MANDRAKE (Heb. דּודָאִים (dūdā'īm)), Mandragora officianarum, a plant of the nightshade family native to the Mediterranean region and related to the deadly Atropa belladonna. The mandrake is best known for its large, brown roots that can extend several feet into the ground and branch off into thick, bizarre shapes, even crudely resembling the human form. Since antiquity, the mandrake has been credited with aphrodisiac and fertility-producing powers as well as the ability to induce sleep, relieve pain, or serve as a purgative; it is one of the most frequently mentioned plants in folklore, preserved in literature from the Mediterranean basin from antiquity to the modern era.
The earliest reference may be in Ugaritic literature of the 14th century b.c.e., where the term is found in relation to the goddess of love and war, Anat, whose brother Baal sends her a message concerning peace, love, and "passion" (ddym). Mandrakes appear twice in the Bible, in contexts suggesting that the plant had properties conducive to sex and conception. Perhaps in a word-play with d(w)d, "love," it is mentioned in the Song of Songs (7:14) as having an odor that would arouse the lovers' passion. The well-known story of Rachel and the mandrakes in Genesis 30:14–17 indicates that this plant was believed to aid conception, for the barren Rachel gives her sister and co-wife Leah a night with their husband Jacob in exchange for mandrakes procured by Leah's son Reuben. The text reports that Rachel subsequently became pregnant when God heeded her. Her use of mandrakes provides an example of the magico-medical means for dealing with problems inherent in the reproductive process, part of women's religious culture in ancient Israel as in most traditional societies. That Rachel resorts to the ancient equivalent of a fertility drug is not at all contradictory to the overarching notion that divine providence is involved in overcoming barrenness; prayer along with actions we would consider magic were understood as complementary ways for women to become pregnant.
Post-biblical lore and legends refer less to mandrake's aphrodisiac qualities and more to its other medicinal properties. Digging for mandrake roots was thought to be dangerous, with the animal pulling out the roots meeting a vicarious death for its master (Jos. Wars, 7:183ff.), a risk also found in other ancient writers, such as Theophrastus and Pliny. The Talmud's prohibition against reciting biblical verses while uprooting mandrakes (tj Shab. 6:2, 8b), may allude to their supposedly lethal quality. Maimonides (Guide, 3:29) mentions that superstitious people are "deluded" about them.
Loew, Flora, 3 (1924), 363–8; H.N. and A.L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible, no. 132 (1952), 137–9. add. bibliography: M.H. Pope, Song of Songs (1977), 600, 647–50; C.B. Randolph, "The Mandragora of the Ancients in Folklore and Medicine," in: paaas, 12 (1924), 487–537; M. Zohary, Plants of the Bible (1982), 188–89.
[Jehuda Feliks /
Carol Meyers (2nd ed.)]
It is probable that so-called ‘mystical’ properties were attributed to mandrake mainly because of the form of the parsnip-like root system, which usually divides to give ‘arm and leg’ appendages to a human body form, which can take either female or male characteristics. Many have claimed that the plant shrieks when it is pulled from the ground. Pulling it by hand is considered an ill-advised thing to do. Rather, the plant should be tethered to a dog to pull it out of the ground, for anyone hearing the shriek would certainly perish. The root of the plant was commonly used for its medicinal properties, as an emetic and purgative, and for expelling demons. Mandrake was an important component for lunar rituals and was needed to produce moon water. To do this small pieces of root were placed in a chalice of water and exposed to moonlight each night until the moon became full. Chemical investigation has shown that the plant contains alkaloids — all of which can cause the pupils to dilate, of which the predominant one turns out to be madragorine, shown to be identical to atropine, which is found in belladonna plants. As both plants are from the same family the coincidence is not surprising. In 1526, Peter Treveris, in the Grete Herbal poured scorn on all the mandrake legends, stating ‘all which dreames and old wives tales you shall henceforth caste out your bookes of memories.’ In spite of this early, and undoubtedly correct, denouncement, the tales and myths linger still.
Alan W. Cuthbert
man·drake / ˈmanˌdrāk/ • n. 1. a Mediterranean plant (Mandragora officinarum) of the nightshade family, with white or purple flowers and yellow berries. It has a forked root that supposedly resembles the human form and was formerly used in medicine and magic. 2. another term for mayapple.