MANDRAGORA OFFICINARUM (MANDRAKE)
Solanaceae S. Eur, N Af, W Asia to Himalayas
Probably no plant has had a more fantastic history than the Mandrake. As a magical plant and hallucinogen, its extraordinary place in European folklore can nowhere be equaled. Known for its toxic and real and presumed medicinal properties, Mandrake commanded the fear and respect of Europeans throughout the Middle Ages and earlier. Its folk uses and attributes were inextricably bound up with the "Doctrine of Signatures", because of its anthropomorphic root.
While there are 6 species of Mandragora, it is M. officinarum of Europe and the Near East that has played the most important role as an hallucinogen in magic and witchcraft. It is a stemless perennial herb up to 1 ft (30 cm) high, with a thick, usually forking root and large, stalked, wrinkled, ovate leaves, marginally entire or toothed and measuring up to 11 in. (28 cm) in length. The whitish green, purplish, or bluish bell-shaped flowers, 11/4 in. (3 cm) in length, are borne in clusters among the tufted leaves. The globose or ovoid, succulent, yellow berry is very fragrant. The total content of tropane alkaloids in the root is 0.4 percent. The principal alkaloids are hyoscyamine and scopolamine, but atropine, cuscohygrine, or mandragorine is also present.
THE HEXING HERBS
Several members of the Nightshade family were favorite tools in the hands of medieval witches of Europe, enabling them to perform feats of occult wonder and prophecy, to hex through hallucinogenic communication with the supernatural and transport themselves to far-off places for the practice of their nefarious skills. These inebriating plants were mainly Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger; Belladonna, Atropa belladonna; and Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum. All three species have long histories of use as hallucinogens and magic plants connected with sorcery, witchcraft, and superstition. The extraordinary reputation of these plants is due primarily to the bizarre psychoactivity which they possess. Their similarity in effects is the result of similarity in chemical constitution. These three solanaceous plants contain relatively high concentrations of tropane alkaloids, primarily atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine; other bases are found in trace amounts. It is apparently scopolamine, not atropine or hyoscyamine, that produces the hallucinogenic effects. It induces an intoxication followed by narcosis in which hallucinations occur during the transition state between consciousness and sleep.
Atropine has served chemists as a model for the synthesis of several hallucinogenic compounds. Their effects--and those of scopolamine--differ from those of the usual natural hallucinogens: they are extremely toxic, and the user remembers nothing experienced during the intoxication, losing all sense of reality and falling into deep sleep like alcoholic delirium. Hyoscyamus has been known and feared from earliest classical periods, when it was recognized that there were several kinds and that the black variety was the most potent, capable of causing insanity.
The ancient Egyptians recorded their knowledge of Henbane in the Ebers Papyrus, written in 1500 B.c. Homer described magic drinks with effects indicative of Henbane as a major ingredient. In ancient Greece it served as a poison, to mimic insanity and to enable man to prophesy. It has been suggested that the priestesses at the Oracle of Delphi made their prophetic utterances while intoxicated with the smoke from Henbane seeds. In the thirteenth century, Bishop Albertus the Great reported that Henbane was employed by necromancers to conjure up demons.
From earliest times, the pain-killing properties of Henbane have been recognized, and it has been employed to relieve the suffering of those sentenced to torture and death. Its great advantage lies in its ability not only to allay pain but to induce a state of complete oblivion. Its best-known use was as one of the main ingredients permitting the witches of medieval times to experience hallucinations and other effects of intoxication. When young people were to be inducted into membership in groups dedicated to witchcraft, for example, they were often given a drink of Henbane so that they could easily be persuaded to engage in the sabbat rituals reparatory to the acceptance officially of a place in witchcraft circles. Those experiencing intoxication with Henbane feel a pressure in the head, a sensation as if someone were closing the eyelids by force; sight becomes unclear, objects are distorted in shape, and the most unusual visual hallucinations are induced. Gustatory and olfactory hallucinations frequently accompany the intoxication. Eventually sleep, disturbed by dreams and hallucinations, ends the inebriation.
Other species of Hyoscyamus have similar properties and are occasionally used in similar ways. Indian Henbane or Egyptian Henbane, or H. muticus, occurring from the deserts of Egypt east to Afghanistan and India, is employed in India as an intoxicant, the dried leaves being smoked. The Bedouins particularly employ this intoxicant to become drunk, and in some parts of Asia and Africa it is smoked with Cannabis as an inebriant.
Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade is native to Europe but is now spontaneous as an escape from cultivation in the united States and India. Its generic name Atropa comes from the Greek Fate Atropos, the inflexible one who cuts the thread of life.
