Friday, August 25, 2006

The Daily Hump: Mandrake

"Shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth." - Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, iv. m3.
Machiavelli used it for the title and theme of a play (Mandragola). Shakespeare mentions it in not just Romeo and Juliet, but Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and King Henry VI. DH Lawrence called it the "weed of ill-omen"; Ezra Pound and JK Rowling write of its magical properties (Portrait d'Une Femme and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, guess who wrote which).

The mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora, which is part of the nightshades family. Found mainly around the Mediterranean, the Mandragora officinarum has a short stem with a solitary purple or whitish flower. It's rather obvious to see that the word mandragora comes from the roots man + dragon. Mandrake is simply a Middle English alteration of mandragora which heralds from Old English, back to Latin, mandragorā, and then earlier to Greek. (Drake and dragon share a common Latin root dracō).

Per the OED, the mandrake
...was formerly credited with magical and medicinal properties esp. because of the supposedly human shape of its forked fleshy root, being used to promote conception, and was reputed to shriek when pulled from the ground and to cause the death of whoever uprooted it....
This connection with fertility can be seen in the Hebrew word for mandrake, דודאים, which literally translates as "love plant." The Arabs refer to the plant as beid el-jinn--"genie's eggs". This ability to create life yet also cause death is also reflected in the common legend that mandrakes are seeded by the semen of hanged men. Samuel Beckett references this myth in Waiting for Godot.
Estragon: Wait.
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited) An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let's hang ourselves immediately!
Alas, man's best friend was left with the dangerous duty of harvesting the plant. As Jewish historian Josephus chronicled,
a furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.
Mandrake (plant) [Wikipedia]
Mandrake [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]

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:: posted by David, 9:04 AM


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