Mandrake is a perennial plant that grows wild in areas influenced by the Mediterranean climate. The plant has large leaves and a very short stem, and it bears purple flowers that turn to yellowish fruits.
People often describe mandrake as having the color of fire and say it lights up like lightning at night. Some call it “devil’s candle” because it resembles a flickering flame. This is true to some extent because it attracts fireflies.
However, the most important feature of the plant is its thick root that resembles a human being, and some of its properties have been known for at least 6,000 years. The ancient Egyptians referred to the extract of the roots (possibly mixed with alcohol) as “the water of life” or “Sa of life.” They believed that whoever drank it would acquire health, vigor, and longevity. According to the ancient Egyptians, the plant had divine power thanks to its relationship with the gods. Therefore, people kept the plant in a visible corner of their homes and lit candles before it. Lighting fires before holy effigies was a common practice in ancient societies, just as it is in Christianity today. The ancient Egyptians used to take vows to mandrake and deified it in their prayers.
What was so special about mandrake? It causes numbness in the body, and this effect is different to those of today’s local anesthetics. It causes stupor that can turn into a temporary lunacy or even death in high doses. When taken with alcohol, drunkenness is accompanied by a pleasant and tranquilizing slumber. This stage comes after great stress and pain because the plant has narcotic properties.
Due to its properties, the plant was believed to have mysterious power, and the resemblance of its roots to a human body was taken as evidence for this. This led to its use in sympathetic sorcery. It is believed that consuming its yellow fruits brings sexual energy and fertility to both men and women. In several cultures, eating the fruits is seen as a guarantee of becoming pregnant. The roots, however, were carried as an amulet to symbolize fertility. It is maybe because of this belief that the Goddess of beauty and lust, Aphrodite, is also called Mandragonitis. The Ionians named the plant mandragor. In the famous epic Odysseus, Circe casts a spell on the Argonauts using mandrake.
The Bible also mentions mandrake. From Genesis: “Reuben went to the field during harvest and found mandrake. Rachel used it. Became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.” Note that a group of Indian scientists claimed in 1963 that sterile women in Mumbai gave birth to boys after consuming an extract made from mandrake. In Israel, the yellowish-colored, plum-like fruits that ripen during the wheat harvest are very sweet. Overeating these fruits causes dizziness and even madness. Because of the general belief that it facilitates fertilization, it has been used in love potions. Recently, a potion made from ripe mandrake fruits was marketed to newlywed couples. The Jews also used the mandrake root as a talisman against evil spirits. Even today, the mandrake root is carried as a love and good luck charm in eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
Mandrake is not just a symbol or talisman of love and fertility. According to legend, King Solomon carried a piece of mandrake root in his seal ring to give him sovereignty over souls. Hippocrates described it as a narcotic to alleviate pain, anxiety, and depression, but he also mentions it as being a magical herb with evil powers.
Hannibal used mandrake to defeat the African army that challenged the power of Carthage. He made a feigned retreat and left barrels of wine tainted with mandrake root in his deserted camp. When his enemies drank the wine to celebrate their victory, they became incapacitated. Hannibal’s army then returned and swiftly dispatched them.
There are stories about Caesar and Alexander the Great using mandrake in similar ways in their campaigns. Caesar used it against Sicilian pirates, and Alexander the Great used it during his eastern campaign. Roman soldiers are said to have offered a potion called “Morion” or “Death wine” to prisoners before crucifying them. This potion was made of mandrake, and those who drank it later fell into a death-like sleep without breath or pulse. When this happened, the corpse would be taken off the cross and given to the family for burial. However, some of these would revive before burial, so soldiers were ordered to mutilate the bodies before handing them over to the families.
It is possible that the sponge used to moisten the lips of Jesus Christ while on the cross contained extracts of mandrake and myrrh. Similarly, “Spongia somnifera” (soporific sponge) was used in 15th century Italy as an anesthetic for surgical operations. In the first century BC, the famous Anatolian physician Dioscorides described in his De Materia Medica the use of wine prepared from the root bark of mandrake as an anesthetic for surgery and cauterization.
Mandrake was also used as a medical anesthetic during Pliny’s time. It was also believed to be a potent love potion. All parts of the plant were thought to be useful. For example, an herbal tea prepared from its leaves was good for wounds and inflammations.
Sometimes it was given as a suppository. Root bark was prescribed as an emetic, laxative, and analgesic after mixing it with urine.
Ibni Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) mentions in his famous Kanun fi’d Tıbb (Canon of Medicine) that a mush made from mandrake seeds could cure articular pain and a decoction of the seeds could heal womb diseases. Davut el-Antaki mentioned in his tenth-century book Tezkere-i Davut how a gargle of mandrake water alleviated toothache. He also stated that mandrake relieved headaches when a mush was applied on the head, as well as its effectiveness against pain and insomnia.
