Mandragora / Alruin

Mandragora antroposofisch bekeken vlgs Wilhelm Pelikan

For the peoples living around the Mediterranean, Mandragora, the mandrake of the Middle Ages, is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most efficacious medicinal plants. The records go back over almost three thousand years, and the ancients had very sound and detailed knowledge as to the actions of this plant, despite the fact that they did not have the facilities of modern chemical analysis to identify the active principles and test them accu­rately in animal experiments. In fact, the modern age and the development of present-day methods of investigation may be said to have caused the gradual disappearance of this plant from the materia medics. By the begin­ning of the last century it had ceased to play any proper role in medicine, and merely figured obscurely on the dark stage of super­stition and decadent occult practices. Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, chemical analysis revealed the presence of a number of highly active alkaloids in the Mandragora root; serious attention began to be paid at that time, not to the mandrake, but to a close relative, Scopolia. A mixture of morphine and scopolamine, one of the Scopolia alkaloids, has since been used to induce twilight sleep, to relieve pain during child­birth, etc. The mandrake itself may be said to be waiting still for its resur­rection as a medicinal plant.

It was quite a different form of consciousness which made use of Mandragora as a therapeutic agent, a consciousness very much alive to the essential nature of the plant, rather than to the physical substance through which such a plant demonstrates its existence to our sense organs. The ancients saw in every tree a wood-nymph, and in every plant elemental beings that were spiritual in nature. In poisonous plants they saw evil spirits. And so they surrounded the mandrake with mystic rites and cults, for they saw it in a context quite different from what modern man is generally able to perceive. Istereng — luminous root — was its Persian name, because a flame-red light and bright rays were felt to be emanating from it in the evening, something also experienced by peoples in the Mediter­ranean regions. Merdomgie — like unto man — was another name, and this strikes the same note as the expression used by the Pythagoreans, Anthro­pomorphon; or Ebrewi ssanam, face of an idol. Then again the plant was called the dog-drawn, Segken, and this motif we find recurring again and again later on, in the directions to let the root be drawn from the ground by a dog, as it was said to emit a piercing cry on coming free from the ground, a cry which brought death to any who heard it. Sacrificing an animal to appease the demon who is driven from his home when a plant is dug up or a tree is felled, is a custom not confined to those times and to Mediterranean regions. The unlawful damaging of trees, particularly in holy places, was atoned for by cutting off the arm, or even with death. Sacrifices are still made by primitive peoples today when a tree is felled or a field harvested. The Chinese, we are told, still believe that from the falling tree a threatening figure in the form of a blue bull emerges. Animal and plant are experienced in a context which obviously still exists, or did exist, for that level of consciousness. A Javanese approaching a Sarcolobus narcoticus tree to obtain the bark he needs to prepare his arrow poison, will do so on all fours, as if he himself were a poisonous animal; he bites into the bark and then scrapes it off with great care. Quite recently infor­mation has come to light on "hunting-magic" plants. Among primitive tribes in South America, and also elsewhere, the hunters rub the juice of such plants into their skin, or their weapons, in the belief that its magic will attract the animals they seek to hunt. There is also the belief, held all over the world, that the spirits of the dead are for a time intimately bound up with plant life, and go to dwell in trees, for example.

When Mandragora was taken from its natural sphere, into areas of human use, this was accordingly done with due ritual, a ritual wholly appropriate to the type of consciousness we have touched upon. The root was dug in the evening, after bowing to the sinking sun and paying homage to the infernal gods, the chthonic deities. With an iron sword not previously used for any other purpose, three magic circles were drawn around the plant. Then the root was exposed, all the way down except for the very last bit, with the face averted to avoid noxic vapours. The body also had to be properly protected, with oil, lest it swell up in those vapors. In later periods — and we know of this from Dioscorides, for instance — it was the custom to tie a dog to the root and let the animal pull it free from the ground. Then the old magical and mythological consciousness van­ished for mankind in the course of the centuries, and weirder and more and more superstitious customs became established, but we shall not go into these here.

