According to the Old Testament, women were generally enchanted with an erotic powerhouse of a plant that magically “cured” infertility. In Genesis 30:14-17, two sisters married to the same guy fight over the shrub— Rachel wants it because she has yet to get pregnant; Leah, because she longs for more kids than the four she has. They strike a deal—and (very) eventually, both have dates with the stork. That fabled baby-maker flora may have been the mandrake. (The biblical Song of Songs also waxes poetic about the sweet-smelling apple of love.)
Give its long-standing aphrodisiac and medicinal reputation, the mandrake was seen as a symbol of love for the Egyptians, too, who made a wine laced with it. The Greeks later recognized mandrake as the favorite food of the sex-crazed satyrs.
Over the millennia, however, it’s likely that Mandragora officinarum caused more havoc and heartache than happy news. A member of the nightshade family, mandrake is closely related to henbane, datura, and the deadly nightshade—all of them packed with high-potency alkaloids like scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine. In the proper dosage, it can be an effective anesthetic, invaluable in surgery; the scopolamine from mandrake was used into modern times, before the advent of ether. Taken for its hallucinogenic effects, mandrake in the correct dosage may produce a dreamy, out-of-body experience—or delirium and coma.
Long thought to be an erotic aid, the mandrake root could kill. Its humanoid shape led alchemists to fantasize that with supernatural help, a “little man” could spring to life from the root.
Over time, mandrake took on an even more magical aura. It had a malevolent spirit, along the lines of The Little Shop of Horrors, and the ancients believed that once awakened, mandrake’s shrill scream could kill. Thus, in the first century A.D., Roman Jewish writer Josephus advised would-be harvesters to dig a furrow around the root until its lower part was exposed, tie a dog to it, then quickly move away from the plant. The dog would try to follow the human, pulling up the root in the process—and the pooch (instead of the human harvester) would perish. At that point, the mandrake root could be handled without risk.
The root itself often had a human shape—which led to more fantastical beliefs and warnings. Around the third century A.D., a Greek alchemist named Zosimus combined some early beliefs about reproduction with the mandrake legends. The first natural scientists in ancient Greece to ponder human reproduction had suggested that, just as the bodies of hens held miniature eggs, perhaps inside the bodies of humans there might be a preformed individual called a homunculus—a “little man.”
The notion of a “little man” (whether inside a human being or not) was admittedly beguiling. So Zosimus and other alchemists began to elaborate this concept further. According to them, in order to possess a little man of one’s own, seekers first had to find a mandrake plant. This was not an easy task, since by now it was reputed to grow only with the help of the semen ejaculated in his final spasms by a man being hanged! That laborious mission accomplished, the seekers then had to locate a black dog, train it to dig for roots, keep their distance until the hideous shrieks of the plant had died away, etcetera.
Once dug up, the small mannikin figure of the mandrake root needed to be washed, then fed with items such as honey, milk, and blood. If all went well, the root would develop into a homunculus. Furthermore, the homunculus would act to protect its human owner, leprechaun fashion.
A little mannikin to love, and direct. It was, and is, a winning idea, much repeated in mystical writings from medieval witches’ manuals to the Kabbalah. Mandrake plants are still around, their large strappy leaves and small “love apple” fruits as poisonous as ever. Need I add, do not try this at home?