The mandrake plant (Mandragora officinarum / Mandragora autumnalis) has been highly prized for its magickal properties since ancient times and has been the subject matter of many stories, books, music and movies throughout time. The plant’s magick is even referenced in the book of Genesis and the Song of Songs, attributing to it aphrodisiacal powers. Mystical Jewish Lore states that King Solomon had a ring of immense magickal power which is stated in various lore as having contained a mandrake root inside of it.
In the Orphic Argonautica, mandrake is mentioned by name as one of the sacred plants that grows in the Goddess Hekate’s garden. In the same myth Medea the priestess witch of Hekate creates an ointment from the “Plant of Prometheus” to rub on Jason’s armor to make him invincible in his quest for the golden fleece. By comparing this myth with the writings of other ancient Greek and Roman writers, many scholars and researchers believe that the “Plant of Prometheus” which was fed on the ichor of Prometheus is in fact, the mandrake plant. It’s also interesting to note that mandrake has been a traditional ingredient in the flying ointment of witches throughout time due not only to the strong magickal energy of the plant spirit, but also it’s poisonous and entheogenic properties.
Older folklore states that mandrake is grown when the semen of a hanged man hits the soil. Here we have the imagery of the plant spirit world and the human spirit world meeting half way to create the mandrake. The mandrake root has long been viewed as often being oddly human shaped and interacting with the plant spirit itself I have found that it is the most “human” of the plant spirits that I’ve encountered.
Perhaps this is due to them being bridges between humans and plants as Raven Grimassi writes in Grimoire of the Thorn-Blooded Witch, “The mandrake spirit serves to link humankind with plant-kind and is therefore a magical bridge to the Greenwood Realm and the space of Shadow from which all mysteries flow. In legend, the mandrake is known as the Sorcerer’s Root and connects its possessor with the Old Magic.”
A project that explores this boundary and blurring of the human world and the plant world beautifully is the audiovisual project iamamiwhoami’s first album Bounty, which was based on the concept of a mandrake with stunning visuals and numerous nods to the various folklore of mandrakes throughout the ages. Originally the band released cryptic short teaser videos on youtube with numerical codes as titles as a prologue to the album. When deciphered the message read “educational”, “I am”, “its me”, “mandragora”, “officinarum”, and “welcome home”.
Hildegard of Bingen a medieval German herbalist, healer, physician, mystic, sybil and magician wrote that she believed that mandrakes were the clay that God used to sculpt Adam from before he breathed life into him. She also wrote about a remedy for depression by digging up and cleansing a mandrake in a fountain for a full 48 hours and then placing it within his bed, warming it with his body heat and stating, “God, who madest man from the dust of the earth without grief, I now place next me that earth which has never transgressed in order that my clay may feel that peace just as Thou didst create it.”The root itself has been used as a poppet for magick over the ages.
In Germanic folk magick a mandrake root (called alraun) was treated as a poppet or as its own spirit worked with for good luck and enhanced magickal power, this poppet was called a manikin which means “little man“. It would be wrapped in cloth, offered food and drinks, bathed and placed in a special box. If you were to neglect the alraun, it is said that it would scream like a baby until you paid attention to it and gave it what it needed. The word mannequin referring to a life-like human effigy is a french word which is derived from the german word manikin.
We see this idea echoed in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, where the young girl Ofelia is given a mandrake from the Faun. She places the mandrake into a bowl of milk and feeds it drops of her blood and puts it under her mother’s bed to heal her pregnancy that is killing her. When her mother finds out she scolds Ofelia telling her that magic isn’t real and throws the mandrake into the fire. As she does so, she suddenly starts having immense pain as she goes into labor.
The milk aspect most likely comes from Jean-Baptiste Pitois’ The History and Practice of Magic, where he wrote, “Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus (little man in a bottle) so praised by Paracelsus? Then find a root of the plant called bryony. Take it out of the ground on a Monday (the day of the moon), a little time after the vernal equinox. Cut off the ends of the root and bury it at night in some country churchyard in a dead man’s grave. For 30 days, water it with cow’s milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the 31st day arrives, take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with branches of verbena; then wrap it up in a piece of a dead man’s winding-sheet and carry it with you everywhere.”