From the sixteenth century onwards, Mandragora was increasingly forgotten, and the sceptical atmosphere of the Age of Enlightenment finally extinguished the last glimmer of the old knowledge. Yet at the turn of the present century, when scientists began the systematic investigation of the traditional medicinal plants by means of chemical analysis, it was found that behind the mystery of the mandrake there lay after all a tangi­ble reality. Alkaloids were found in the plant, some of them known already from other poisonous Solanaceae (the family to which Mandragora belongs), and one apparently specific to Mandragora. Yet while such details are undoubtedly of interest, they do not bring us one whit nearer to the true essential nature of this medicinal plant, just as knowing the amount of cash in the safe would tell us little of the nature of a great trading empire.

Details like these make up the picture which modern consciousness has of Mandragora. It has to be admitted that it is abstract and rather then compared to the one painted by the old form of consciousness, which was in rich tones and included the whole of the human being in the experience. Yes, of course, the new one is scientific and exact, whereas the old one does seem fantastic to us. But scientific accuracy does not get us anywhere near the true nature of the creative plant-whole which actively produces out of itself such remarkable active principles as hyoscyamine, mandragorine, etc. These substances are secondary, the other aspect is primary.

However, modern consciousness must not stop at this point. It is apparent in this very consciousness, particularly if one compares it with older forms of consciousness, that it is undergoing a major transformation and, driven by inner necessity, is seeking to extend its boundaries. For a consciousness thus expanding, one starting point towards an exact science is Goethe's teaching on metamorphosis; the continuation and extension of this is the inward purpose of the modern science of the spirit which was founded by Rudolf Steiner. 1

The mandrake is a typical member of the nightshade family, but it is a very particular variant of it. We shall probably come closest to grasping its specific nature if we consider it against the background of the Solanaceae type. Then the essential nature of this medicinal plant will stand out clearly.

The plant develops a mighty root, growing straight down into the ground to a depth of up to 60 cm. It is a tap root, thick, relatively soft, a plastic structure which lower down frequently divides into two or more branches, each continuing downwards on its own, and swelling into thick­ness. When it is dug up, the whole structure of head, trunk and legs does vaguely resemble the human form. In spring, a shock of elongated leaves, undivided but slightly sinuate, unfolds from the root. A luxuriant rosette develops, but no stem, no leafy shoot rises above it. All the substance formed in the leaves is claimed by the root, all power of growth is drawn down and held fast down below. Spring has barely reached its zenith, and we now expect the plant really to come up, when the leaves begin to yel­low around the edges, curl up, and there is no further growth for this year. That is how the young plant develops from seed, sending forth leaves which get longer with each spring, until finally they reach a length of something over a foot. At the same time the root increases in length and thickness. Mandragora will permit only the forces of the sun in very early spring to act upon it and build it up; among the Solanaceae it is more or less what the crocus is among the Iridaceae, or the winter aconite among the Ranunculaceae. The majority of Solanaceae are summer plants. The henbane will start into growth only when the soil has become really warm; and the deadly nightshade, the thorn-apple, tobacco, tomato and potato, all need the full powers of high summer. Mandragora drops out of this rhythm completely; with its appearance in spring, it leads the annual pro­cession of nightshade plants, or else, in form of its variant Mandragora autumnalis, it comes at the end of the line, in late autumn, like the autumn crocus among the Liliaceae, or the cyclamen among the Primulaceae.

A number of years must pass; each spring makes the root grow bigger and more rich in substance, until finally the plant is ready to flower. Then for the first time an abundance of greenish-white flowers spring up in March (Mandragora officinarum) to April, at the center of the rosettes of leaves. Each on a separate stalk, 2 or 3 inches high, and just over an inch in length, bell-shaped, though the upper half divides into five pointed petals. The flower is held in a calyx about half its length, gamosepalous and five-cleft to the middle. The leaves rise considerably above the flowers, and the whole inflorescence, drawn together as in a small umbel, seems to disap­pear among the rich, swelling foliage. More than in any other of the Solanaceae, the inflorescence has moved down, penetrated into the root region, forcing the leaves down to the ground. One might try and visual­ize a Belladonna, say, transformed into a Mandragora, by imagining its strange inflorescence one floor lower down, and the foliage moved down until it reaches the surface of the soil, with the root, as it strives downward into tremendous length and circumference, giving full expression to this downward movement.

From the flower, the berry develops rapidly, round, slightly pointed at the top, yellow, juicy and the size of a plum. The scent of the berries is peculiar and slightly narcotic, though not unpleasant, and the fruits con­tain a number of small seeds.

