Friday, June 15, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

If any herb could be called a child of the dark underworld, it is mandrake.  Mentioned in European witch trials and alchemic treatises, Chinese herbals and African hymns, mandrake is the prototypical herb of Old World sorcery.  How the mandrake may have been used is mostly a matter of folk tales now, but the chthonian history of this interesting vegetable is worth poking around at.

First and foremost, mandrake is poisonous.  It comes from the same botanical family as tobacco and belladonna and was used throughout history as an easy (if painful for the victim) way to kill off rivals from Italy's city-states to China's various capitols. Although the "apples" of the plant, those curious red-orange fruits you can see in the illumination above, were sometimes eaten as aphrodisiacs, I personally wouldn't recommend ingesting any of the mandrake.

Scott Cunningham, in his definitive Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, points to the fact that mandrake has a long magickal history, particularly in so called "poppet magick".  But there have been other and sometimes even more sinister uses for the plant in the shape of a man.

Tradition holds that harvesting mandrake can, in and of itself, be hazardous.  Anyone who has read the Harry Potter novels or seen the movies based on same is vaguely familiar with the "scream of the mandrake" which was at one time said to drive men mad.  Pliny, writing in the first century CE, gives a ritual for pulling the plant out of the ground.  The sorcerer should stand with his back to the wind, draw three circles around the plant with a sword, pour out a libation of wine, turn to the west and then work the plant up with the sword.  According to occult author and journalist Robert Masello, it was the Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus who first mentioned the frightening howl made by the mandrake when it was uprooted.  From there, the next step was the legend that the shrieking could kill.

No doubt due to this belief the Medieval era saw at least one even more stringent requirement added to the harvesting of mandrake which, I hasten to add, was decidedly less humane.  This formula is also illustrated above.  Alchemic tracts advised tying one end of a rope to the plant and the other end to a hungry dog.  The alchemist should them move a healthy distance away and coax the dog toward him with food.  The dog would pull the mandrake from the ground and, following the mandrake's inevitable wail, drop dead for his effort.  And no treat to boot.

Once gotten - if the getter lived through the getting - the mandrake could be used for myriad purposes.  Bathed and sometimes even dressed in little clothes, it might be charmed and used as an oracle.  In this case the mandrake would be set up in its own cupboard or box and asked important questions.  How it answered remains a mystery.

In France, particularly in areas with a high concentration of wise women such as Brittany, the Auvergne, Alsace/Lorraine and Provence, the mandrake was considered a kind of witch's familiar and was sometimes referred to as a fee: fairy.  After her execution, gossip said that Jeanne d'Arc's mother, a wise woman in Domremy, kept a mandrake in the form of her daughter to ensure the future saint's safety.  The poppet was lost, they said, just before 18 year old Jeanne was "captured" by the English.

Of course, the mandrake could also be used to enchant or to kill.  Sometimes the herb was used to draw the love of another; more often, if the witch trials are to be believed, it was fashioned in the form of an enemy and manipulated to bring harm.  In 1630, a group of women in Hamburg were accused of witchcraft when it was discovered that they each possessed a mandrake root.  In an ironic twist on the story of Jeanne d'Arc and her mother, a woman of Orleans was hanged in 1603 as a sorceress for keeping a "mandrake fiend."

Today, mandrake are hard to come by and expensive when found.  But the story of their substitutions swings more to the herbal than the underworld, so we'll leave that for another time.  Vendredi heureux ~

Header: Harvesting mandrake, illumination from the Tacuinum Sanitatis of the 15th century via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

"The Scream of the Mandrake"... Wasn't that one of those MST3K DVDs we got from Netflix, Pauline?

Pauline said...

Really and truly, I would love to hear Joel, Crow & Tom discuss that at length... Or at most for an hour and twenty :)

Prince of Pinkness said...

Oh, my goodness! I've seen that image before, in a book I collected as a child. Just can't place it.

Never actually worked with mandrake; probably best to stay away from it. Bring on the substitutes! :)

Pauline said...

Yeah, I'm not wealthy enough to throw real mandrake around. I think more on this next Tuesday :)