Myths and mandrakes
Anthony John Carter
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, (2003) March; 96(3): 144–147.
J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 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 Donne. 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.