The main part of Mandragora is its root, however, with its fleshy body that has taken up so much from the flowering process coming up close to it. The root, too, gives off a peculiarly sweet, narcotic scent, particularly if it is cut up; it is not surprising that in earlier times both berry and root were used as a hypnotic which acted simply through its smell. An extract of the root gives a browny-yellow essence showing faint violet phospho­rescence in transmitted light. It contains methylaesculin, which is closely related to the iridescent substance found in the horse chestnut to aesculin. As already mentioned, at the turn of the century the root and essence were the subject of chemical analysis. A mixture of nightshade alkaloids was found, including the hyoscyamine of the henbane; scopolamine and atropine, both closely related to hyoscyamine; norhyoscyamine, also known as hyoscine; and an alkaloid specific to Mandragora, mandragorine, though not much is known about this so far.

Four of the five Mandragora species belong to the Mediterranean region, one to the Himalayas. They are particularly at home along the coasts of the Mediterranean, in Greece, Crete, Syria, North Africa, Sicily, and Spain. They extend eastwards beyond this through Palestine and into Mesopotamia. In all these countries, spring brings plenty of rain, for a brief period of abundant vegetation; this is followed by a long, hot, dry summer. Mandragora opens out in moderate sunlight, but withdraws into the darkness of earth when the sun comes into full force. In this way the plant has its own variation on the theme generally followed by the Solanaceae in their attitude to the light of the sun.

If we review the actions of Mandragora as they have been known empirically through thousands of years, the following keynotes tend to recur:

1. Hippocrates wrote that very small doses of Mandragora would soothe fear and cure deep depressions. Slightly larger doses cause the pupils to enlarge, an action characteristic for many of the Solanaceae. The eye becomes a "night eye", behaving in bright daylight as though it were in the darkness of night. Sense impressions are felt to be excessively strong, and restlessness and over-excitement develop. The blood wells up into the head, as happens in lesser degree when sleeping. Larger doses tend to sedate, and finally induce a deep sleep. The ancients thought this hypnotic effect could be produced by merely sniffing the fruit or the root, or preparations made from them. Even stronger doses induce anaesthesia. External application of Mandragora can cause analgesia and even loss of sensation, whilst high doses taken internally will finally lead to total anaesthesia and death-like sleep; this enabled the ancients to do extensive surgery and cauterizations on the body and limbs, and may be seen as a precursor of modern anaesthesia. If the dosage is increased further, fatal poisoning results.

Apart from these physical effects, note must be taken also of actions on the psyche. These tend to take the form of visions, hallucinations, and even delirium.

We can see from all this how the supersensible bearer of sentient life, the soul principle, is step by step forced out of the physical organs of sen­sation, depending on the size of the dose, and how the Mandragora action takes it place. Above, an attempt was made to describe the abnormal pat­tern of life dynamics which contributes to the development of the poisonous substances found in the mandrake root. In the sphere of the life-bearing, ensouled organism, this pattern provokes an abnormal pattern of dynamics that is its polar opposite, and this in turn calls upon the whole human being to counteract it.

2. If the human soul principle, the astral body, acts too strongly upon certain organic regions which should be subject to its normal activity only, this gives rise to certain symptoms of spasm, or cramp. Mandragora has spasmolytic action in these cases, and its action will be stronger than that of belladonna or Hyoscyamus. Because of this, colics, persistent tenesmus in conjunction with hemorrhoids, and also asthma, hayfever and whoop­ing cough have at various times been among the indications for this medicinal plant.

3. Mandragora is an ancient aphrodisiac; it was said to promote con­ception, particularly if the fruit was used. Mandragoritis was one of the names given to Venus. The Arabs called the fruits devil's apples, because of the exciting dreams said to follow their consumption, but also genies' eggs, because they ensured conception. Similar properties have been claimed for other nightshade plants, for instance certain species of thorn apple. The abnormal degree to which the vegetative sphere of the plant is penetrated by intensive flowering processes comes to expression here, and those flow­ering processes do in a certain sense correspond to the sexual sphere in man. An added factor is that Mandragora immerses its flowering process so deeply in the elemental forces of spring, forces which find expression in the sprouting growth and development of the whole plant world at that season.

