The root of the mandrake resembles a phallus or a human torso, and for this reason was believed to have occult powers. Many weird superstitions collected round the Mandrake root.
As early as 93 BC the historian Flavius Josephus described the process of collecting the mandrake, stories of which were embellished over the years. The mandrake was fabled to grow under the gallows of murderers and its anthropological shape evidently was responsible for the superstition that it shrieked when it was uprooted.
The demon inhabiting the root would then be aroused and the sounds of its piercing groans of agony would be so horrible that whoever heard it, die or go deaf and insane.
The harvester should then performing the necessary rituals before trying to pull it safely from the ground.
- put wax in the ears
- draw three circles around the plant with a sword and. Other recommend the tip of a willow wand.
- remove the plant only after sundown or in the moonlight
- beware of contrary winds while uprooting it
- use a dog to gather the root
The dog (preferably white) was starved for several days and then tied with a black thread to the root around which a trench had been cut.
The owner threw a piece of meat, and as the dog leapt for the meat, the mandrake root was pulled from the ground. Human hands were not to come in contact with the plant. The dog is supposed to die after the harvest.
An old document declares,
"Therefore, they did tye some dogge or other living beast unto the roots thereof with a corde ... and in the mean tyme stopped there own ears for fear of the terrible shriek and cry of the mandrake. In which cry it doth not only dye itselfe but the feare thereof killeth the dogge...."
After the plant had been freed from the earth, it could be used for "beneficent" purposes, such as healing, inducing love, facilitating pregnancy, and providing soothing sleep or “malevolent” such as the “main-de-gloire”.
The plant of witches
Medieval witches were said to harvest the root at night beneath gallows trees, trees where unrepentant criminals were supposed to have died.
The root purportedly sprang up from the criminal's last semen (the process of hanging somebody triggers ejaculation). According to witchcraft accounts, the witch washed the root in wine and wrapped it in silk and velvet.
She then fed it with sacramental wafers stolen from a church during communion. The mandrake was believed to have been used in many potions such as love potions or flying ointment. Often they were stashed in secret cupboards, because possessing one could expose the owner to the charge of witchcraft.
In 1630, three women in Hamburg were executed on this evidence, and in Orleans in 1603 the wife of a Moor was hanged for harboring a "mandrake-fiend," purportedly in the shape of a female monkey.
There is an ancient practice of carving the roots into amulets of protection.
The plant was cut into fancy shapes and forced to grow in moulds till it assumed the desired forms. Then the magician inserted grains of millet into the face as eyes.
These artifacts were known as puppettes or mammettes and were very popular. Italian ladies were known to pay as much as thirty golden ducats for similar artificial mandrakes.
Their owners took great care of their little mandrakes bathing them, dressing them and tucking them in at night in order to consult them on important questions. In France, they were considered a kind of elf, and associated with the main-de-gloire, another evil artifact of witchcraft. As an amulet, it was once placed on mantel pieces to avert misfortune and to bring prosperity and happiness to the house.
Native to Palestine, and neighboring Arab countries in the Mediterranean, it was long thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Later it was used as a narcotic and as an anesthetic. Ingestion of minute prepared portions is reputed to enhance awareness and psychic creativity and was often practiced during pagan rituals (Diana, Hecate, Dyonisos, …).
Mandrake was used for procuring rest and sleep in continued pain, also in melancholy, convulsions, rheumatic pains and scrofulous tumors. The root finely scraped into a pulp and mixed with brandy was said to be efficacious in chronic rheumatism. In large doses it is said to excite delirium and madness. The crushed root was purported to have caused hallucinations followed by a deathlike trance and sleep.
Perhaps because it was believed to spring from such substances as a dead criminal's semen, mandrake root was often used in potent sex-magic rituals and love potions. The fruits of the plant, also called love apples, were believed to increase fertility.
A remedy against demon’s possession
Among the old Anglo-Saxon herbals both Mandrake and periwinkle are endowed with mysterious powers against demoniacal possession. Its human-like forked root was thought to be in the power of dark earth spirits. At the end of a description of the Mandrake in the Herbarium of Apuleius there is this prescription:
'For witlessness, that is devil sickness or demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort mandrake by the weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he may find most convenient - soon he will be healed.'
Flavius Josephus says that the Mandragora, which he calls Baaras, has but one virtue, that of expelling demons from sick persons, as the demons cannot bear either its smell or its presence (Wars of the Jews, book vii, cap. vi.).