Of Mystics and Mandrakes: Poison Plants and Mini-Men
For some of us, the strange and unusual will tend to crop up even when we aren’t looking for it. A fine example occurred over the weekend, while a friend and I were visiting a display at a local garden; to our surprise, the trip became delightfully weird and macabre, as it turned out that what I thought would be a display on exotic insect species ended up dealing instead with different varieties of poisonous and carnivorous plants.
As a child, I used to love to grow Venus Flytraps and pitcher-plants, both of which have evolved various clever ways of extracting extra nutrients by capturing and digesting insects. Several varieties of carnivorous plants appeared at the exhibit, which had been themed around a Victorian set design reminiscent of the old “murder mystery” tales of yesteryear. In addition to carnivorous and poisonous offerings, one area also featured hallucinogenic plant varieties, with references to the often DMT-rich ayahuasca imbibed by different native groups in South America.
But moving further along, another display dealt with what very well may be the most esoteric of all plant varieties: the mandragona officinarum, of which the most popular variety, the Mandrake plant, bears a curiously strange history indeed.
According to some biblical scholars, Mandrake was considered a plant synonymous with love energies, hence it’s discussion in the book of Genesis, chapter 30:14, in which it is believed to have served as a sort of fertility charm. Much later on, the alchemical traditions of the Middle Ages, especially those surrounding the creation of a homonculus (literally meaning a “little man”) often involved the use of a mandrake root, which due to its shape, can often resemble a small person with its spindly offshoots. One tradition that seemed to stem from the humanesque shape of the mandrake root held that the plant actually sprung from the spot where a dead man’s semen struck the ground, especially if he had been hanged above the spot. And of course, the mandrake plant–of which all parts are poisonous to humans–was likely also used for its potential as a hallucinogen. In her book “Magick Potions”, Gerina Dunwich detailed the use of the mandrake in a variety of concoctions, largely for use in it’s love-enhancing capacity:
From classical times to the present, herbs and various exotic ingredients have been used in the magickal potions of Witches. The most widely used and perhaps the most potent herb was the mandrake. Possessing nearly every magickal attribute imagined, it was ideal for use in all manners of potion-craft, from an aphrodisiac to a medicinal brew to a sorcerer’s poison.
An unusual potion known as “Morion” or “Death Wine” was once prepared from the human-shaped roots of the mandrake and used by surgeons of ancient Greece and Rome as an anesthetic. Mandrake potions, which possessed narcotic properties resembling those of deadly nightshade, were also used medicinally as an emetic (to induce vomiting), as a tonic for rejuvination, and as a cure for female sterility.
Interestingly, Indian researchers in Bombay found that there were no female children born to women who used mandrake extracts; only male children. For some strange and unknown reason, the mandrake seems to help produce baby boys.
Centuries ago, the unpleasant-smelling mandrake, along with orange and ambergris (to improve the flavor and aroma, no doubt) were the main ingredients used in most love potions, or philtres.
These sorts of practices, along with the belief that the mandrake could bestow special strength and other abilities on those who used it, weren’t relegated just to ancient times, however. Even Adolf Hitler was said to have possessed a mandrake root, which was given to him by astrologer Erik Jan Hanussen on New Year’s Day in 1933. It is known, of course, that the Nazis were quite susceptible to the influence of the occult, which manifested in a number of the more odd beliefs surrounding their ethos. Hitler was, of course, no exception, and within just weeks of receiving his own mandrake root, he was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
It might be a stretch to refer to this charm the fuhrer has held as a “homonculus,” although traditions associated with the creation of miniature humans through alchemical means certainly did incorporate the mystical mandrake. In her scholarly paper on the subject of homonculi and artificial means of creating anthropoids, Mary Baine Campbell discussed ancient rituals that were discussed dating back to 29 B.C.E. which divulge such processes:
The allegorical image of the human production of a homunculus, or at least of parthenogenic males, stems from late antiquity and depends in part on Aristotelian ideas of the superior power of sperm to the female contribution of menstrual blood, as well as on the so-called bougonia, the technical production of bees from a dead cow described vividly in Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics (29 B.C.E.). Newman locates the first technical account of production of the homunculus in the originally Arabic Book of the Cow… It applies the basic (and grotesquely violent) techniques of the bougonia to the production by “spontaneous” generation of a magically powerful rational animal that can tell its maker “all things that are absent”; one can also vivisect it and, for instance, “use its fluids” to walk on water. Newman thinks it very likely that Paracelsus read this text. The ninth- and tenth-century texts attributed to Jabir considered the creature demonic, but themselves describe another technique by which the adept can make wholly new species, including, for instance, a girl with the face of a boy or even, with luck, “a being with prophetic powers.” The apparatus for this nondemonic production places the vessel inside a large metal rotating sphere designed to “simulate the effects of the crystalline spheres that rotate about the earth itself.”
Here, of course, there is no mention of the mandrake, although later traditions would allow that a mandrake root, when obtained and treated properly, could achieve similar things. No doubt, the beliefs held with regard to mandrake’s usefulness in matters of love and childbirth, paired with it’s unusual shape, helped contribute to such legends. Whether or not it were actually possible to create artificial life from the treatment of a poisonous plant, in retrospect, it’s rather fascinating what lengths people would have seemed willing to go in ancient times, just to bring a demonic moonchild into existence, with futile hope that the creature would use its powers of divination to foretell of things to come; indeed, among other poison plants of the mystic tradition, the mandrake remains perhaps the very strangest.