The idea of a mandrake root screaming is an old concept, perhaps a cautionary tale of it’s power. When the average person hears about mandrakes they tend to think of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the movie there’s a scene where the students are learning to unearth mandrake roots to repot them. The students wear ear muffs to protect themselves from the mandrake’s scream which Hermoine states is fatal. Even with their ear muffs on they can hear the shrieking of the roots as they unearth them.
It was an old folk belief that pulling a mandrake from the ground would cause it to scream so intensely it would kill whoever was around. Titus Flavius Josephus, a Romano-Jewish historian who wrote the solution to this in regards to harvesting mandrake, “A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear.”
Harold Roth, the owner of Alchemy Works (who sells mandrake seeds by the way) writes in his book The Witching Herbs suggests that this may be a remnant of mandrake’s association with Hekate. He writes, “A possible key to the importance of mandrake to European witchcraft and magic is the fact that the root resembles a human being and can therefore be used as a substitute in sacrifice. This may be connected to the black dog sacrificed for the mandrake harvest and may be an echo of earlier sacrifices of black dogs to Hekate.”
In fact, my first interaction with the mandrake spirit was during a workshop that Raven was teaching at Templefest a few years back. In fact, it was my first time ever approaching plants as spirit allies instead of just ingredients that contain correspondences. In case you’re wondering, Raven associates mandrake magickally to Mercury, Uranus and Pluto in his Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft and writes in Grimoire of the Thorn-Blooded Witch that the best day to contact the spirit of Mandrake is on a Monday during any hour of the night.
I enjoyed the workshop so much that I took Christopher Penczak’s workshop on the mandrake and had a profound experience and what I can only explain as a “communion” or “eucharist”, which I ended up writing a poem about entitled The Eucharist of Mandragora. Christopher is another witch with a strong connection to plants and plant spirits and his book The Plant Spirit Familiar is part of my favorite four books on plant spirits and plant magick among a wide variety on the subject. The other three books are Old World Witchcraft and Grimoire of the Thorn-Blooded Witch both by Raven Grimassi and The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth.
Mandrake seems to be one of the few plant spirits (or possibly the only) who are viewed as having both a male and female form throughout history. In my interaction with mandrakes I do definitely sense a difference in the spirits of autumnalis and officinarum, but I haven’t placed gender on the differences since I’ve only built a strong connection with my officinarum plant so far, which has always felt more male to me. In Old World Witchcraft Raven writes, “In mandrake lore the plants possess a gender nature. The “white mandrake” (Mandragora officinarum) is the male, and the “black mandrake” (Mandragora autumnalis) is the female plant. Some practitioners prefer to call the female spirit Mandragora and the male Mandragoro (in place of calling upon Mandragoritis).” He also adds that the simpler and older method is to just call upon Mandragoritis – She of the Mandrake, who is the spirit that doesn’t reside within a mandrake plant but rather is sort of like the monarch spirit of Mandrakes.
Mandrake is a difficult plant to grow (they’re very temperamental) and finding mandrake root to purchase is increasingly extremely difficult because of this. Often you will find shops who sell “mandrake root”, which is actually Mayapple often called “American Mandrake”, which is a totally different plants. Several books and online sources state that Mayapple can be used as a substitute for mandrakes in recipes and magick. I asked Raven his thoughts about this. “I strongly disagree. The physical plant properties are different as is the spirit. I raise both plants,” he replied, “To me, this would be like substituting cherries to make an apple pie.”
Not only is mandrake can be a very difficult plant to grow and maintain compared to other plants, but because it’s such a popular subject in movies, books, films, etc. It can be very difficult to find any information on growing and caring for the plant amongst a sea of Harry Potter related content. Because of this, my friend Deborah and I created a facebook group called Magickal Mandrak Growers Support Group so that we could all share information on the care of mandrakes from those who are also magickally minded. Feel free to join us if you’re interested.
I invited Raven and Stephanie to join the group since I know they have a special place in their heart for mandrakes and to my delight they posted some special videos of Stephanie unearthing a mandrake followed by Raven charging the mandrake using the technique in Grimoire of the Thorn-Blooded Witch. I asked them if I could re-upload and share these special videos with all of you on my Patheos blog and they happily agreed.
Stephanie Unearthing The Mandrake:
Raven Empowering The Mandrake Root with his Invocation: