In search of traces of the mandrake myth: the historical, and ethnobotanical roots of its vernacular names

Amots Dafni, Cesar Blanché, Salekh Aqil Khatib, Theodora Petanidou, Bedrettin Aytaç, Ettore Pacini, Ekaterina Kohazurova, Aharon Geva-Kleinberger, Soli Shahvar, Zora Dajic, Helmut W. Klug, Guillermo Benítez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Mandrake (Mandragora spp.) is one of the most famous medicinal plant in western cultures since Biblical times and throughout written history. In many cultures, mandrake is related to magic and witchcraft, which is said to have a psychosomatic effect (especially when mandrake contains narcotic compounds) in addition to the pharmacological influence, as occurs with other narcotic magical plants. Due to its unique properties and related myths, it is not surprising that this plant has many names in many languages. Methods: This paper presents an attempt to reconstruct the historical, ethnobotanical, and folkloristic roots of 292 vernacular names of Mandragora spp. in forty-one languages. We used the plant’s morphological data, philology, myths and legends, medicinal properties and uses, as well as historical evidence and folkloric data, to explain meaning, origin, migration, and history of the plant’s names. Results: The names were classified into the following main categories: Derivatives of mandragora (19 languages), alraun (7) and of yabroukh (5). The salient groups of the plant’s vernacular names are related to: Anthropomorphism (33 names in 13 languages); Similarity to other plants (28/9); Supernatural agents (28/9); Narcotic effects (21/8); Leaves, fruits, and seeds (21/8); Aphrodisiac properties (17/10); Use of a dog (15/9); Gallows (14/5); Black magic, sorcery, witchcraft (13/8), and Medicinal use (11/7). Conclusions: This frequency distribution of the mandrake’s vernacular names reflects its widespread reputation as related to the doctrine of signatures, beliefs in its supernatural, natural, and mythic powers, and to a lesser extent, its uses in magic and medicine. A spatiotemporal analysis of the mandrake’s names supports the old idea that the pulling ceremonies for this plant originated in the Near East and that various other myths related to this plant may have originated in different places and periods.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number68
Pages (from-to)68
JournalJournal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine
Volume17
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - 4 Dec 2021

Keywords

  • Animals
  • Bible
  • Dogs
  • Ethnobotany
  • Etymology
  • Mandragora
  • Mandragora spp
  • Phytonymy
  • Plant Roots
  • Plant names
  • Plants, Medicinal

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Cultural Studies
  • Complementary and alternative medicine
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences

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