The Mandrake (not to be confused with the American mandrake, Podophyllum Peltatum, which is quite a different plant) has a singular place in the history of British witchcraft but it’s most notorious use is that of the manikin.
The mandrake most often found in Britain is the Mandragora Autumnalis, which is native to Europe and it became very popular here at the end of the first millennium when Apuleius produced his famous “Herbarium Platonicus” and it was translated into Anglo-Saxon.
Right from the time of the Greeks, it was known that to harvest a mandrake root was a very perilous activity and required certain precise rites to be carried out to lessen the danger or avert it altogether.
The most well known of these rites is that the plant had to be harvested at midnight and have three circles drawn around it with the point of an iron sword to prevent the mandrake demon from escaping. Next, an ivory staff should be used to loosen the root; ivory was known to protect from evil. The next part of the rite and maybe the most impressive, was to secure a black dog to the plant via a cord, the harvester would then stand a little way off with a trumpet at the ready to his/her lips and then throw a piece of meat to the hungry dog, making sure that it landed just out of its reach. As the dog tried to get to the meat, its straining on the cord would cause the root to give and start to rise from the ground, at which point the harvester would make a loud, shrill blast on the trumpet to drown out the shriek made by the uprooted mandrake which was supposed to bring death to all those who heard it. Unfortunately, it was widely believed that, the poor dog dropped down dead immediately the mandrake was uprooted.
By the 16th century, a further precaution was being taken to avoid hearing the mandrake’s shriek; this was to fill the ears with cotton and seal them with wax. Somehow, the dog had become immune to the mandrakes cries and no longer fell as if pole-axed but now needed to be slaughtered at dawn on the morning following the harvesting of the mandrake and then buried in the place previously occupied by the mandrake. The burial was accompanied by incantations and magical rites and the dog now took on the mantle of saviour who had given his life for the community.
The mandrake had many uses; it could heal, it could be used as an anaesthetic, it could be used as an oracle, a guardian and also it could be used in love magic. The mandrake came in both male and female varieties; manikins were male and had divided into two, giving it the look of having legs, while the puppette or female mandrake had not divided but gave the appearance of a female body.
When used for love and lust, the mandrake was referred to as the “love apple” and came under the auspices of Venus, also known as Mandragoritis. Emperor Julian, in his epistles, tells Calixenes that he drank mandrake juice nightly as a love philtre. In Europe, the manikin was placed under the marriage bed to help with conception and to inflame the fires of lust. In Shakespears Henry IV, Falstaff addresses his page as “Thou whoresome mandrake”, alluding to its powers of inflaming sexual desire. You would certainly have to be very sure of the quantities to use however, as a small amount can render a person comatose or dead!
As an oracle, it answers questions put to it by its owner in the same manner as a pendulum. One account of the mandrake at work in this manner is by the author of “Petit Albert” who when traveling through Flanders, was invited to the house of an aged woman who was known to be a great prophetess.
The woman guided him to a cabinet that was lit by a single lamp and inside was a table covered with a cloth on which sat a madragora seated upon a tripod. The left hand of this manikin was outstretched and held a hank of silk from which was suspended a small piece of iron that was highly polished. The old woman then placed a crystal goblet under the small piece of iron so that it was suspended within the goblet and commanded that the manikin should strike the goblet in the manner she wished. She then said the mandrake “ I command you mandragora in the name of those to whom you are bound to give obedience, to know if the gentleman present will be happy in the journey which he is about to make. If so, strike the goblet three times with the iron”. The iron struck three times without the woman having touched anything in the cabinet. The old woman then proceeded to ask more questions and each time the manikin banged on the goblet either once or thrice depending on the answer being either in the negative or positive.
The mandragora could also act as a guardian of a person or family and help to protect either person or possessions. In 1675 a man wrote to his brother in Riga telling him he had heard of his troubles and was sending him a mandrake with full instructions. “Leave the Erdmann (earth man) untouched for three days, then put it in warm water. Sprinkle the water over the animals, the house sills and everywhere about the premises. Thou shalt come to thy own if thou serve the Earth-Manikin right.” Further instructions demanded that the manikin be bathed four times a year, wrapped in silk and laid with the households finest possessions. The bath water in which it had laid would be particularly useful.
Another method for caring for the family manikin was to bath it in red wine and then wrap it in layers of red and white silk. He was then to be laid in a casket and bathed every Friday (Venus) and most importantly, at every new moon, he was to be dressed in a new clean white shirt. If treated in this way, the manikin will ensure the family is rich and fertile as well as answer any questions put to it. When the owner passed on, the manikin was to be bequeathed to his youngest son, not his eldest. If there was no-one to bequeath it to, it had to be sold before death for less than was paid for it.
In England there was a group of women called the Alraun Maidens. The name Alraun is believed to refer to the members of an ancient magical tribe. According to the Roman author Tacitus, they were the Aurinia of Aventinus, “loose hared, bare legged witches who would slay a man, drink his blood from a skull and divine the future from his mangled remains”. Alrauns are also associated with another tribe of magicians called the Alyruninae who are believed to have interbred with the wood-spirits. Alrauns are the humanoid figures made from the roots of plants, especially the mandrake but in England the Alraun Maidens mostly used the roots of Black Bryony. They would carve the root into the required human form and then place grains of barley into the carved roots where hair should be. The root was then reburied for three weeks when it would again be dug up but this time the grains would have sprouted where the hair was required. The sprouting grains were then cut to resemble hair and the Maidens would imbue the Alraun with life. They would then sell the Alraun. The Alraun Maidens did nothing else but create and sell Alrauns. If looked after properly, the Alraun would help in childbirth, had the powers of rejuvenation, would protect against bad weather and when laid on the bed, would prevent nightmares. They could even divine hidden treasure. To keep the spirit of the Alraun from danger, occasionally the spirit was transferred into a glass jar but the spirit didn’t always take kindly to this treatment and would exact its revenge on the person responsible at the earliest opportunity.
It is quite possible to have an Alraun today and it doesn’t have to be a Mandrake or Bryony, it can be any suitable root, even a Dandelion root. As long as it is accorded the respect and reverence that you would give to one of the more well known Alrauns, it will bestow its gifts on you.