The Most Famous of All Magical Roots
Taken from the Syracuse Union, Thursday, April 20, 1922, p.3
"As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live" - Goethe
The more we feel insecure in our contact with the forces of nature, the more strongly we are driven to seek out some form of protection. For this reason all seafaring men have been and still are superstitious and the same applies today to aeronauts and their trust in charms and amulets. Similar superstition can be found among mineworkers, who, despite all of today's assurances, do not feel secure in the mines for any length of time. Farmers also feel their dependence upon the forces of nature. Wind, rain, and hail storms make their lives extremely precarious, so this group of people hold as tightly to superstition as they do to established forms of religion.
One might say of city people of our time that they no longer have any faith and they do not tend towards superstition. It's superficial to draw such conclusions about the higher intellect of these people as witnessed by the experiences of the war years and the postwar era. Even with this group the most squalid and fierce forms of superstition too root. An entire genre of literature developed, fueled by speculation in order to achieve the best results. No bit of nonsense is too great which won't find its willing audience and group of followers.
So it cannot be surprising if old superstitions, which we thought we dead, reawaken and the most ridiculous swindles occur. The intellectual constitution of the modern human  is indeed similar to that of those who lived during the horrible years of the Thirty Years War [1618-1648.] In those days an age-old but not-forgotten magical plant gained an incredible amount of attention. Around 1670 a "whole" mandrake cost between forty and sixty Thalers and in 1683 a piece went for around thirty Ducats. Three years later the Great Elector issued a decree: "Immediately henceforth, any form of idolatry or deception will no longer be tolerated by the army." Mandrake was mentioned along with other magical potions and talismans. Three women, who grew and sold mandrake, were burned in Hamburg during the middle of the 17th century. Much of this magical plant has been stolen from our botanical gardens by superstitious and curious people. This demonstrates the tenaciousness with which superstitions have lasted for a thousand years.
Mandrake root, or mandragora to the ancients, is native to the Mediterranean region in southeastern Europe and it comes in many varieties. It belongs to the family Solanaceae, or nightshades and is related to potatoes and tomatoes, tobacco and even henbane, jimsonweed and belladonna. From antiquity until the beginning of the 18th century people brewed a draft from the green, cherry-sized berries to act as a sleeping agent and anesthetic during difficult operations. Around 1700 a ban was reestablished so laymen and physicians' assistants could no longer use this dangerous narcotic.
More than a few people became victims of the indiscriminant use of this draft. This same poisonous root has been used as a love potion since ancient times and Arab people hold fast to the belief to this day. Smoked like tobacco, the leaves have a narcotizing effect.
This plant also has a spooky connotation due to its similarity to the human form. An old description of the mandagora was "planta semihomiris" = semi-human plant. The large, turnip-shaped root often divides in the middle into two more-or-less similar parts with delicate hairs on the root tips thus giving it a puppet-like appearance. However there is still another reason for the increased belief in the magical powers of this plant. Flavius Josephus, a historian from the first century after Christ, wrote that the mandragora blossom shimmers in the dark like lightning. Thus the plant was also called "Agla ophotis," the radiant one. Josephus also wrote that the plant shrinks back when someone is looking for it. Therefore it must first be bound by magic if one wishes to find it. Linnaeus's daughter made an unusual observation that plants with red or yellow flowers leave an afterimage on the eye at dusk which flashes white or bright green in proximity to the flower. Others verified but misunderstood the observation. People erroneously believed in phosphorescence and the self-lighting of plants. Goethe, who on the 17th of June 1799 observed a red poppy in his garden, was the first to recognize that this surprising phenomenon was merely the result of our eye structure.
People of earlier ages, who had no explanation for this phenomenon, must have suspected magic and this made the plant seem even stranger to them.
Thus it's understandable that people would think that digging up this plant meant danger to life and limb.
Pliny the Elder, who died 79 A.D., claimed that one dared to dig it up only when one was not against the wind, and beforehand he must draw three circles around the plant with a sword. It had to be at the right time shortly after sunset and the position of the stars was critical to success. This scary story was widespread. Whoever dared to touch mandragora without using a binding spell could lose his life at the digging site. After a series of magical preparations were performed you had to dig around the plant. There would be a tremendous cry as the dirt was removed from around the plant. Whoever heard this cry would become insane or die because the powers of the underworld would not give up the magical plant without a sacrifice. Therefore seekers came out in the middle of the night with a black dog after they stuffed wax in their ears. Once the root was exposed a cord was placed around it and the other end tied firmly around the dog's tail. Then the seeker had to jump over the plant and the circle he made with the sword and run for his life. When the dog tried to follow his master he'd yank the mandrake root out of the dirt and in so doing he would fall victim to the powers of the underworld.
In christian realms old and new traditions blended together with the addition of new places where you'd find mandrake root, including sites of executions, holy places, the stations of the cross and condemned regions. Mandrake was said to grow under the gallows where an innocent, young bachelor had died. Digging the root there was done under mortal peril. Skilled women, witches, the hangman or his apprentices could dig it up at midnight while reciting spooky incantations. This happened mostly during the solstices or the nights of the full moon when the root was most powerful.
Mandrake also required care so that it would not lose its potency. The demonic being had to be bathed in undiluted white and red wine on Friday, the day dedicated to the goddess of love, Freia. It then had to be covered in a little white shirt and a little red coat and placed in a little bed. Each new moon it received a new white shirt. Its resting place contained red, green, blue and gray pillows. These colors represented the four elements: fire, water, air and earth, from which all creatures are made. New elemental powers flowed into the mysterious creature through contact. The white and red wine "bath water" acted as a powerful agent of magic. Sprinkle it with cattle blood for protection from illness, witchcraft, and curses.
This universal agent is not just a love potion. Through its powers one can find buried treasure and this "bushy little man" can even increase its size and worth. It guards one against poisons, stabbing, beatings and bullets plus makes one invisible in dire circumstances. Anyone who carries a mandrake under his right arm during a court proceeding may expect he will be found innocent and set free even when everything he said was a lie. No lightning or bad weather will damage a house in which a mandrake resides and the black arts of witches and wizards are nullified by its power. These temporary advantages come with a price, for the wielder falls to the devil upon his death unless he manages to sell the mandrake to another person at a cheaper price than he paid for it himself.
Since "true" mandrake no longer came north of the Alps people obtained it in Asia Minor, Syria, Greece, and Italy. Once demand sent market prices up sharp peddlers, herbalists and salve makers brought artificial little mandrake men and women to the market. Some of these swindlers made fake mandrake out of calamus root however most came from a common, wild-growing variety of red bryony.
The weak-willed and deeply superstitious Kaiser Rudolf II (1552-1612) surrounded himself with astrologers, alchemists and magicians. He also owned a mandrake couple names Marion and Thrudarias. These magical creatures are still with us today. The head coverings of both mandrakes are made of affixed leather patches and the arms are affixed with glue! Thus someone swindled the Kaiser because his mandrakes are not mandragora roots despite the sum he paid for them. Rudolf II was a man of inner weakness, staggered by superstition, who eventually succumbed to bitterness and misanthropy. He was denied the natural strength of purposeful intent and self-reliance and as usually happens he tried to bolster his lack of certainty through amulets, talismans and other magical agents.
External and internal insecurity drive many people in our time towards superstition in many forms. Each should consider that true freedom cannot be obtained through such means. Goethe was correct when he said "Look to yourself, not up to the sky. Never bow down, prove you are strong. And never let the gods think you are wrong."
[The little joke below the article]
Two men meet at a social event and even though they don't know each other, they begin a conversation.
Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks, October 19, 2019