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Belonging to the nightshade family and found in the Mediterranean region, the mandrake has been known for centuries as one of the most powerful and potent of all plants. People originally believed that the mandrake had two forms; one male and the other female. Some botanists now think that these are two distinct species with the one known as the Autumn Mandrake native to the Levant area and the other Mandragora Officinarum found in the rest of the Mediterranean[1].

Two Mandrakes. Wellcome Collection.

The name mandragora (mandrake in Middle English and Middle Dutch) is formed from man symbolising its resemblance to a miniature person and dragora or drake taken from the archaic word for dragon alluding to its magical powers[2].

A Powerful Poison

The medical properties of the mandrake were known to the Egyptians 6000 years ago. Egyptians called it ‘the water of life’ and used it to improve health, vigour and longevity. The mandrake was attributed with divine powers and placed in a visible corner of a dwelling. Vows were made to it and candles lit[3].

Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Wellcome Collection.

Mandrake plants contain hyoscine, an alkaloid which if too much is ingested causes hallucinations, delirium and even comas. Accidental poisoning could lead to various symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness and blurred vision[4]. There were some positive benefits of medicinal mandrake such as the relief of rheumatic pains and eye infections and even as far back as AD60 the Greek botanist and physician Dioscorides wrote about its use as an anaesthetic. An anaesthetic mandrake root mixture which also contained opium, hemlock and ivy was used by surgeons well into the Middle Ages.

During the Roman period a mandrake infused wine or ‘death wine’ was also known to have been offered to those being crucified[5]. I suppose being drugged into a near coma made the tortuous punishment a little easier to bear.

For many it was the presence of this alkaloid together with the mandrake’s unusual shape that conjured up images of magic and power.

‘Love apple of the ancients[6]

Circe. 17th Century. British Museum Collection.

Mandrakes were also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac (as long as the dosage was right otherwise the outcome would not have been so pleasant for either parties!). The Greek made a mandrake love potion by steeping the root in wine and vinegar and the plant became associated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Circe (the goddess of sorcery) who used the potion to cast a spell over the Argonauts. In Arabic the mandrake is known as the Devil’s Apple and was believed to inflame a man’s love. It was also alleged that if a man carried the female-shaped mandrake in his pocket he would win the woman he desired.

‘Goe, and catche a falling starre, Get with a child a mandrake root’, John Donne[7]

The mandrake has long been linked to fertility probably because its shape reminded people of a human figure. Even in early illustrations it was drawn with a head, body and legs crossed.

One of the oldest references can be found in the Bible in Genesis, when Rachel desperate for a child asks her sister Leah for a loan of the mandrakes which her son, Rueben had harvested from the field as it was believed that eating the sweet smelling yellow fruits of the mandrake would imbue a person with sexual energy and fertility.

The mandrake could also act like an ancient test tube such as in the legend of King Hermones who wanted a male heir but was adamant in his refusal to have sex with women! The king ordered his advisors to find another solution. His astrologers, at an auspicious time took the king’s semen and placed it on a mandrake. Through alchemy a male-child was created much to the king’s delight [8].

Not only could the mandrake help to get a woman pregnant it was also used in childbirth. In order to make use of the mandrake’s power it had to be carefully looked after e.g. the root was placed on a plate and fed with milk or red wine on special days such as every Friday. The milk used to bathe the mandrake could then be fed to pregnant women. Some traditions suggest putting the mandrake under a woman’s bed in a plate full of milk mixed with breast milk. Both rituals were believed to ease childbirth and protect the mothers and babies. [9].

‘Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan’[10]

One of the most powerful legends concerns the deadly scream emitted by the mandrake when it was pulled out of the ground and how to avoid being its victim.

In Theophrastus’ treatise written in or around 230BC he explains how to pick the mandrake to avoid being bewitched. He advised drawing three circles around the plant with a sword of virgin iron and then facing west cut portions of the taproot. After cutting the second portion the picker must dance around the plant muttering incantations concerning the mysteries of love. The sword should only ever be used to cut a mandrake[11].

A later account written by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus (c.37 to 100AD) was the first to mention the use of a dog to extract the plant. He instructed the digger to dig around the root until the lower part was exposed. A starving dog should then be fastened by a rope to the mandrake root and then encouraged to pull out the plant by placing a piece of food just out of its reach. The scream of the mandrake would kill the dog instead of its master and the mandrake would then be safe to handle[12]. This practice of using a dog to remove the mandrake was still being used in the 13th century as witnessed by the Moorish herbalist Ibn al-Baitar. He wrote that the dog in this case survived the ordeal[13]. In Germany it was believed that the dog had to be completely black with no blemishes.

Pulling a mandrake with a dog. Wikimedia.

Other variations on how to extract the mandrake have come down to us. These include stuffing your ears with wax or earth and blowing a horn whilst pulling the mandrake out. Anything to drown out the mandrake’s screams. Pliny suggests using an ivory staff to dig around the mandrake, others advise placing crosses on the plant for protection against evil forces whilst the Roman writer Apuleius stated that on certain holy days an evil spirit would emerge to do the pickers’ bidding, similar to the genie in a lamp.

