Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Mandrake – The Scream of Death

Mandragora officinarum L.

Pythagoras called the mandrake Antropomorphon which means human figure, since its roots consists of two legs similar to those of man; although many scoffers (...) are not happy with that and try to deceive the ignorant and credulous people by sculpting, in the root of the cane or in that of the Bryonia, all parts of the human body inserting certain grains of wheat in those parts of the body from which they want herbs to grow instead of hair. They then buried these roots until they grow beards and sell them for whatever they want to sterile women to have children.

Dioscorides, P. 1651. A cerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos (Translated, illustrated and annotated by Dr. A. Laguna)

The mandrake is a perennial herb with thick, often forked, roots which may resemble the legs of the human body. It belongs to the Solanaceae family and to the genus Mandragora, which includes three species native to the Mediterranean basin and Central Asia.

Mandrake is probably the most famous ‘magic’ plant in Europe, known for both its medicinal and psychoactive properties and a wide range of legends and myths have been associated with it over the centuries. Known since ancient times, it appears sculpted in various Egyptian tombs and its healing properties are mentioned in the Eber papyrus (1500 BCE). Initially used as an amulet for good luck, as an aphrodisiac and to treat infertility, its use from the 1st century was as a sedative and anaesthetic in surgical procedures. Plyny gave his patients a piece of root to chew before operations and Dioscorides used mandrake wine as an anaesthetic and to ease pain.

Later the Arabs developed the ‘spongia somnifera’: a sponge soaked in juice of mandrake and other plants, such as opium poppy or belladonna, which was applied via the nose to make patients sleep. This was the most common form of anaesthesia in Europe until the discovery of ether. In addition to its narcotic and analgesic properties, mandrake was used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions including asthma, arthritis, inflammations and ulcers.

For centuries mandrake was associated with myths and magic, being one of the ingredients of the witches’ ‘flying ointments’ in the Middle Ages. According to an ancient legend, when the plant was uprooted it would scream, killing anyone who heard it. Therefore the gathering of the mandrake was carried out following elaborate rituals. One of the most famous ceremonies required the help of a hungry dog, who was tied up to the stem of the plant. When the dog tried to get to the food thrown to him, which lay just out of his reach, he would pull the plant out of the ground and, according to legend, would die soon after.

The mandrake owes its properties to the presence of highly poisonous alkaloids like scopolamine, atropine, mandragorin and hyoscyamine which can cause hallucinations, delusions, seizures and even death. In modern medicine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine are used as an antispasmodic, to treat intestinal problems, neuralgias and Parkinson´s tremors.