Friday, September 20, 2013

Mandrake/ Alrune

Mandragora officinarum

Mandragora officinarum
From three species wildgrowing around the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, Greece and in Asia Minor, is Mandragora officinarum the mostly spread. A long root, often thick and deeply cleft, until 60 cm, branches off a close rosette of ovale or lanceolate leaves, the long-stemmed flowers are yellow-green, the berries round and yellowish. The whole plant is very poisonous.


The root might resemble parsnips. The leaves are dark-green elliptic and oblong and might remind about the leaves of a big Rumex crispus. When the mandragora is some years old the fruits can look like small tomatoes. 

Mandrake belongs to the nightshade family. Mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids, and the roots sometimes contain bifurcation, causing them to resemble human figures, their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in pagan traditions such as Wiccan and Odinism . 

Danish names:

Alrunerod, Satans æble and Dragedukke ( Alrune's root, the Devil's apple and Dragondoll).
The Danish word Alrune comes in 1534 from German Alraun and from the Gothic word: "runa",  meaning secret, which is also the name of a mysterious creature, a prophetess, in the Roman poetry callled a witsh or a fortune-teller and often called Alrune(Alraun). In ancient times was differentiated between a male and female Alrune. People believed that the root had mysterious and secret qualities.

In a translation from Book of Genesis it was called a dockyrt ( doll-herb) (1535). In 1663 it was mentioned by the very used name dragedukke (dragon-doll),  referring to the humanlike root . The name Mandragora came possibly from Greek mandra (= cattle stable) and agora (a meeting place), because the plant often grows in cattle pens, but there are more interpretations of the mandragora-name. In the 1700s the plant was mentioned by the name Galgemand (Gallows man) - and in 1883 armesynderblomst (the root had to be digged up on gallows hill under the body of an arm synder (a poor sinner). In 1906 the alrune was also known as tryllerod ( magic root) or mestermandsrod ( mestermand = executioner).

I'll call the plant Alrune in the following section,  since the informations are from folklore collectors who were travelling the country in order to get hold of informations from local people. 
People knew the plant by the name Alrune. 

Talisman and Superstition

The alrune does not grow wild and it was possibly never cultivated in Denmark. The humanlike root was brought from the south, probably by craftsmen and gypsies. The root was rare, some of the owners were known by name, a metalcaster at a Danish ironwork owned an alrune in 1666. In 1681 an example of an alrune-root was seen by a Frenchman in "Kongens Kunstkammer" (The King's art collection) . 

People thought the herb grew out from a hanged (and innocent)  thief's blood or semen under the gallows hill, it had to be taken up at midnight in a full moon, a  black dog had to draw it up from the earth and would die doing this, you had to put cotton or wax in your ears, for if you heard the terrible scream of the plant, you would drop dead, but by blowing a trumpet at the same time as the scream was heard, it was possible to outshout the scream. Since people believed that the plant grew at the gallows hill, it might be because the executioners cultivated the plant in order to make an anesthetic or sedative for the victims before the execution.

Strange deeds were done with the root. Some meant that this strange humanlike creature had grown from its owners' blood. Together with and mixed with other superstition the alrune was considered a mysterious creature - a living dragondoll, a pixie, a troll, a witch, a bjergmand, (mountain troll), a dragon spirits, and very important also as a coin, which would draw everything to its owner and provide for his wealth. The dragondoll had to be told on New Year's morning what it had to provide for the house in the next year.


If something suddenly had disappeared it was said in Jutland that the dragondoll had taken it - and they spit warding off in their purse. The alrune was compared to the kid of a rat, a grey fish, a toad, a little white worm with a red head or a beetle. If people in an unexplained way came to riches, it was said about them that "he has got a dragondoll". (1880) A fisherman who caught more salmons than the others, was also accused for being the owner of a dragondoll. By the help of the dragondoll you could draw all luck from your neighblours and become rich yourself.