4. One finds repeated mention in the old literature that the mandrake leaf – a part of the plant free from the alkaloids which cause the root, the flower, fruit and seed to be so poisonous – is excellent for the treatment of wounds and inflammation. Thus the analgesic action was seen in con­junction with an anti-inflammatory action.

5. The actions which have led to the inclusion of Mandragora in the materia medica of anthroposophical medicine lie in a sphere, however, which is quite different from those mentioned above. This is the field of remedies for certain forms of rheumatism, and particularly for gout.

Here we refer to what is said about gout in chapter 11 of the book Fundamentals of Therapy, An Extension of the Art of Healing through Spiritual Knowledge by Rudolf Steiner and Its Wegman. 1 This chapter bears the title "The configuration of the human body and gout". It describes a function of the eliminating processes which until now has been given little atten­tion. This concerns particularly the processes of production of uric acid and it distribution throughout the organism. The whole of the human organization, with all the members which contribute to its being, is actively taking part in the production, distribution and elimination of characteristic substances of this type; moreover, this is done in an individu­ality not only in the shape of his features, or the proportional relations of his limbs, but also in the way in which a substance like uric acid is pro­duced, deposited, and eliminated. In this chapter of the book, Rudolf Steiner sets forth that catabolic and not anabolic processes provide the material substrate for conscious experience, and that a particularly remark­able catabolic process is the production of uric acid. This process is brought about by those members of man's being which develop con­sciousness, the ego and the astral body. The ego specifically governs the extremely subtle excretion of uric acid in the brain, the astral body governs the more substantial secretion throughout the whole body, and the elimi­nation of uric acid in the urine. For man to be the conscious being he is, his organs must be impregnated to the right degree with inorganic matter. The bodily economics must be right in the healthy organism to provide for the distribution of uric acid to the various regions. The proper distribution of uric acid deposits is a very major factor in human health. It indicates whether the right relation exists, in any organ or organ system, between ego organization and astral body. The whole of the individual human being is always involved in every process in his body – his life organization (ether body) his soul being (astral body), and his individuality of spirit (ego).

"Let us assume that in some organ, where ego activity ought to pre­dominate over astral activity, the latter begins to have the upper hand . . . The organ will then receive an excess of uric acid, and this cannot be dealt with by the ego organization . . . the uric acid is deposited not outside, but within the organism itself. If it accrues in areas of the organism where the ego is not able to be sufficiently active, then inorganic matter is present, that is, matter belonging to the ego organization only, but relinquished by it to astral activity . . . Here we are dealing with gout . . . The cartilage of a joint or a section of connective tissue may be getting too much uric acid, resulting in an excess of inorganic matter in them, so that in these parts of the body ego activity falls behind in relation to astral activity. The whole of the human form is the product of ego activity; the irregularity we have described must therefore lead to deformation of the organs. The human organism strives to leave its form."

To grasp this aspect of the Mandragora action, let us remember that this plant pushes its flowering process down to the root process, and in doing so takes excessive astral impulses down to the tip of the root, in the production of alkaloids. In the root region, plants are predominantly engaged in activities relating to the mineral and salt processes of the soil. They conquer the mineral element, enliven it, and arrange it in its multi­plicity, according to the formative laws of the species. In the root of the mandrake, domination of inorganic mineral nature comes face to face with excessive "astralization". The Mandragora process, as we see it in the root, is therefore well suited to counteract excessive activity of the human astral body where the production and distribution of uric acid is concerned and restore the ego organization to its position as a power able to guide and to prevail within this totality of organized catabolism, this "uric acid organi­zation" within this organism, that is so important for the development of conscious awareness.

J R Soc Med. 2003 Mar; 96(3): 144–147.

Myths and mandrakes

Anthony John Carter, MB FFARCS

J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets1 includes a scene in which the hero and his friends are in a greenhouse, taking instruction from Professor Sprout on the re-potting of mandrakes. To protect their hearing, the class is equipped with earmuffs.

In an age ever more preoccupied with medicinal herbs, mandrake is the herb that time has forgotten, the word more readily associated today with a column in the Sunday Telegraph or the American strip cartoon Mandrake the Magician. Mandrake the Magician (1934) was the first super-powered costumed crime fighter, the forerunner of Superman, Batman and, most recently Spiderman, but even this icon of the 20th century had his origin in antiquity, for the unlikely source of his creator Lee Falk's inspiration was a poem by the 17th century English poet John Donne2. Donne's subject was fertility:

‘Goe, and catche a falling starre,

Get with child a mandrake roote’.

