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The Mandrake

The mandrake is a long-leaved plant with small bell-shaped flowers that eventually fruit into small orange-coloured berries known as Satan’s apples, which give off a strong apple scent.  These are the berries that the medieval bear found irresistible and lethal.

 Various superstitions were associated with the mandrake.  It was believed that anyone trying to uproot the plant would have to endure its piercing shrieks of resistance.  Harvesters were, therefore, advised to starve a dog for several days, tie it to the plant and then throw down a piece of meat.  As the ravenous dog leapt towards the meat the mandrake was uprooted while the harvester  blocked his ears, though the dog usually died from fear.  This performance was worthwhile for all but the dog as the root had many uses.

From classical times onwards the root was used as an anaesthetic when it was given to patients to chew before an operation. The root of the mandrake is 3 or 4 foot long, sometimes single, sometimes forked, roughly resembling the human form.  For the superstitious the root was carved into small figures to be kept in the house to bring prosperity and good fortune to the occupants and to aid fecundity in a woman. The Bible refers to Leah acquiring mandrakes so that she would more readily conceive Jacob’s child.

 In the Elizabethan/Jacobean period the mandrake, known also as mandragora, was used as a narcotic.  Cleopatra, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, says:-

 Give me to drink mandragora...

That I might sleep out this great gap of time

My Antony is away.

However, in some places by the 17th century possession of the mandrake root aroused suspicions of witchcraft.  In France and Germany various women were executed or hanged for harbouring the root.

On this panel the mandrake clearly has a life of its own.  It is part human, part plant, and is warding off evil spirits in the form of a serpent in the manner of a Christian saint.  It is a good example of the way ancient pagan beliefs were subtly assimilated into Christian life and symbolism.

Mandrake 2

This is a large French pear wood panel showing a mandrake surrounded by curling tendrils with two small beasts for evil spirits at the base by the roots.

Mandrake 3

This strange figure is carved from beechwood but gives the impression of a carved root and was, therefore, probably made as a good-luck charm to keep in the home.