A new text is available in the Digital Text Library: Jacob and the Mandrakes by James George Frazer, originally a paper read to and published by the British Academy in 1917. Frazer was a social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion, and is most famous for his book The Golden Bough (1880). Jacob and the Mandrakes is a wide-ranging study of the mandrake legend over the last 2000 years in areas as diverse as Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. Frazer discusses the origins of the legend, as well as the purported uses of this plant and the mythology that it has inspired. Any quotes given below that are not otherwise attributed are from Frazer’s paper.

Mandrake root
Mandrake root

The mandrake is, of course, a real plant, found around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in China. To quote Wikipedia:

Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora belonging to the nightshades family (Solanaceae). Because mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as hyoscyamine and the roots sometimes contain bifurcations causing them to resemble human figures, their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in neopagan religions such as Wicca and Germanic revivalism religions such as Odinism. … The mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, is a plant called by the Arabs luffâh, or beid el-jinn (“djinn’s eggs”). The parsley-shaped root is often branched. This root gives off at the surface of the ground a rosette of ovate-oblong to ovate, wrinkled, crisp, sinuate-dentate to entire leaves, 6 to 16 inches long, somewhat resembling those of the tobacco-plant. There spring from the neck a number of one-flowered nodding peduncles, bearing whitish-green flowers, nearly 2 inches broad, which produce globular, succulent, orange to red berries, resembling small tomatoes, which ripen in late spring. All parts of the mandrake plant are poisonous. The plant grows natively in southern and central Europe and in lands around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as on Corsica.

The “Jacob” of the title is a character from the Judeo-Christian biblical book of Genesis, the son of Abraham Isaac, husband of Leah and Rachel. Leah’s son Reuben finds a mandrake plant during the wheat harvest and brings it home to his mother. Second wife Rachel, then childless, wants the mandrake because it is thought to aid conception; Leah trades an extra night with Jacob for the plant. Rachel eats the mandrake berries and soon conceives a child with Jacob.

While aiding conception is the mandrake’s best known use, it had several other uses. If the plant is given a coin, the next day it will return two coins, thus making the owner rich, though “you must not overwork [the mandrake], otherwise he will grow stale and might even die.” The berries of the plant were used as a soporific and narcotic; the ancient Greeks and the medieval Arabs used them as an anesthetic during surgery. Some figures made from the root of the plant were said to be “infallible love-charms, others make the wearer invulnerable or invisible; but almost all have this in common that they reveal treasures hidden under the earth, and that they can relieve their owner of chronic illness by absorbing it into themselves.”

The source of the mandrake plant had its own rather gruesome mythology. In Germany the plant was called the “Little Gallows Man”, and it was said

that when a hereditary thief, born of a family of thieves, or one whose mother stole while he was in her womb, is hanged on a gallows, and his seed or urine falls on the ground, the mandrake or Little Gallows Man sprouts on the spot. Others, however, say that the human progenitor of the plant must be, not a thief, but an innocent and chaste youth who has been forced by torture falsely to declare himself a thief and has consequently ended his days on a gallows. Be that as it may, the one thing about which all are agreed is that the Little Gallows Man grows under the gallows tree from the bodily droppings of a hanged man.

Dogs uprooting mandrakes
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 14969, f. 61v
Uprooting a mandrake is a dangerous task, as seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where the students take special precautions when transplanting mandrakes. The mandrake resents being pulled from the ground, and its screams are deadly, killing anyone nearby. To safely get the mandrake, you must dig all around it with a sword until it is attached to the ground by only a few small roots. Then you tie a dog which has been starved for several days to the root, and offer food to the dog from a distance; the dog, in rushing to get the food, will pull the mandrake root out of the ground. Once the root is out of the ground it is harmless and you can collected safely. It is not recommended that you use the family pet for this task, since the dog is killed by the screams of the angry mandrake. The dog, having nobly sacrificed itself so you can get the mandrake, is to be buried with honors in the place where the mandrake was. Then

all you have now to do is to pick up the plant, wash it clean in red wine, wrap it in white and red silk, and lay it in a casket. But you must not forget to bathe it every Friday and to give it a new white shirt every new moon. If you only observe these precautions, the mandrake will answer any question you like to put to it concerning all future and secret matters. Henceforth you will have no enemies, you can never be poor, and if you had no children before, you will have your quiver full of them afterwards.

It is said that if you forget to give the mandrakes their weekly bath, they would “scream like children till they got it.”

The human form of the mandrake root was particularly attractive, and since the natural root is only vaguely humanoid, some enhancement was needed:

To this day there are ‘artists’ in the East who make a business of carving genuine roots of mandrakes in human form and putting them on the market, where they are purchased for the sake of the marvellous properties which popular superstition attributes to them. Antioch in Syria and Mersina in Cilicia particularly excel in the fabrication of these curious talismans. Sometimes the desired form is imparted simply by cutting and pressing the roots while they are still fresh and juicy, or while they are in process of desiccation. But sometimes, when a root has been thus moulded into the proper shape, it is buried again in the ground, until the scars on it have healed, and the parts which had been tied together have coalesced. When such an effigy is finally unearthed and allowed to dry and shrivel up, the traces of the manipulation which it has undergone are often hard to detect. A skilful ‘artist’ will in this way turn out mandrake roots which look so natural that no native would dream of questioning their genuineness.

So watch where you get your mandrake roots, don’t sacrifice the family pet, and remember the weekly bath!