Some claimed that the legend of the screaming mandrake was invented by witches to stop ordinary folk from picking their precious plant[14]. Witches were believed to enter an alliance with the spirit of the mandrake. They would promise to care for the mandrake if the mandrake’s spirit would act as a vessel for other spirits and familiars. Offerings were made to the mandrake spirit on the night of a full or dark moon and a circle of salt drawn around the plant. A black dog was tied to the plant and food used as a lure. The mandrake was then covered by a cloth and placed in a special bag.

A more practical but less colourful explanation is that it was the squelching sound made by the mandrake when its fleshy roots was pulled out of the damp earth that was mistaken for a screech.

The Little Gallow’s Man

Male Mandrake from Hortus Sanitatis. Wellcome Institute.

Myths also arose relating to where mandrakes could be found. In Welsh folklore mandrakes were found at crossroads. Crossroads were associated with supernatural and dark forces and it was here criminals were often hanged and buried along with others who could not be interred on consecrated ground.

Crossroads and gallows were known to be popular places for the gathering of herbs for a witches brew and so the link between mandrakes, gallows and witchcraft was widely accepted. The ground where a gallows was placed was seen as contaminated by the blood or semen of the hanged. Some stories stated that it had to be semen from innocent men who with the help of a witch were given a second chance at life as a mandrake whilst others claimed that they were formed from the tears and blood of the fallen innocent. In Iceland the mandrake was known as Thjofarot or Thiefs’ root and it was believed to grow where the froth from a hanged thief’s mouth fell[15].

Talismans and Charms

Female Mandrake. Wellcome Institute.

Mandrakes became popular as talismans and good luck charms. They were thought to bring wealth, popularity and the ability to control one’s own and other people’s destinies[16]. It was believed that King Solomon wore a mandrake root seal which enabled him to gain sovereignty over souls.

The powers  of the mandrake seem to be limitless such as making a person invisible, healing domestic animals, changing the weather, guiding a person to hidden treasure, transmitting diseases and allowing its owner to tell fortunes.

Mandrakes could also protect a family as well as individuals. Sprinkled with blessed water and salt mandrakes were buried near the front door to protect the households from intruders and evil spirits.

In Germany the trade in mandrake talismans flourished as they rose in popularity and were worth their weight in gold. Often roots of other plants were carved to look like mandrakes in order to meet the increased demand. People took painstaking care of their mandrakes wrapping them in white cloth, tying it with golden rope and placing them in special boxes or bags of pure silk[17]. In Germany the talismans were passed down to the youngest son.

Although mandrake charms were at first ignored by the ecclesiastical authorities the scale of their popularity eventually started to worry the Church. Wearers of the charms were accused of invoking demons and tried for witchcraft. In 1603 in Romorantin, France the wife of a Moor was hanged as a witch for keeping a familiar in the form of a mandrake and in 1630 three women in Germany were executed for possessing mandrake talismans. Although this was not the first time that the church took exception to mandrake talismans e.g. in 1431 during her public interrogation Joan of Arc was asked whether she was had a mandrake figurine to which she replied ‘I have no mandrake, and never had one,[18] the increasing hostility of the church did dampen public enthusiasm for the charms. Trouble was that giving away a mandrake charm was not easy as they had a habit of returning unaided to their owners.

Up Up And Away!

Witches taking flight. Goya. 1796-98. British Museum Collection.

Witches on brooms, flying high above the ground silhouetted against the moon is an image most of us grow up with but this was not always the case. In earlier traditions witches were believed to be able to fly on just about anything including kitchen utensils and furniture. It was only later that witches were linked to brooms.

The famous witches’ brew was made from deadly nightshade, henbane, devil’s snare and of course mandrake. Such a concoction was obviously lethal and so could not be ingested. It had to be placed somewhere where the user could get the maximum effect without dying. There are only two places on the body which are suitable; the armpits and the genitals. Women’s clothing at the time would have made it extremely difficult to smear the ointment on their armpits so they were left with only one alternative. In order to reach far enough inside the vagina an appropriate implement was needed and so they used a tool which was easily available – a broom handle[19].

Historical evidence can be found for the use of the broomstick. On being arrested for witchcraft and the killing of her husband in 1324, a broom with the tip coated in a strange substance was found in the cupboard of Lady Alice Kyteler[20].

The medieval chronicler of witches Jordanes de Bergamo in the 15th century stated that he had heard witches confess to using brooms to insert a potion into their ‘hairy places[21] which enabled them to fly. Giovanni Della Porta in the the 16th century confirmed that he had witnessed a woman who had applied the brew to her body state that she ‘had passed over both seas and mountains’[22] and the ‘witch’ Antoine Rose testified that she had smeared a potion given to her by the devil onto a stick which she had then straddled shouting ‘Go, in the name of the devil, go![23]

Since the ointment contained ingredients which are known to cause intense hallucinations it is not surprising that the women believed they were flying, what is more remarkable is that more of them did not poison themselves before they were arrested and executed.

