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Exploring mandrake: delving into its toxicity and its potential for inducing hallucinatory effects

Mandrake, known for its toxicity, has historical roles in medicine and religion practices. Embark on a journey of discovery to uncover its intriguing attributes.

by BioGrow

The Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), also known as mandragora or Davil’s apple, identifies a genus of plants belonging to the Solanaceae family. The various species belonging to this genus are classified as poisonous and there are many legends about this characteristic.

However, this plant has been known since ancient times and has always captured the imagination of ordinary people, also due to an aura of mystery that has always surrounded it. This, over the centuries has also given rise to many superstitions about this plant.

Recognizing Mandrake

Mandragora autumnalis

Mandragora autumnalis

The Mandragora genus comprises three main species. Among these, two—Mandragora vernalis and Mandragora autumnalis—originate from the Mediterranean and are widely spread across our continent. The third, Mandragora caulescens Clarke, hails from the Himalayas. This plant is a perennial that reproduces through buds at ground level. The leaves are arranged in a basal rosette, and as you can see from the photo, they closely resemble those of spinach. The mandrake autumnalis (the most common species in our territory) produces a berry as its fruit, enclosed within the calyx. This berry is ellipsoid or subspherical in shape, reddish or yellow-orange in color, turning dark or blackish when dried. In this species, the flowers are purple and quite showy. However, what truly characterizes the mandrake and gives rise to myths and legends is its root system. The plant is equipped with a voluminous, ramified, and contorted underground system that can take on such diverse shapes that it resembles a human figure.

Contents and Toxicity of Mandrake

Mandragora autumnalis
Mandrake has been known since biblical times. It was famous in ancient medicine for a long time. Its medicinal properties are attributed to alkaloids, particularly those found in its underground parts. One of these is mandragorine, an alkaloid similar to atropine, possessing mydriatic action. From this compound, l-josciamine, l-scopolamine, and pseudo-josciamine were later isolated. Mandrake thus shares the same alkaloid content as Atropa belladonna, a poisonous plant we have already encountered. While it was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times, or in religious rituals for its hallucinogenic properties, today it’s considered a poisonous plant to be avoided. Let’s now explore the significant aspects of mandrake’s history and the legends surrounding it.

History and Curiosities about Mandrake

In the cultures of the Mediterranean basin, mandrake has a long tradition. It was used as a magical, aphrodisiac, hallucinogenic, and medicinal plant.

Historical Periods

This plant is one of the most renowned in European medieval witchcraft, but its virtues have been known since the 2nd millennium BC. Knowledge of mandrake is attested by Egyptian archaeological finds dating back to the 14th century BC (during the 5th Dynasty). Furthermore, images of the plant have been identified in ancient bas-reliefs in Boghaz-keui. Alongside the lotus and opium poppy, which are also plants with psychoactive properties, it was used to make ointments capable of inducing hypnotic, trance-like, and ecstatic states. It was also known to the ancient Germans, Greeks, and Romans.

History and Curiosities about Mandrake

In the cultures of the Mediterranean basin, mandrake has a long tradition. It was used as a magical, aphrodisiac, hallucinogenic, and medicinal plant.

Historical Periods

This plant is one of the most renowned in European medieval witchcraft, but its virtues have been known since the 2nd millennium BC. Knowledge of mandrake is attested by Egyptian archaeological finds dating back to the 14th century BC (during the 5th Dynasty). Furthermore, images of the plant have been identified in ancient bas-reliefs in Boghaz-keui. Alongside the lotus and opium poppy, which are also plants with psychoactive properties, it was used to make ointments capable of inducing hypnotic, trance-like, and ecstatic states. It was also known to the ancient Germans, Greeks, and Romans.

Literature

Ancient representation of mandrake

Ancient representation of mandrake

Mandrake has also been identified with the enigmatic erba moly of Homer. In the tale, found in the tenth book of the Odyssey, it’s the god Hermes, the “messenger of the gods”, who gives the magical herb to Odysseus. The purpose is to protect him from the enchantress Circe’s potion, which turns men into swine. In this story, the moly herb works opposite to the effect of classical magic herbs—it prevents transformation into an animal instead of inducing it. Mandrake is also known in Jewish culture and is present in the Old Testament. It’s mentioned in a story with rather “pagan” connotations, where the plant is used as a means of exchange for its aphrodisiac and fertility properties. Indeed, this plant was considered a powerful aphrodisiac in many cultures. Notably, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Love, was known as Mandragoritis.

Folk Beliefs

The large root and fruits were the parts of the plant used for medicinal and psychoactive effects. For a long time, the root’s shape has been likened to that of a man or woman. This anthropomorphic identification has been a source of inspiration in mythology, beliefs, and rituals related to this plant. In various sources from medieval periods, the belief is reported that when a condemned person is hanged, at the moment of death, their seminal fluid or urine, falling to the ground, gives rise to the mandrake. This theme is usually followed by a description of the procedure for collecting the plant. It was believed that anyone who attempted to uproot it, or even accidentally stumbled upon it or got too close, would die. The collection was based on the sacrifice of a dog, usually a black one. The poor animal was tied by its tail or neck to the plant’s root. As the dog ran away from the root, uprooting it in the process, the animal would die.
This tale is widespread in Germanic countries, Iceland, France, and elsewhere. It’s likely that the theme of mandrake’s birth from the drops of semen or urine of a hanged person was part of an original myth about the plant. The hanged person, a condemned criminal for serious offenses or theft, but innocent (as specified in various sources), would have been a certain individual, probably the protagonist of the original story. In the transformation of the myth into popular belief, the motif of unjust condemnation disappears, and the analogy refers to any hanged person. The connection between mandrake and death is present in other beliefs as well. Often, the presence of the plant is associated with places where corpses are buried, such as the vicinity of cemeteries.

Mythology

In Greek culture, there is a certain connection between mandrake, the dog, and the goddess Hecate. The realm of this dark deity of the underworld is identified with cemeteries. A different original myth could be the source of a group of popular and mythological stories present in European, Arabian, and Asian cultures. From these stories emerges a theme set in the time of human origins, in which humans themselves are said to have originated from the mandrake, based on the plant’s very anthropomorphic root. In these stories, we can read that

the first humans would have been a family of giant sentient mandrakes that the sun would have animated, and they would have detached themselves from the earth on their own.

Or that

humans initially appeared on earth in the form of monstrous mandrakes, animated by an instinctive life, and the breath of the Most High forced, transmuted, refined, and finally uprooted them to make beings with their own thoughts and movements. […] From this, we could deduce that mandrake is linked to a myth of human origin.

Although we don’t possess an actual myth of mandrake’s origin, it’s interesting to note that, in these cosmogonies, the plant’s origin is considered older than that of humans. As you can see, an actual, well-structured myth of mandrake’s origin has not reached us. Only a few isolated and ever-altered traces have found a place in popular belief and storytelling. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this poisonous plant was deemed primordial, created before or at the dawn of humanity.

Further Reading

PubMed Archinte – “Mandrake toxicity. A case of mistaken identity”.
PubMed, Cases Journal – “A two cases clinical report of mandragora poisoning in primary care in Crete, Greece: two case report”.
ResearchGate, Clinical Toxicology – “Anticholinergic intoxication due to Mandragora officinarum”.

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