And the origin of the mandrake's association with fertility is truly ancient, surfacing first in chapter 30 of the Book of Genesis, where the childless Rachael asks her sister Leah for the loan of the mandrakes which her son had brought in from the fields. Much later, this fertility myth received support from the medieval doctrine of signatures, which suggested that God had provided all plants with a sign indicating their value. Mandrake has a long and frequently bifid taproot whose shape sometimes resembles the body of a man (Figure 1). Believing this to indicate reproductive power, our ancestors took to sleeping with them under their pillows at night.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). Sibthorpe: Flora Graeca (1808)

Others, however, began to wonder whether the possession of roots might not bring them success in other areas as well—wealth, popularity, or the power to control their own and other people's destinies, and took to wearing them as good luck charms. Not surprisingly, the Church frowned upon this practice and when, during her trial in 1431, Joan of Arc was accused of having a mandrake about her person, the suggestion helped send her to the stake3.

Mandrake was, of course, far from being the only plant with an anthropomorphic root. The herb had another property, however, for the root contains hyoscine a powerful alkaloid with the ability to cause hallucinations, delirium and, in larger doses, coma. Mandrake's use as a surgical anaesthetic was first described by the Greek physician Dioscorides around AD 60, and its use as a tincture known as mandragora, or in combination with other herbs such as opium, hemlock and henbane is described in documents from pre-Roman times onwards4. It was the presence of this alkaloid, as well as the shape of the root, that led to the mandrake's association with magic, witchcraft and the supernatural.

Mandrake roots became highly sought after in their native Mediterranean habitat, and attempts to protect them from theft are thought to have been the source of the second mandrake myth, which stated that a demon inhabited the root and would kill anyone who attempted to uproot it. Over the centuries, elaborate rituals developed to avoid what became known as the mandrake's curse, the most famous of these requiring the assistance of a dog (Figure 2). Later elaboration of this legend attributed the herb's lethal power to a shriek or a groan emitted by the mandrake as it was uprooted, and suggested that death could be avoided either by a loud blast on a horn at the critical moment or by sealing one's ears with wax. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the earmuff is more in keeping with current health and safety regulations.

The mandrake's curse. After being shown a tasty morsel (far right), a hungry dog is tied to the root of the mandrake. From a safe distance, the hunter throws the food in front of the dog, which lunges forward, uprooting the herb. The dog dies at sunrise ...


Although mandrake found its way into Britain around the 11th century, the herb does not grow naturally here, and anyone wishing to avail himself of its powers, real, or imaginary, was therefore obliged to seek an alternative. Those in search of its medicinal effects turned to henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, a closely related herb with a similar pharmacological profile to mandrake but a more northerly distribution. Henbane was a potent ingredient in the various midnight brews and flying ointments beloved of witches and is thought to have been the ‘cursed hebenon’ poured into the ear of Hamlet's father.

Those seeking to profit from the demand for mandrake charms would have found henbane a disappointment, for it possessed only a small fibrous root. For this purpose they turned instead to the white bryony, Bryonia dioica, a hedgerow plant of south-east England with a large multilobed taproot5 (Figure 3). Competitions were held to find the most realistic (and suggestive) examples6 and, in his New Herball of 1568, Dr William Turner, the clerical-medical Dean of Wells Cathedral and father of English botany, described how specimens were further embellished with a knife and by the superficial insertion of millet seeds to create, after germination, a ‘beard’:

The white bryony (Bryonia dioica). Alyon: La Botanique (1785)

‘The rootes which are counterfited and made like little pupettes or mammettes which come to be sold in England in boxes with heir and such forme as a man hath are nothyng elles but foolishe trifles and not naturall. For they are so trymmed of crafty theves to mocke the poore people with all and to rob them both of theyr wit and theyr money’7.

Bryony roots also came to be used in witches' brews8 and, although lacking any narcotic power of their own, even found their way into primitive anaesthetic mixtures, such as one mentioned in the Canterbury Tales and known as dwale9.


