The Mandrake and the Ancient World
The mandrake is one of the plants which still grows widely in the Middle East, and which has claimed magical associations from a very remote period. It is generally assigned the botanical name of Mandragora officinarum L.. and is a perennial of the order Solanaceae. It claims affinity with the potato and eggplant, and is closely allied to the Atropa belladonna L., with which it is not infrequently confused by some writers. The modern Arab knows it by a number of names, including Tuffah el Majanin (‘Madmen’s Apple) and Beid el Jinn (Eggs of the Jinn), apparently a reference to the ability of the plant to invigorate and stimulate the senses even to the point of mental imbalance.
The former name may perhaps be a survival of the belief found in Oriental folk-lore regarding the magical herb Baaras, with which the mandrake is identified by some authorities. According to the legends associated with this plant, it was highly esteemed amongst the ancients on account of its pronounced magical properties. But because of the potency of these attributes it was an extremely hazardous undertaking for anyone to gather the plant, and many who attempted it were supposed to have paid for their daring with sickness and death. Once the herb had been gathered, however, it availed for a number of diseases, and in antiquity it was most reputed for its ability to cure depression and general disorders of the mind. As a result it was frequently sought after by magicians and others who attempted the treatment of insanity in the ancient world, and was probably used most of all in the form of a potion.
The mandrake grew abundantly in Palestine, and was found flourishing in neglected fields and waste land. A thick, forked stubby root produced a short stem on which grew glossy oval leaves attaining a length of anything from six to sixteen inches, depending largely on the fertility of the place where it was to be found growing. The plant bore a flower, whose colour is variously described as bluish, purple, or greenish-white, and in appearance was rather flat and broad, being about two inches in diameter. In the Spring the blossoms gave way to round, sweetish red berries, which became ripe about May. The young plants had a thick tapering root very much like that of a parsnip, which went down into the ground for a distance of two feet or more. As the plant matured, the root altered its shape, becoming more bulbous, and from it there emerged a number of short brittle outgrowths.
The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 28:2 (1956)