Some people, who owned a dragondoll, never lacked money. This was certainly true about the bailiff in Ry Mølle, and the landlord of the manor Strårup at Kolding owned also such a little creature, his dragondoll looked like a little living human in the chest of drawers, it could sit up and look at people. A rich farmer had the dragondoll in a box in his corner cabinet, and he always kept the key in his money purse. The old and very rich Rasmus Kræmmer from Viemose i Sjælland owned a very small dragondoll - every time he opened its box in a hanging cupboard, it was sitting there with a skilling in its mouth.

foto: gb
If you at midnight went around a churchyard three times in the name of the devil, you would meet someone who asked you if you wanted a valuable coin or a dragondoll,  the coin was sure to get, but the doll gave most money. A woman at Funen passed a market place and saw a sweet little doll in a box, and when she lifted the doll, a new moneynote lay under it, she got frightened and went home, but when she entered the house the box with the doll was at the table.

If people suspected a woman to be a witch, she was put upon a chair with an alrune-root under the seat, and the witch would be squirming and wiggling.

If a guy had a dragondoll under his shirt, he would win the heart of every girl. (1760) A girl who dressed in a frivolous manner, was called a dragondoll. But it was also said that the alrunes which grew around the big longdolmen "Alrunes' grave" at the Danish island Alrø, was magic medicine against Cupid's arrow shots.

Fanefjord kirke, foto: grethe bachmann
It was said that many women owned such a little doll in a box, and this was of course the devil himself, for if someone kept him for nine years, they had to belong to him after death. For the same reason the devil moved from one woman to another.

1890: It was not easy to get rid of a dragondoll. Everyone was scared of being the tenth owner. The owner of a dragondoll was in collusion with the devil and could not get rid of it without selling it;  if he gave it away or threw it away it came back at once. A man threw it in a lake, Lyng Sø in Jutland, but in vain. It came back to him.

With a piece of root in the pocket the purse would never be empty and one could win games and be free from disease. The plant's contents of poisonous alkaloids  were used in "the flying-ointments" of the witches.

Alrune was believed to be a plant which could cure every disease in the world. But if the root was used in a wrong way, it might provoke insanity. The plant was used as an aphrodisiac and in order to promote fertility. It was also used as an anesthetic.
The alrune was introduced in the pharmacies in 1672.
Wine decoct eased pains after operation and gave sleep afterwards. In 1520, the plant was part of a painkilling ointment. 1577: "If the root is cooked in wine it soon becomes intoxicating". Alrune was used against headache in East Jutland.
It was also used in livestock diseases. 

The mandragora play a main role in the world's literature. It was known from the Bible and the Oddyssey, and many writers have mentioned and used this famous herb in their books.  Machiavelli wrote in 1518 a play called Mandragola and Shakespeare refers to mandrake four times under the name of mandragore, like in Anthony and Cleopatra, where Cleopatra says: "Give me to drink mandragora that I might sleep out this great gap of time. My Anthony is away". In Romeo and Juliet is said "Shrieks like mandrakes torn out of earth".
In Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling mandrakes can be found in the Hogwarts greenhouses. When pulled out of the earth, they resemble humans, and just as in the mythology, the cry is fatal. The mandrake can also revive those who have been petrified. Also John Steinbeck and Terry Pratchett have the mandrake root in their works.

Popular Culture
The four episode Doctor Who serial "The Masque of the Mandragora" by Louis Marks, broadcast in September 1976, features a living energy creature called the Mandragora Helix, a fragment of which hitches a lift to earth in the TARDIS and possesses and absorbs an Italian court astrologer towards the eventual aim of galactic domination.
Mandragoras appear as monsters in many video games, particularly in RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series.
In the film "Shakespeare in Love", Will Shakespeare, frustrated by writer's block, orders a mandragora in the pub.

Danish rock band
Alrune Rod (formed 1968) was a Danish psychedelic rock band.  

Source: V. J. Brøndegaard, folk og flora, Dansk Etnobotanik, bd. 4,1979. Wikipedia: Alrune and Mandragora 

photo: wikipedia and wikimedia.

No comments: