Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Pagan Eye: Magical Mandrake, or Mandragora
This rare mandrake plant was photographed by someone who reads my blog.
They kindly sent me the picture they had taken and said: "I was pottering around in the Oxford Botanical Gardens yesterday and took this photo of a mandrake plant, which was in the 'medicinal' area, because the witchy associations made me smile - and then I thought of you!"
The watchful photographer said they didn't want to be named, which is fine, but thanks very much indeed for letting me publish it!
Mandrake is, indeed, a very magical plant.
It is the common name for members of the plant family Mandragora and is related to nightshades. Mandrake contains hallucinogenic alkaloids including atropine, scopolamine, apoatropine, hyoscyamine and is very poisonous. Although you obviously shouldn't eat it, it has been used by witches as a spell ingredient for countless centuries. The main part of the plant used for magic is the root, because it resembles a human figure.
According to Cunningham's Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbsthe plant has powers of protection, fertility, money, love and health. A whole mandrake root can be put on the mantelpiece or other central place in a house to protect the building and those within it. Money placed next to it is said to increase.
According to folk tales, the root screams if it is dug up, a sound that kills all who hear it. The traditional way around this is to half dig it up, then tie one end of a string to the plant and another to a dog. The dog's owner then runs away fast - presumably with his fingers in his ears - and the dog uproots the plant when trying to follow him. Frankly, this seems horribly cruel to dogs and, in any case, if it was true that digging up mandrake roots is lethal then I guess there'd be a lot of dead gardeners at the Oxford Botanical Gardens.
Apart from protection, the main use of a mandrake root in witchcraft is as a poppet - which is a humanoid form used for sympathetic magic. The idea is that the root can be dressed up as the person it is to represent, then spells cast on the root work instead on the person it symbolises. Wiccans and other nice witches would use this for healing purposes, although legends abound in which pins are stuck in the poppet in order to cause a person excruciating pain. Not very pleasant.
Mandrake roots are also frequently associated with love magic. In the Bible, in the chapter of Genesis, Leah gives Rachel mandrakes in exchange for a night of sleeping with her husband. In 1518 Machiavelli wrote a play called Mandragola (The Mandrake) with a plot that involves the use of a mandrake potion as a ploy to bed a woman.
In modern fantasy fiction, the mandrake root is cultivated by Professor Sprout in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It is used to cure the petrification of several characters who had looked into the eyes of the basilisk. In that book the characters use earmuffs to avoid hearing the scream of the root when it is unearthed - much easier than dodgy schemes involving dogs I would have thought.
The photographer who sent me the photo of the mandrake also sent me a photo of a lovely Dahlia called "Moonfire" and the Botanic Garden's fishpond, which looked very picturesque. I'll be posting them up on my blog later!
On each Pagan Eye post, I show a photo that I find interesting, with a few words about it. I'm not quite sure what I'll be including - it could be a seasonal image, a pagan site, an event, or just a pretty picture.
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Links and previous related posts
Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs (Llewellyn's Sourcebook Series)