Library Graduate Trainee, Tavian Hunter, examines the mythological connections that have been made between plants and love.
Valentine’s Day may be past, but down the centuries plants have had mythological connections with the “feeling of love”. One such plant is Mandragora officinarum, better known as the mandrake. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, was also known by the name “Mandragoritis”.
The fruits of the mandrake are called the “apples of love” and there are stories of their use in creating “love potions”. One book that examines the myths surrounding the mandrake is John Riddle's Goddesses, elixirs, and witches: plants and sexuality throughout human history (2010).
Male mandrake from Ortus sanitatis (1485)
Mandragora officinarum was given its name because its taproot was thought to resemble a small human figure (“man”) and because it was believed to have mystical powers (“dragon”). In both Dioscorides’ (fl. 50-70 CE) De materia medica and Theophrastus’ (371-587 BCE) Enquiry into plants, it is suggested that mandrakes are “good for making love potions”.
Dioscorides explains that this is because the female mandrake fruit has a “sweet-smelling” fragrance while the male mandrake fruit is “oppressively fragrant”. Theophrastus notes that when the skin of the mandrake is scraped and mixed with vinegar or wine it makes a love potion. However, more emphasis is placed on the use of the mandrake for medicinal purposes, including anaesthesia when undergoing surgery, reducing inflammation and tumours, and inducing sleep.
Atropa Mandragora (former Linnaean bionomial name) Left: Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca. Vol. 3, Plate 232 (1819). Right: Icones plantarum medicinalium ... Vol. 2, Plate 126 by Plenck (1789)
The famous myth
Quoted by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the most famous myth about the mandrake is that “the shrieks of an uprooted mandrake would kill anyone who hears it”.
This superstitious belief was widely adopted in the Middle Ages, when traditional herbalists were considered to be witches associated with Hecate, Goddess of Magic and Witchcraft, who is often illustrated as a black dog. This may explain the origin of the suggested practice for extracting the mandrake safely - dig into the ground to expose the roots, draw three circles around the plant with a sword and tie a rope around a starved black dog and the mandrake; throw fresh meat to the dog, which will run towards it and pull the mandrake from the ground.
Facsimile of Mandrake uprooted by a dog on a chain. Source: Riddle, 2010.
Truth or fiction?
So could the mandrake really be used to make a love potion? Schultes, Hofmann and Rätsh (2001) suggest the chemistry of the mandrake (which belongs to the Solanaceae family) could explain why this may hold some truth. Mandragora officinarum contains a high concentration of the tropane alkaloid, scopolamine. This induces effects of intoxication and narcosis, making users lose all sense of reality, impairing memory, and inducing a deep sleep.
The stories about men lured by women into taking drinks doctored with mandrake root, and remembering nothing about it in the morning, could have their basis in truth. However, it is perhaps more probable that the mandrake, a narcotic hallucinogen, was sometimes mistaken for Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, (also in the Solanaceae family) with deadly consequences.
The mighty mandrake has lost a lot of its mythological wonder but the idea of plants with aphrodisiac qualities persists to this day, with people wearing botanical perfumes and giving their lovers roses and chocolate on Valentine’s Day.
- Tavian -
- Goddesses, elixirs and witches : plants and sexuality throughout human history by John M. Riddle. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
- Plants of the Gods : their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Rätsch. Vermont : Healing Arts Press, 2001.
- Theophrastus : Enquiry into plants and minor works on odours and weather signs with English translation by Arthur Hort. London : Heinemann, 1916.
- Dioscorides "De materia medica" : being an herbal with many other medicinal materials, written in Greek in the first century of the common era : a new indexed version in modern English by T.A. Osbaldeston and R.P.A. Wood. Johannesburg : Ibidis Press, 2000.
Plants and the Human Brain by David O. Kennedy. New York : Oxford University Press, 2014. Source: Google Books
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