The Mandrake Plant and its Legend
By Van Arsdall, Anne, Helmut W. Klug, and Paul Blanz
Old Names – New Growth: Proceedings of the 2nd ASPNS Conference, University of Graz, Austria, 6-10 June 2007, and Related Essays. Eds. Peter Bierbaumer and Helmut W. Klug (Frankfurt/Main: Lang, 2009)
Abstract: This paper demonstrates how the contemporary legend about mandrake plant evolved from classical through early-modern times. A major misconception about the Middle Ages and the era directly preceding it is an assumption that the different elements of the mandrake legend were always widespread and well-known. Our paper stresses the importance of distinguishing different stages in the mandrake legend in the centuries from ca. A.D. 500 to 1500, showing that not all concepts we know today were associated with the plant at any given time or place in the past. We base our research strictly on historical documents (illustrations, literary and botanical/pharmaceutical texts) carefully correlated in time. Our findings bring an important corrective to many folkloristic assumptions about the mandrake legend that have been handed down and accepted at face value for years. In fact, more research is needed to pinpoint when and where various elements of the legend originated and how (and how far) they spread, especially for the time after the 12th century.
Introduction: The mandrake is a plant whose fruit, leaves, and large root have medicinal properties, many of them narcotic. From ancient times, its medicinal effects have been known. Rituals and legends have become connected to the plant, a long-lived one is the association between the mandrake root and a dog. Yet the mandrake legend as we know it today did not spring forth whole at one time. It grew in pieces over many centuries, and its beginnings date back long before the birth of Christ. Legends about the mandrake finally eclipsed its original purpose as a pharmaceutical, and today, ‘mandrake’ is synonymous with the occult. The few modern studies specifically about the mandrake cast wide nets, scooping up any and all references to the plant, its legend, and associated legends, tying them together neatly into a package. The problem with many of these studies is that they tend to misuse or ignore historical chronology, as this paper documents. We raise here the important issue of documentation and chronology as we examine carefully and evaluate pertinent illustrative and written sources connected with the mandrake.
In contrast to the cited studies, we begin with a botanical study of both European species of the medicinal plant Mandragora, taking their growing conditions and propagation into account. Such information is valuable when assessing written historical sources, in particular in being able to assert that mandrakes could have been grown throughout Europe. Late-classical and medieval herbals, then early modern printed books discuss mandrake plants, and there is a change in the way they are described and depicted over time. Important here is that at the outset, mandrakes were known first as medicinal plants, primarily discussed as such in pharmaceutical literature, where gathering rituals were commonly described for many plants. We then look at the works in which the mandrake plant is mentioned and/or depicted, specifically through the classical, medieval, and early-modern periods and document how the legend involving a dog, its death, and other details associated with the origin and gathering of the plant grew throughout this long period. This study focuses on the mandrake legend and its growth in Western Europe.