In the middle ages, a decoction of the root bark of mandrake was the only anesthetic available for surgery. It fell out from grace in the 14th century when the Soporific Sponge— which was made by soaking a sponge in tinctures of mandrake, hemlock (Conium maculatum), opium, opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)—replaced it. When required, this sponge’s contents would be dripped down the nostrils of the patient by squeezing it. To resuscitate patients, onion vinegar would be placed under their noses.
Although its use as an aphrodisiac and anesthetic remained prominent, mandrake became a symbol of sorcery and secret beliefs in the middle ages. An overdose of the root could kill a man or drive him insane with hallucinogenic delirium. Therefore, a religious icon and symbol of goodness became an evil symbol. The “life-giving” fruits called “love apples” came to be known as “Devil’s apples.” Rumors spread that it was dangerous to collect the roots, and special techniques were developed for their harvest.
The best time for harvesting roots was under a full moon at night. The plant was approached from upwind because the plant would emit poisonous gasses, killing anyone who tried to uproot it. According to Pliny, the grubber would turn around three times with his sword pointing at the plant, clean the soil around it, and then dig the root out while facing west. The historian Flavius Josephus (1 AD) described the process of harvesting these roots from the earth. It was commonly believed that the plant shrieked when harvested, and anyone hearing the piercing cry would die. To avoid these deaths, black dogs were used to gather the roots. The dogs were starved for several days and then tied to the roots, around which a trench was dug. The owner of the dog would stand out of earshot and throw a piece of meat toward the dog. The dog would then leap for the meat, pulling the mandrake root from the ground and killing the dog immediately. The owner could then collect the plant root once the screeching sound stopped. It was recommended that the owner stuff his ears with wax so as not to hear the screeching sound.
The roots were said to bleed from their wounds, and the plant was believed to possess an evil spirit acquired from the devil. The roots would immediately be washed in a stream to cleanse them of evil. Such rumors are still circulated in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions of Turkey. Because it is still commonly believed in Anatolia that pickers become deaf or die from possession, dogs are used to uproot the plant. To avoid the screeching sound during uprooting, drums or tin pots are banged on. According to the late Prof. Turhan Baytop, these are rumors spread by pickers to ward off rivals.
According to one belief, mandrake grows under the gallows tree because of the tears of the hanged person dropping on the soil. Others claim it grows from the urine or semen of the hanged person. Yet another belief suggests the hanged person needs to be either a thief or a virgin for mandrake to grow under the gallows. In Iceland, mandrake is called “Thjofarot” (Thief’s root) because it is believed to grow from the froth coming out of a hanged thief’s mouth after touching the soil. Therefore, mandrake is also called “Little gallows man.” The relationship between mandrake and death was so strong that it led to the belief that this mysterious plant would grow where a person commits suicide.
The high demand for this plant was due to its use as an aphrodisiac and as a talisman. According to one belief, it would bring luck to its owner if uprooted on holy days. It had the ability to make its owner invisible and guide him to hidden treasures. It could save its owner from serious injury or mutilation. It could transmit a disease from one person to another. It could change weather conditions, heal the wounds of domestic animals, summon a desired person—in short, it could do whatever its owners wished. Most important, it was able to tell fortunes. It was believed that it could answer questions about the future and disclose hidden knowledge. It Italy, it was claimed that a mandrake buried up to its neck could answer all questions.
At one time, mandrake was worshipped, and it became an integral part of witchcraft. In medieval Germany, a cult that regarded mandrake as sacred spread fast through the country. The price of mandrake quickly rose. In order to meet the growing demand, some woodcarvers and charlatans started carving roots resembling mandrake to shape male or female figures, selling them as “Alraun” (Mandrake). “Alraun” is derived from the Gothic “allrun,” meaning a bloodthirsty witch who drinks the blood of people from their skulls and practices sorcery with their corpses. These figurines were believed to possess evil powers and able to realize the good or evil intentions of their owners. Alrauns were priced by their weight in gold, and because of this high price, techniques were developed to preserve them. They were wrapped in white cloth or cloaks tied with golden rope, or they were kept in pure silk or special boxes. They were removed from their boxes on Friday for a bath, and the bath water was thought good for labor pains.
Naturally, the churches and local authorities became aware of these figurines. After some time, they began to punish their owners, accusing them of practicing sorcery and executing them. In 1630, three women in Hamburg were executed for possessing mandrake figurines.
