by Henry Wessells
Mandrakes appear throughout Davidson's writings, from
the carefully restrained mandrake Vergil employs to find a favorable wind
on the sea voyage to Cyprus in The Phoenix and The Mirror, to his
definitive essay "Who Makes the Mandrakes?" in Adventures in Unhistory.
Some digressions relating to this unusual plant follow.
As serendipity is itself a phenomenon which interested
Avram Davidson, I include a section of an article which came across my
desk at work when I was reading Adventures in Unhistory for the
first time (shortly after Davidson's death in May 1993).
From "Zoroastrianism : Location and Time of Its Origins"
by J.N. Khlopin, Iranica Antiqua 27 (1992),
An integral part of any religious ceremony with
the ancient Iranians was a beverage made of the haoma sap. [. . .]
More recently, I came across this interesting passage:
Nevertheless the plant did exist and was given an
authentic description in the Avesta, though this description was not done
in the language used in modern botany. This plant is still in existence
and it can be found in zones that have long been inhabited by the Iranians,
or, to be more exact, by the Aryans and Turanians. By now it has become
a great rarity and is about to disappear owing to which it was introduced
into the Red Book [of the USSR]. It is mandragora turkomanica revealed
for European Science [sic] right before World War II. The first scientific
report about it was made by O.Th. Mizgireva in 1942 when the gun thunder
of the war separated scholars all over the world and made their voices
inaudible. [. . .]
The first scientifically proved identification of
mandragora turkomanica with the haoma appeared in 1979. Its soft leaves
resembling those of a beet form a rosette about 1 m. in diameter. [. .
Leaves turn into an underground stem called kaudex
and then to a crooked tuber up to 5 kgs by weight which often looks like
an ugly little man. Ripe berries are edible and taste not unlike a green
tomato, smelling like strawberries, melons and hippophae. Berries contain
a great deal of various alkaloids including narcotics; thus eating green
fruit may cause poisoning though not death.
One of the reasons that the plant had not got into
the field of botanists was its unusual vegetation -- it is in blossom in
Nov. or Dec. and bears fruits in Apr. or May. It can be accounted for by
its relict characteristics : the plant dates back to the flora of the Tertiary
Strange are the attributes that man has bestowed
on the mandrake. From early times the learned have written about this plant,
which flourished in the wheat fields of Mesopotamia during the days that
Jacob tended the flocks of his uncle Laban. Among its several properites,
the mandrake was supposed to promote conception. When Reuben brought them
to his mother, Leah, Rachel said : "Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's
mandrakes." Up to that time Rachel had borne no children. Throughout the
east the mandragora was used as a narcotic ; sometimes as a sleeping-draught.
In Shakespeare's play, Cleopatra cries out: "Give me to drink of mandragora"
; and states as her reason for doing so, "That I might sleep out this great
gap of time, My Anthony is away." The likeness of its forked root to the
human body caused Pythagoras to call it anthromorphon ; and through
the herbalists distinguished the sexes, Sir Thomas Browne in Pseudodoxia
Epidemica deplores the custom prevalent in several parts of Europe
of selling the roots to ignorant people. He cites the superstition that
it was "an hazard of life to them that pull it up" and of how, when thus
torn from the ground, the plant would give a shriek.
Readers of "Who Makes the Mandrakes?" will note that
many allusions and sources in Biddle's brief discussion parallel those
of Davidson four decades later.
Alack, alack, is it not like that I,
And then Sir Thomas mentions the method given by Pliny : ". . . when
they intended to take up
the root of this plant, they tooke the wind thereof, and with a sword describing
three circles about it they digged it up, looking toward the West." So
dangerous was this operation that a dog was sometiems employed. After the
dog had been tied by a cord to the plant, the earth was loosened about
the roots. In his struggles to free himself, as Josephus tells us, "he
will tear up ye roote whych by its dreadfull cryes wyll kyll ye animal."
So early waking, what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.
Romeo and Juliet
; Act IV, Scene 3
Amongst the exquisite engravings to be found
in Florilegium Renovatum et Auctum by Johannes Theodorus de Bry,
eldest son of the famous German engraver, and published at Frankfort-on-Main
in 1641, is that of the Mandragora fæmina.[ A
larger image of de Bry's plate of Mandragora fæmina ]
It must be a pretty plant, with dark green leaves, white flowers, stained
with veins of purple; and pale orange fruit, called "apples of love" by
the ancient Greeks. Little wonder that witches used the root of the mandrake
to concoct their potent wine, for the plan is closely allied with
belladonna, the deadly nightshade.
Moncure Biddle, A Christmas Letter : Some Flower Books and Their
Makers (Philadelphia, 1945), pp.15-18