Getting to the root of the problem

The Skeptic, 7.6

It's not that often, at the vegetable counter in Sainsbury's, that one comes across a reference to the most powerful of all plants in the history of magic and alchemy. The other day, while shopping for potatoes, I picked up one specimen which, with its eyes and warts, looked for all the world like that dynamic new symbol of the restructured BBC, Mr Blobby. The stranger next to me saw it differently. He said to me: `What's that, a mandrake?'.

A mandrake? Well, why not? The mandrake, Atropa mandragora, also known as `sorcerer's root', `devil's candle', `earth-mannekin' and `the little gallows man', does, like the humble potato, belong to the order Solanaceae. But unlike the potato, the mandrake has a long history in the occult, stemming largely from the fact that its root has some slight resemblence to the human body, and that it has a most pungent odour, which some find very pleasant, and others disgusting.

The Greeks knew that the mandrake was a dangerous plant. Its root contains a juice with narcotic properties, and it was stewed in wine to make a potion which was used as an anaesthetic. Theophrastus, pioneer botanist and pupil of Aristotle, states in his book Enquiry Into Plants that before attempting to uproot a mandrake, three circles should be drawn in the earth around it with a sword, and the digger should then face West, while an assistant, whispering erotica to the plant, pulls it out of the ground. The sort of essential advice you just don't get any more on Gardeners' Question Time.

By the Middle Ages, superstitions surrounding the plant had developed much further, and it was now treated with far greater caution. In alchemical terms, the strange shape of its root was now seen to be that of the homunculus. It was also believed that the plant grew underneath gallows, seeded by the emanations of the hanging bodies of executed criminals. The recommended method for digging up the plant was to use a dog tied with a rope to the carefully loosened root, and then to entice the dog to strain for a piece of meat held just too far away, so that it would pull up the root in the process. The dog was killed by the blood-curdling shriek emitted by the mandrake as it left the earth; the digger, his ears plugged with cloth, survived, and grabbed the mandrake, burying the dog in its place. Definitely not a good deal from the dog's point of view.

Once obtained, the mandrake had a host of magical uses. If properly looked after, washed weekly in wine and wrapped in a red or white silk cloth changed every full moon, it was a powerful talisman. It would bring good luck to its owner; it could produce gold; make barren women pregnant; and more sinister, the already human-looking roots could be carved to make an effigy for working ritual magic against a specific enemy. Also, spirits could be enticed to enter the root, to make a `familiar' to boost the power of the witch. But principally, the mandrake was for working love magic, either as a personal aphrodisiac, or to attract from a distance the attentions of a desired member of the opposite sex.

A good skeptic should conduct controlled experiments, and I was keen to visit a specimen of `the little gallows man' in the field, to perhaps put its aphrodisiac properties to the test - purely in the name of Science, you understand. But alas, Atropa mandragora is not indigenous to our country. The plant known as the `English mandrake' is not the real McCoy at all, but rather white or black bryony, two varieties of hedgerow plants which have fleshy roots similar to the true mandrake, but lacking the central bifurcation which provides the basis for a `human' appearance. I suspect English mandrakes do not scream when uprooted, but instead utter a quieter, and more British, `ouch'.

Unfortunately, Sainsbury's doesn't sell mandrakes of any description. Nor, sadly, is there a counter marked `Aphrodisiacs'. They do, however, stock a wide range of herbs which, according to The Occult Properties of Herbs (W B Crow, Aquarian, 1969) are actually powerful aphrodisiacs: garlic, lentils, onion, artichoke, asparagus, horseradish, cabbage, carrots and celery.

I think I'll stick to Mr Blobby the potato...


©Toby Howard 1995

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