When the executions became widespread, people started giving away their figurines. However, it was impossible to get rid of them. Figurines that had been thrown out reappeared in their boxes after a short while. Their evil powers were immense. Therefore, the executions by hanging or burning continued. A woman in Orleans in France was hanged for possessing a monkey-like mandrake figurine. Joan of Arc was also accused of carrying a mandrake root on her chest. Although she denied this and other accusations, her body and soul did not escape torture and burning. This was the way to ward off evil spirits in middle ages.
Mandrake root has anesthetic, aphrodisiac, cathartic, cholagogue, emetic, hypnotic, mydriatic, narcotic, nevrine, poison, purgative, refrigerant, sedative, and stimulant properties. Fresh roots were once used to treat chronic pains, convulsions, rheumatic pains, and scrofulous tumors. Pounded leaves and boiled roots were used for the treatment of tumors. Roots boiled in milk were used to treat slow-healing wounds. Roots soaked in brandy were used for chronic rheumatism. Mandrake has also been used for asthma, colic, coughs, hay fever, hepatitis, schizophrenia, and sclerosis.
According to Baytop, mandrake roots have analgesic, soporific, calming and aphrodisiac properties. One or two glasses of a 1% infusion of mandrake roots can be taken, and root powder is taken as 200 mg pills three times a day. Its local names include Abdüsselam otu, adam otu, ademotu, at elması (Silifke), hacılarotu, insanotu, kankurutan, toskafa kavunu (Silifke), and yerelması (Side).
In the street markets of Istanbul, the roots of black bryony (Tamus communis) and squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) are sold as mandrake roots. The first is identified by its needle crystals, and the latter by not having alkaloids.
Chemical research into mandrake has revealed the presence of alkaloids such as atropine, apoatropine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine, belladonine, cuscohydrine, mandragorine, norhyoscyamine, and scopine. The root contains 0.3-0.4% alkaloids, and the ratio of its major alkaloids is hyoscyamine(36):scopolamine(5):atropine(2). In a study carried out in Turkey, atropine (0.3%) and scopolamine (0.03%) were found to be major constituents in the roots containing 0.3-0.4% alkaloids. In the same study, the alkaloid content was 0.2% in the leaves and 0.1% in the seeds. The atropine contents were 0.2% and 0.1% in the leaves and seeds respectively. The scopolamine content was found to be 0.04% in the leaves with only trace amount in the seeds. Dried seeds contain 22.6% fixed oils and 22.1% protein. The major constituents in the oil were found to be oleic and linoleic acids, scopolin, scopoletin, 3-alpha-tigloyloxytropane, 3,6-tigloyloxytropane, chrysatropic acid, and tropic acid. The extracted volatiles from ripe fruit contained ethylbutyrate (22%), hexanol (14%), butylacetate (9%), and hexylacetate (7%) as major constituents. Essential oils obtained by distilling ripe fruit contained the following fatty acid esters: ethyl decanoate (14%), ethyl dodecanoate (13%), and decyl acetate (11%) as major constituents.
The plant is poisonous. Atropine is a racemic mixture of d-hyoscyamine and l-hyoscyamine, with most of its physiological effects due to l-hyoscyamine. It is an antimuscarinic agent that binds to muscarinic acetylcholine receptors. It decreases secretions (gastric, intestinal, nasal, saliva, sweat, and tears) and reduces gastrointestinal motility. It dilates the pupils, increases intraocular pressure, and causes photophobia. l-hyoscyamine and l-scopolamine have similar effects. However, scopolamine is a strong hypnotic and generally decreases the heart rate. Hyoscyamine stimulates the cerebral cortex at high doses, while scopolamine has a depressant effect at low doses and leads to deep sleep at high doses. Scopolamine bearing plants have been used as anesthetics in traditional Chinese medicine.
Two remedies containing mandrake are registered in Martindale: The Extra Pharmacopoeia. These are Mandrorhinon and Rheumadoron. The former contains Radix Mandragorae, Radix Scopoliae, ephedrine HCl, nicotinamide, Calcium lactate, Calcium hydrogen phosphate, potassium iodide and propylphenazone, and is used for infections of the upper respiratory tract. The latter is found as a homoeopathic drop or balsam. The balsam is used to treat rheumatic and muscle pains. It contains mandrake root, aconite tuber, arnica flowers, beech leaf, and rosemary oil. The last ingredient is absent from the drop form.
This important plant has firmly entrenched itself in the history of medicine and humanity. Growing on the rocky slopes, field margins, and wastelands of the Aegean and Mediterranean regions, it flowers and bears fruit in the early months of the year. I am certain that future research will discover new mundane, if not otherworldly, properties of this plant.
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K. Hüsnü Can Başer