Mandrake - Mandragora officinarum (Solanaceae)- is a Mediterranean plant which, just like many of its fellow nightshades, contains potent alkaloids. It has greenish-white flowers and brownish-orange berries (the only non-poisonous part of the plant), and its branched root resembles a tiny human figure.
The Solanaceae/ nightshades family contains some other interesting plants. Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) has a long history of use in medicine ( most notably as a painkiller), cosmetics (historically, women used drops prepared from the plant to dilate their pupils, which was found attractive; that's where the name comes from: bella donna is Italian for pretty lady.), as well as a poison and a recreational drug (it causes vivid hallucinations, but it's quite risky because it's easy to accidentally fatally overdose.).
Datura (Datura stramonium) has uses in medicine, shamanism and, according to Wade Davis' controversial hypothesis, it is an important ingredient of a powder used by Haitian voodoo witch doctors to turn people into zombies.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) as well is used as an anaesthetic, a psychoactive drug and poison. Henbane might be the cursed hebenon, whose juice was used to kill Hamlet's father.
Nicotiana tabacum, commonly known as tobacco plant, contains the alkaloid nicotine, which is a neurotoxin and was long used as an insecticide. In mammals, though, it acts as a stimulant, which is why I enjoy it on a daily basis.
Plants like tomato, potato, pepper and eggplant also belong to the nightshade family, but are far more fun to eat than to write about.
Let's go back to mandrake.
With its interesting root and its hallucinogenic properties, it's only natural that quite a bit of folklore has grown around mandrake. A mundane and perfectly real plant species transformed into a mythical creature. So what does folklore say?
First of all, the shape of its root is by no means a coincidence- every mandragora is fathered by a human. More accurately, it grows where the semen of a hanged man dripped on the ground (this is not that rare an occurrence, and it's called death erection). It makes sense, of course. It looks like a man because its father is a man. Its mother is the earth, and the earth normally gives birth to plants when seed is planted in it, so mandrake is a plant as well.
That also might be the reason why it is said to scream when it is taken out of the ground- a human newborn screams when it comes into the world. But why is the scream of a mandrake deadly to all who hear it?
It IS a highly toxic plant, could be deadly if you ingest it. Perhaps people just extended that deadliness to its voice. That reminds me of a similar thing with the basilisk: its bite is deadly (it must be, after all it's the king of serpents), but for some reason its gaze kills just as well. I have another theory, though.
If people believe that picking a mandragora will kill them, they won't go around picking them. And if they never pick it they won't find out it doesn't have a killer scream, so the legend lives on. But who the hell cares? Well...
People believed the root was a very useful thing to have, like a lucky charm. Here's a quote from the book Folk Medicine (Brenko,Dugac,Randić. 2011. Narodna medicina. Etnografski muzej Zagreb.):
"Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum Tourn.) was one of the most famous magic and poisonous plants in the Middle Ages, which became a symbol of this period. The root was cut in the shape of the human body and kept as an amulet. It brought good fortune only to the owner who would weekly bathe it in wine, clothe it in a silk or velvet robe, and offer it the finest food."
The possession of it was thought to ensure prosperity. But everyone knows that one can't just go and pick it, if they wish to live. The best thing to do then is buy it from a professional who is skillful at digging up mandrakes. So, who profits from people's continuous belief in the deadly scream? Mandrake salesmen. Pretty cool scheme. And as it says in the quote, the root was often additionally cut, to better resemble the human form. Sometimes the root was not even mandrake at all, but some other root cut into the desired shape.
|Artwork by Santiago Caruso. An old hag appears to be pampering a mandragora. It's wearing a tiny outfit, and there's a tank full of red liquid on the side (wine? blood?), presumably for the root's bath.|
According to folklore, there is a way to safely take a mandrake out of the ground, but I'm saving that bit for a later post.
Now, I present the Running Mandragora:
Funny little bugger. The base is one of the Nurglings from the Plaguebearer box. I erased its face and clipped its horns. The leaves are made of greenstuff, using a homemade press mould to achieve the veins. The white berries are grains of sand.
The real life plant is of course not red, I took some artistic liberty here. I'm happy with how it turned out. : )
|Mandrake getting chased through the woods by a pack of bloodfiends.|
|Same as above, but desaturated. Which one looks better to you? This is a bit of practice for the future battle report pictures.|
|This one is with blur, for a better sense of motion.|