The English Mandrake

Although the power of the mandrake was well-known in Britain they were expensive and difficult to obtain and so people began to look around for cheaper substitutes. Carvers of mandrake charms saw the large root of the white byrony (a climbing plant belonging to the gourd family) as a perfect alternative. Known as the English Mandrake these counterfeit mandrakes were carved to represent the human body with wheat and grass used to represent pubic hair. Not everyone was convinced by the power of the English Mandrake, Dr William Turner denounced the superstition stating that people ‘are thus deprived both of their wits and money’. These views did not seem to have damaged their popularity as the charms were considered valuable heirlooms and left as bequests in wills.

False Mandrake Root. Wikimedia.

In Jean-Baptiste Pitois’ book ‘The History and Practice of Magic’ he describes how to make a powerful charm from the root of the byrony plant[24].

  1. Take it out of the ground on a Monday (preferably the day of the moon) a little time after the vernal equinox.
  2. Cut the ends of the root.
  3. Bury it at night in a country churchyard in a dead man’s grave.
  4. For 30 days water the plant with cow’s milk in which three bats have drowned.
  5. On the 31st day take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with the branches of the verbena plant.
  6. Then wrap it in a dead man’s winding sheet and carry it with you everywhere.

Even in the early years of the 20th century the confusion between the byrony and the mandrake persisted. A story told in Warwickshire claims that in December 1908 a man employed in digging a garden half a mile from Stratford upon Avon cut out the large root of a white byrony plant. Mistaking it for a mandrake he stopped working claiming that it was bad luck to cause damage to them. A few days later he fell down some steps and broke his neck[25].

Although not quite as potent as the mandrake the white byrony it can cause nausea, vomiting, anxiety, paralysis and death[26] so it is not really surprising that it came to be viewed with the same mixture of respect and fear.

An Unbreakable Cord

The reputation of the mandrake affected one of the other members of its family, the tomato. Early herbalists associated the tomato with the mandrake and so in the 18th century instead of being eaten people preferred to grow them as ornamental plants[27]. Potatoes were also initially viewed with suspicion, luckily for the sake of the humble chip and roast dinners people eventually overcame their fears.

The myths surrounding the link between the mandrake and witchcraft are numerous. It was believed that if a witch made love to a mandrake root they produced offspring which couldn’t feel real love and possessed no soul[28]. Many of the stories contradict each other but they do show how over the centuries the mandrake has been seen as a powerful and dangerous supernatural tool. Even though today getting hold of a mandrake is much less hazardous, being available online and even on eBay, the plant’s link to witchcraft remains unbroken as it still plays an important role in modern witchcraft.

Professor Sprout pulling a Mandrake. From Warner Bros Harry Potter films.




Mandrake, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake

Bryonia Dioica, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryonia_dioica

The plant that can kill and cure, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33506081

Mandrake, https://www.britannica.com/plant/mandrake-Mandragora-genus

The History and Uses of the Magical Mandrake, According to Modern Witches, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-history-and-uses-of-the-magical-mandrake-according-to-modern-witches

Mandragora autumnalis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandragora_autumnalis

How to harvest a mandrake, http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2017/12/how-to-h arvest-a-mandrake.html

Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches, https://www.magicalrecipesonline.com/2015/10/herb-analysis-mandrake-ally-of-witches.html

Rare occult herbs: Mandrake, https://www.groveandgrotto.com/blogs/articles/rare-occult-herbs-mandrake

The Magic of Mandrake, http://www.thewisemag.com/mystery/the-magic-of-mandrake/

Why Do Witches Fly on Brooms?, https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/why-do-witches-fly-brooms/

The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/witches-fly-broomsticks-2/

Myths and mandrakeshttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539425/

Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous Plant That Grows From the Blood of Hanged Men, https://www.wired.com/2014/06/fantastically-wrong-mandrake/

Trial of Joan of Arc, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_of_Joan_of_Arc

Alarune, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alraune

The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil, Mr Lee, https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/w_lee_2.pdf

Plants of Life, Plants of Death, Frederick J. Simoons, 1998

An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente, 1973

Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine, Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni, 2017

Henry VI Part 2, William Shakespeare


[1] Mandrake

[2] The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil

[3] The Magic of Mandrake

[4] Myths and Mandrakes

[5] The Magic of Mandrake

[6] Myths and Mandrakes

[7] Ibid

[8] Plants of Life, Plants of Death

[9] Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches

[10] Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2

[11] The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil

[12] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[13] The plant that can kill and cure

[14] Mandrake

[15] The Magic of Mandrake

[16] Myths and Mandrakes

[17] The Magic of Mandrake

[18] The Trial of Joan of Arc

[19] Why do witches fly on brooms?

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks

[23] ibid

[24] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[25] Myths and Mandrakes

[26] Bryonia Dioica

[27] The plant that can kill and cure

[28] Alarune