently studied the mandrake’s history. Nevertheless, such a usage, or at least the advertising of products under the name of “mandrake,” appears to have been relatively widespread and longstanding. The Museum of Health Care’s collection has eight such artefacts, the earliest dating to the 1830s, and the latest dated object to 1915. Moreover, the eight objects are derived from seven different patent medicine producers, some of which, especially Parke-Davis, were amongst the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing companies of the era. All of the records pertaining to the artefacts indicate mandrake was advertised as an aid to stomach and digestive ailments, and was sold over-the-counter. Curiously, given the apparent popularity of the plant, or at least the use of the plant’s name to sell products, an article published in 1890 in the British Medical Journal makes no allusion to its use in patent medicines. In summarizing the plant’s use in ancient times, the lore surrounding it, and modern uses of the plant, the author mentions only contemporary work to create a wine from the mandrake and attempts to create anaesthetic and narcotic substances from its roots. [14]

A fairly recent article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine asserted that mandrake “is the herb that time forgot.”[15] While its fame certainly seems to have ebbed and flowed over the years, various aspects of the knowledge surrounding the plant re-surfaced in different facets of 20th century popular culture. First published in 1934, the syndicated comic strip Mandrake the Magician ran in a number of newspapers until 2002, and reprints began being published in some papers in 2013. The character Mandrake has been called the first comic strip superhero, and his powers were mostly derived from his incredibly effective hypnotic technique. This seems a direct reference to the mandrake’s reputation as a narcotic, as well as the great wealth of superstitions and magical associations surrounding the plant. Interestingly, the comic’s creator, Lee Falk, credited the source of his inspiration to a line in 17th century poet’s John Donne’s work. The poem Song begins with the lines “Goe, and catche a falling starre, // Get with child a mandrake roote,” which seems a reference to the plant’s dubious powers as a fertility aid. [16]  Later in the 20th century, references to the mandrake’s origins in fallen blood and semen appear in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, as well as in French writer Michel Tournier’s take on the story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island. [17]

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the mandrake appears to have made somewhat of a comeback within popular culture. An article in the Globe and Mail published in 2000 suggests that the mandrake’s ancient use as an aphrodisiac and fertility aid is experiencing a renaissance in popularity. The story chronicles the success of a farmer on a kibbutz in northern Israel in creating and marketing Mandragora, a wine from the root of the mandrake. Micha Linn was inspired by the biblical passages about the plant’s aphrodisiac and fertility-aiding properties, and spent three years developing a way to produce the wine without killing anyone due to the mandrake’s powerful narcotic properties. At the time of publication, Linn was doing a roaring trade, and the journalist recorded many an anecdote about the wine’s seemingly inexplicable powers. [18]

To return to the magical greenhouse where our story began, it is readily apparent that J.K. Rowling is well-acquainted with the myths surrounding the mandrake. The human forms and fatal cries of Rowling’s mandrake are clear references to ancient legends about the dangers of extracting the plant. Moreover, the mandrake’s use in the book as a restorative seems a reference to the contradictory associations long surrounding the plant as a substance capable of harming, curing, and bringing forth new life. The stupendous popularity of her books has brought myths of the mandrake to new generations of readers the world over.

*We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada (Youth Employment Strategy) through the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Young Canada Works Program.

 

 Bibliography

Bible Gateway.com, “Song of Songs 7:13,” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Song of Songs+7:13&version=NIV, Retrieved August 10, 2014.

Carter, Anthony John. “Myths and Mandrakes.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96 (March 2003): 144-7.

Dircksen, M. and M. van den Berg, “Mandrake from Antiquity to Harry Potter.” Akroterion 53 (March 2012): 67-82.

Feliks, Jehuda and Carol Meyers. “Mandrake.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. Vol. 13, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 466. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 June 2014.

Kalman, Matthew. “The Viagra of the Valleys: Scientists Say There is No Evidence toSuggest the Mysterious Mandrake is an Aphrodisiac. Those Buying Micha Linn’s Mandragora Liquer Strongly Disagree.” The Globe and Mail, January 5th 2000,R1.

Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. Othello, 2nd edition. Edited by Jane Coles.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Westcott, William Wynn. “The Mandrake.” The British Medical Journal 1, 1524 (March 15th 1890): 620-1.

Zarcone, Thierry. “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant Human.’” Diogenes 52, 3 (August 2005): 115-29.

 

[1] William Shakespeare, Othello, 2nd edition, ed. Jane Coles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Act 3, Scene 3.

[2] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), 72

[3] Jehuda Feliks and Carol Meyers, “Mandrake,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica. ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 466. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 June 2014.

[4] Bible Gateway.com, “Song of Songs 7:13,” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Song of Songs+7:13&version=NIV

[5] M. Dircksen and M. van den Berg, “Mandrake from Antiquity to Harry Potter,” Akroterion 53 (March 2012): 67.

[6] M. Dircksen and M. van den Berg, “Mandrake from Antiquity to Harry Potter,” 68.

[7] William Wynn Westcott, “The Mandrake,” The British Medical Journal 1, 1524 (March 15th 1890): 620.

[8] Thierry Zarcone, “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant Human,’” Diogenes 52, 3 (August 2005): 117.

[9] Thierry Zarcone, “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant Human,’”116.

[10] M. Dircksen and M. van den Berg, “Mandrake from Antiquity to Harry Potter,” 74.

[11] Anthony John Carter, “Myths and Mandrakes,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96 (March 2003): 144.

[12] Thierry Zarcone, “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant Human,’” 119.

[13] Anthony John Carter, “Myths and Mandrakes,” 146-7.

[14] William Wynn Westcott, “The Mandrake,” 620-1.

[15] Anthony John Carter, “Myths and Mandrakes,” 144.

[16] Anthony John Carter, “Myths and Mandrakes,” 144.

[17] Thierry Zarcone, “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant Human,’” 126-7.

[18] Matthew Kalman, “The Viagra of the Valleys: Scientists Say There is No Evidence to Suggest the Mysterious Mandrake is an Aphrodisiac. Those Buying Micha Linn’s Mandragora Liquer Strongly Disagree,” The Globe and Mail, January 5th 2000, R1.

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