The specific epithet, meaning "beautiful lady," recalls the use of sap of the plant to dilate the pupils of the eyes among the fine ladies of Italy who believed that the dreamy, intoxicated stare thus produced was the height of fetching beauty. Many vernacular names of the plant refer to its
intoxicating properties: Sorcerer's Cherry, Witch's Berry, Devil's Herb, Murderer's Berry, Dwaleberry (dwale in English deriving from the sandinavian root meaning "trance").
The maenads of the orgies of Dionysus in Greek mythology dilated their eyes and threw themselves into the arms of male worshippers of this god or, with "flaming eyes," they fell upon men to tear them apart and eat them. The wine of Bacchanals was often adulterated with juice of the Nightshade. Another belief from classical times maintained that Roman priests drank Belladonna before their supplications to the goddess of war for victory. It was during the Middle Ages in Europe, however, that Belladonna assumed its greatest importance in witchcraft and magic. It was one of the primary ingredients of the brews and ointments employed by witches and sorcerers. One such potent mixture, containing Belladonna, Henbane, Mandrake, and the fat of a stillborn child, was rubbed over the skin or inserted into the vagina for absorption.
The familiar witch's broomstick goes far back in European magic beliefs. An investigation into witchcraft in 1324 reported that "in rifieing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a stafle, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when
and in what manner she listed." Later, in the fifteenth century, a similar account stated: "But the vulgar believe and the witches confess, that on certain days and nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places and sometimes carry charms under the hair". Porta, a colleague of Galileo, wrote in 1589 that under the effects of a potion of these solanaceous plants a "man would seem sometimes to be changed into a fish" and flinging out his arms, would swim on the ground; sometimes he would seem to skip up and then to dive down again. Another would believe himself turned into a goose and would eat grass, and beat the ground with his teeth like a goose; now and then sing and...clap his wings."
Mandrake became famous in magic and witchcraft because of its powerful narcotic effects and the bizarre form of its root. It would be difficult to find a better example of the application of the philosophy of the Doctrine of Signatures. For the root of this herbaceous perennial, unassuming in its
growth appearance, is so twisted and branched that it occasionally resembles the human body. This extraordinary resemblance led early to the belief that it exercised great supernatural powers over the human body and mind, even though actually its chemical composition gave it no
greater psychoactivity than some other solanaceous species.
From earliest times, curious beliefs about the need to exercise great care in harvesting the root grew up. Theophrastus in the third century B.C. wrote that collectors of medicinal plants drew circles around Mandrake, and they cut off the top part of the root while facing west; the remainder of the root was gathered after the collectors had performed certain dances and recited special formulas. Two centuries earlier, the Greek Pythagoras had described Mandrake root as an anthropomorph or tiny human being. In Roman times that magic began extensively to be associated with the psychoactive properties of the plant. In the first century A.D., Josephus Flavius wrote that there grew a plant in the Dead Sea area
that glowed red at night and that it was difficult to approach the plant which hid when a man drew near it; but it could be tamed if urine and menstrual blood were sprinkled on it. It was physically dangerous to pull the plant from the earth, but a dog, tied to the root, was employed to extract the root, after which, according to belief, the animal usually died. The myths surrounding Mandrake grew, until it was said that the plant hid by day but shone like a star at night, and that, when being pulled from the ground, the plant let out such unearthly shrieks that whoever heard the
noise might die. Eventually, only black dogs--a color denoting evil and death-- were employed. Early Christians believed that the Mandrake root was originally created by God as an experiment before he created man in the Garden of Eden.
When, later in the Dark Ages, Mandrake began to be cultivated in central Europe, it was thought that the plant would grow only under gallows where urine or semen from the condemned man fell hence the common German names "gallows man" and "dragon doll."
The apogee of Mandrake's fame seems to have occurred in the late sixteenth century. At this time, the herbalists began to doubt many of the tales associated with the plant. As early as 1526 the English herbalist Turner had denied that all Mandrake roots had a human form and protested against
the beliefs connected with its anthropomorphism. Another English herbalist, Gerard, for example, wrote in 1597: "All which dreams and old wives tales you shall henceforth cast out of your books and memory; knowing this, that they are all and everie part of them false and most untrue. For I my selfe and my servants also have digged up, planted and replanted very many.... "But many superstitions surrounding Mandrake persisted in European folklore even into the nineteenth century.
"The Hexing Herbs"
Taken from: “Plants of the gods, their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers” By Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann (Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont)