mandrake


mandrake
   The true mandrake is a poisonous plant with a forked root, related to nightshade; classical writers and the Bible mention it as an aphrodisiac and as making barren women fertile, while in medieval times it was used as a powerful soporific and pain-killer. However, as it does not grow easily in Britain, dried roots of white or black bryony were sold as 'mandrakes'; sliced or grated, they were used medicinally on horses and humans. In Sussex in the 1920s mandrake was being sold by a village herbalist as 'the finest cure in all the world for indigestion and malaria . . . rheumatism, pains in the chest, headaches and so on' (Sussex County Magazine 1 (1927), 453). Bryony roots were classed as males or females; in Lincolnshire, 'mandrakes' would be used on women and mares, and 'womandrakes' on men and stallions (Rudkin, 1936: 28-9).
   However, the reputation of the mandrake is due to sinister legends from medieval Europe, which reached England in Tudor times. It was said to grow under *gallows and gibbets, springing from the sperm ejaculated by hanged men; it shrieked so horribly when uprooted that anyone hearing it would go mad, so a dog would be tricked into pulling it from the ground. According to the manuals of *magic, anyone who keeps a mandrake wrapped in silk in a small chest will never lack money, for if one coin is laid beside it at night, there will be two by morning.
   The making of mandrake puppets is described by several Elizabethan and Jacobean writers; the bryony roots were trimmed to look as human as possible, and given hair and a beard by pricking small holes into them and inserting sprouting millet or barley seeds. The craft was still practised in East Anglia early in the 20th century, but partly in fun; countrymen would display 'female' mandrakes in the pub, and the most realistically carved would win a prize - after which the figures would be hung in a sow's sty to make her prolific, or put among money under the mattress (Porter, 1969: 46-7). In London street-markets in the 1920s the mannikins were sold to be fixed to the bedhead 'for good luck' (Lovett, 1925: 74).
   ■ Vickery, 1995: 393-4; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 237-8; H. F. Clark, Folklore 73 (1962), 257-69.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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