Genuine mandrake roots, presumably imported, and preparations made from them, were also available at this time and Turner gives fascinating instructions for their use as anaesthetics while at the same time describing the unpredictability that was responsible for the rapid decline in their use everywhere. The popularity of the myths, however, remained undimmed.

The works of William Shakespeare contain many references to the mandrake and its myths (Box 1) and are remarkable both for the depth of knowledge they reveal and for their accuracy. Other writers, however, used considerable artistic licence and no more ingenious example of this exists than the comedy The Mandrake Root by the Florentine writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), which unites the mandrake's fertility myth with its curse10. The story concerns a rake, Callimoco, who concocts a plan to help satisfy his lust for the young wife of a local lawyer. Aware of the couple's desire to start a family, Callimoco offers the wife a potion made from the mandrake root, but persuades her husband that the first man to sleep with her afterwards will die. The gullible lawyer agrees to the use of a local tramp as a ‘stand-in’ for the first night, and Callimoco dons his tramp's disguise to await the summons.

Box 1 Shakespeare on mandrake


Give me to drink mandragora,

That I might sleep out this great gap of time

My Antony is away.

Anthony and Cleopatra Act I, Sc. 5

Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owdst yesterday.

Othello Act III, Sc. 3

Were such things here as we do speak about?

Or have we eaten of the insane root

That takes the reason prisoner?

Macbeth Act I, Sc. 3


Thou whoreson mandrake, thou art fitter to be worn in my cap than to wait at my heels.

Henry IV Part Two Act I, Sc. 2

... he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife. He was so forlorn, that his dimensions to any thick sight were invisible;...... yet lecherous as a monkey, and the whores called him mandrake.

Henry IV Part Two Act III, Sc. 2


What with loathsome smells,

And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,

That living mortals, hearing them, run mad...

Romeo and Juliet Act IV, Sc. 3

Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake's groan.

Henry VI Part Two Act III, Sc. 2


Around this time, an apparently new myth began to circulate, to the effect that a mandrake would spring up from ground contaminated by human blood or semen, such as at the foot of a gallows. Once again, Dr Turner, who had spent some years in Europe, was quick to condemn those responsible:

‘But it groweth not under gallosses as a certain dotyng doctor of Colon in hys physick lecture dyd tych hys auditores; nether doth it ryse of the sede of man that falleth from hym that is hanged; Neither is it called Mandragora because it came of man's sede, as ye forsayd doctor dremed’.

Playwrights, nonetheless, wasted little time in taking this new myth to their hearts and, in his corspe-strewn tragedy The White Devil John Webster (1578—c. 1630) (erroneously) unites the mistletoe and mandrake, good and evil, with the tree which, with its horizontal lower branches, had long made a convenient impromptu gallows:

‘But as we seldom find the mistletoe

Sacred to physic on the builder oak,

Without a mandrake by it, so in our quest of gain’.

In the film Shakespeare in Love, Webster is portrayed as a mousy adolescent who condescendingly informs the Bard ‘plenty of blood, that's the only writing’, and this new myth was right up his street. In Act III, scene iii of the play, Lodoveco gives orders for his sister's murder:

‘Wilt sell me forty ounces of her blood

To water a mandrake’.

Whilst, finally, in Act V, scene vi, Webster raises the mandrake's curse to even greater heights of the macabre:

‘Millions are now in graves, which at last day

Like mandrakes shall rise shrieking’.

In more recent centuries, mandrake myths have continued to provide writers with inspiration, and not only those writing for the theatre, as, for example, in Act I, scene ii of Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera (1857) when Amelia, the governor's wife, seeks a cure for a guilty passion from the gypsy woman Ulrica. Ulrica tells her:

‘Oblivion I can give you. Mystic drops of a magic herb I know that renews the heart. But whoever wants it must gather it with his own hand at the dead of night—the graveyard is the place. To the west of the city, there, where on the gloomy field the pallid moon shines down on abhorrent land the herb has its roots by those ill-famed stones where all sins are atoned for with the last living breath!’

Later, Amelia approaches the fateful spot: ‘Here is the horrible field where death is the atonement for crime. There are the pillars the plants at their feet.’


