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Custom and Myth

Page: 53

Again, the root has a human shape. ‘If a hereditary thief who has preserved his chastity gets hung,’ the broad-leafed, yellow-flowered mandrake grows up, in his likeness, beneath the gallows from which he is suspended. The mandrake, like the moly, the magical herb of the Odyssey, is ‘hard for men to dig.’ He who desires to possess a mandrake must stop his ears with wax, so that he may not hear the deathly yells which the plant utters as it is being dragged out of the earth. Then before sunrise, on a Friday, the amateur goes out with a dog, ‘all black,’ makes three crosses round the mandrake, loosens the soil about the root, ties the root to the dog’s tail, and offers the beast a piece of bread. The dog runs at the bread, drags out the mandrake root, and falls dead, killed by the horrible yell of the plant. The root is now taken up, washed with wine, wrapped in silk, laid in a casket, bathed every Friday, ‘and clothed in a little new white smock every new moon.’ The mandrake acts, if thus considerately treated, as a kind of familiar spirit. ‘Every piece of coin put to her over night is found doubled in the morning.’ Gipsy folklore, and the folklore of American children, keep this belief in doubling deposits. The gipsies use the notion in what they call ‘The Great Trick.’ Some foolish rustic makes up his money in a parcel which he gives to the gipsy. The latter, after various ceremonies performed, returns the parcel, which is to be buried. The money will be found doubled by a certain date. Of course when the owner unburies the parcel he finds nothing in it but brass buttons. In the same way, and with pious confidence, the American boy buries a marble in a hollow log, uttering the formula, ‘What hasn’t come here, come! what’s here, stay here!’ and expects to find all the marbles he has ever lost. {145} Let us follow the belief in magical roots into the old Pagan world.

The ancients knew mandragora and the superstitions connected with it very well. Dioscorides mentions mandragorus, or antimelon, or dircæa, or Circæa, and says the Egyptians call it apemoum, and Pythagoras ‘anthropomorphon.’ In digging the root, Pliny says, ‘there are some ceremonies observed, first they that goe about this worke, look especially to this that the wind be not in their face, but blow upon their backs. Then with the point of a sword they draw three circles round about the plant, which don, they dig it up afterwards with their face unto the west.’ Pliny says nothing of the fetich qualities of the plant, as credited in modern and mediæval Germany, but mentions ‘sufficient it is with some bodies to cast them into sleep with the smel of mandrago.’ This is like Shakespeare’s ‘poppy and mandragora, and all the drowsy syrups of the world.’ Plato and Demosthenes {146a} also speak of mandragora as a soporific. It is more to the purpose of magic that Columella mentions ‘the half-human mandragora.’ Here we touch the origin of the mandrake superstitions. The roots have a kind of fantastic resemblance to the human shape; Pliny describes them as being ‘of a fleshy substance and tender.’ Now it is one of the recognised principles in magic, that things like each other, however superficially, affect each other in a mystic way, and possess identical properties. Thus, in Melanesia, according to Mr. Codrington, {146b} ‘a stone in the shape of a pig, of a bread-fruit, of a yam, was a most valuable find,’ because it made pigs prolific, and fertilised bread-fruit trees and yam-plots. In Scotland, too, ‘stones were called by the names of the limbs they resembled, as “eye-stane,” “head-stane.” A patient washed the affected part of his body, and rubbed it well with the stone corresponding.’ {147a} In precisely the same way, the mandrake root, being thought to resemble the human body, was credited with human and superhuman powers. Josephus mentions {147b} a plant ‘not easily caught, which slips away from them that wish to gather it, and never stands still’ till certain repulsive rites are performed. These rites cannot well be reported here, but they are quite familiar to Red Indian and to Bushman magic. Another way to dig the plant spoken of by Josephus is by aid of the dog, as in the German superstition quoted from Grimm. Ælian also recommends the use of the dog to pluck the herb aglaophotis, which shines at night. {147c} When the dog has dragged up the root, and died of terror, his body is to be buried on the spot with religious honours and secret sacred rites.


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