Folklore based upon the mandrake myths survived well into the 20th century:

‘In December 1908, a man employed in digging a neglected garden half a mile from Stratford upon Avon, cut a large root of white bryony through with his spade. He called it mandrake, and ceased to work at once, saying it was ‘awful bad luck’. Before the week was out, he fell down some steps and broke his neck’6.


1. Rowling JK. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998: 72

2. Father of the Phantom. Cartoonist Profiles 1975;27: 20-4

3. Thompson CJS. The Mystic Mandrake. London: Rider, 1934: 146

4. Carter AJ. Narcosis and nightshade. BMJ 1996;313: 1630-2 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

5. Reader's Digest. Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain. London: Reader's Digest Association, 1981: 157

6. Vicary R. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore. Oxford: University Press, 1995: 393-4

7. Chapman GTL, McCombie F, Wesencraft A, eds. William Turner: A New Herball, Vol. 2. Cambridge: University Press, 1996: 437

8. Huson P. Mastering Witchcraft. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970: 146

9. Carter AJ. Dwale: an anaesthetic from old England. BMJ 1999;319: 1623-6 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

10. Bondanella P, Musa M, eds. The Portable Machiavelli. London: Penguin, 1979: 430

Anesth Analg. 2012 Dec;115(6):1437-41. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e318259ee4d. Epub 2012 May 14. Special article: mandragora: anesthetic of the ancients. Chidiac EJ1, Kaddoum RN, Fuleihan SF.

Initial attempts at surgical anesthesia began many centuries ago, with the plants of antiquity. The mandragora, or mandrake, was used as a sedative and to induce pain relief for surgical procedures. It has been depicted in tablets and friezes since the 16th century before the common era (BCE) and used for its sedative effects by Hannibal (second century BCE) against his enemies. The Romans used the mandrake for surgery. The Arabs translated the scientific work of the Ancients and expanded on their knowledge. They developed the Spongia Somnifera, which contained the juice of the mandrake plant. After the fall of the Islamic cities of Europe to the Christians, scientific work was translated into Latin and the Spongia Somnifera was used in Europe until the discovery of the use of ether for surgical anesthesia.

Minerva Anestesiol. 2001 Oct;67(10):751-66.[The mandrake root and the Viennese Dioscorides].[Article in Italian] Peduto VA1.

Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarba in Cilicia lived in the first century. He was a Greek physician who served as a surgeon in Neròs army. He wrote several books on materia medica. One of his manuscripts with drawings of medicinal herbs was copied down in the fifth century. In this book on Greek Herbal, still kept in the National Library of Vienna, Dioscorides gave a detailed description of mandragora (mandrake). Over the ages, the mandrake has been endowed with a wonderful and mystical aura. Examples are superstitions regarding harvesting of the plant. While being torn from the ground, the mandrake would emit a horrible shriek, that would be fatal to the harvester who hears it. So, if someone simply pulled the plant, they would either die or go mad. To avoid that fate, the plant could be partially dug with a few remaining roots staying in the ground. Then a starved black dog was tied to the mandrake with a rope. The harvester, with plugged ears, would throw some scraps to the hungry dog. When the unsospecting animal lunged for food, the mandrake would be completely unrooted and the ensuing shriek would kill the dog and spare the man. According to different legends quoted by Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder, other dire consequences of unrooting a mandrake could be avoided by making circles around the plant on the ground with a sword and then facing west while digging. If there were a true Anaesthetic of Antiquity it would have been mandragora. Dioscorides describes how the wine made from mandragora produces anaesthesia: Using a cyathus of it on those who cannot sleep, or are grievously pained, or are being cut, or cauterized they will not feel pain. Here Dioscorides used for the first time the word anaesthesia as absence of sensation as we mean it today.

Eur J Emerg Med. 2002 Dec;9(4):342-7.Six clinical cases of Mandragora autumnalis poisoning: diagnosis and treatment.

Piccillo GA1, Mondati EG, Moro PA.

A multiple case of Mandragora autumnalis poisoning is described. Mandragora autumnalis, a solanaceous plant that is common in the Sicilian countryside, contains a variable concentration of solanum alkaloids, which cause gastrointestinal irritation, and tropane alkaloids, which have anticholinergic properties and produce typical and sometimes severe atropine-like symptoms. Vital function support, decontamination, symptomatic treatment and, in severe cases, antidote therapy with physostigmine are useful to control acute poisoning.