Two of the plants most commonly assigned magical properties are the rose and the mandrake. We have all seen bouquets of roses in grocery stores around Valentine’s Day. But the most beautiful roses are the species roses or heirloom varieties that were bred before the first hybrid tea rose, La France, appeared in 1867. Those old roses have the true rose scent, and are still used in the making of perfumes and oils.
There are more myths associated with the rose (Rosaceae species) than with any other flower. One concerns how the rose was created. A Corinthian maiden named Rodanthe was so beautiful that she had many suitors. But she had dedicated herself to Artermis, the Goddess of the Hunt, and vowed to remain unmarried in honor of the goddess. One day, as she was walking outside, she was surrounded by her suitors, each asking her to choose him. They began clutching at her, tearing her dress. Rodanthe fled into the nearby temple of Artermis. Her suitors followed, breaking into the temple. Artermis was furious. Wanting to avenge the desecration of her temple and protect Rodanthe, she turned the maiden into a rose. The blush on her cheeks became the color of the rose’s petals. Then, Artermis turned her suitors into the rose’s thorns, so they could guard her forever.
Another myth concerns how the rose originally became red. The goddess Aphrodite fell in love with the mortal youth Adonis. Unlike Artermis, who was a Goddess of the Hunt, Aphrodite did not relish hunting, and would rather have spent her time bathing and adorning herself. But Adonis was a hunter, so she even went on the hunt with him. The god Ares was jealous and vowed to revenge himself on Adonis. One day, Aphrodite left to visit her shrine in Paphos, taking her chariot drawn by swans. Adonis went out hunting in her absence. Seeing his opportunity, Ares disguised himself as a wild boar. He led Adonis’ hounds on a long chase through the forest, then circled back and charged straight at Adonis, goring him in the side. Adonis was badly wounded, and Ares left him to die. But Aphrodite heard his cries and turned her chariot, flying back through the sky to Adonis. When the chariot touched down in the forest, she ran to her beloved. Her feet were torn by the tangled briers that covered the ground, and her blood fell on the white roses, turning them red.
As these myths demonstrate, the rose has always been associated with both love and death. After the battle of Roncesvalles, where the knights of Charlemagne fell, the battlefield is said to have bloomed with roses, and twined roses grew out of the grave of the lovers Tristan and Isolde. Roses were often planted on graves, and modern rosarians have resurrected a number of old varieties after finding them in graveyards. It was once believed that if a maiden scattered rose petals over a tombstone on Midsummer’s Eve, she would have a vision of her future husband; if she kept a posy of roses sprinkled with pigeon’s blood under her pillow, his identity would be revealed in a dream. Roses also made for an effective love charm. If a maiden took three roses, white, pink, and red, and kept them next to her heart for three days, then steeped them in wine for three more days and gave the wine to the man she loved, he would be hers forever. More prosaically, a red rose was considered to be a charm against nose-bleed.
Roses have always been used medicinally. Because the Romans believed roses protected against drunkenness, they put rose petals in wine and scattered them over the floors of banquet rooms. Rose teas have been used to sooth sore throats, and to fight colds and chest infections. Dried rose leaves were used for sore eyes, as in this eighteenth-century recipe:
Take half a pint of Alum Curd, and mix it with a sufficient quantity of Red Rose Leaves powdered, to give it a proper consistency. This is an excellent application for sore moist eyes, and admirably cools and represses defluxions.
Roses were also used for cosmetic purposes. Dew gathered from a rose could be used to bathe the face, creating a beautiful complexion. A gall that grows on roses could be mixed with bear grease and massaged into the scalp to cure baldness. The Roman naturalist Pliny lists more than thirty cures prepared with roses, and by the eighteenth century about a third of all medicines contained some part of the rose.
You may be familiar with the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) from the Harry Potter books or films, in which mandrake roots look like particularly unattractive infants and have an intolerable scream. Mandrakes were so important, magically and medicinally, that twenty-two treatises on them were published between 1510 and 1850. The Egyptians were familiar with the mandrake, which was associated with the goddess Hathor. Egyptian families would keep a mandrake plant in a corner of the house, with a lamp burning before it, and make offerings to it daily as the guardian of the household. It was also known to the Assyrians, who mentioned it on clay tablets as a cure for toothache. The mandrake was even mentioned in the Song of Solomon:
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.
Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourishes, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranate bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
It may have been mentioned in the Song of Songs because the mandrake was believed to be an aphrodisiac. The ancient Greeks called the fruit of the mandrake “apples of love,” and dried mandrake roots were carried as a charm to promote fertility.
Perhaps the most famous lore about the mandrake concerns how it must be gathered. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who is often thought of as the first botanist because of his treatises Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, says that the person gathering a mandrake should draw three circles around the plant with a sword and cut it facing west. When cutting it, the gatherer should dance around the plant and talk about the mysteries of love. Perhaps all that talk of love has to do with the mandrake’s use in love potions; like the rose, it was also associated with Aphrodite, who was called the Lady of the Mandrake. The Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus, written between 1000 and 1050, provides more specific instructions on gathering the mandrake:
When first thou seest its head, then inscribe it thou instantly with iron lest it fly from thee; its virtue is so mickle and so famous, that it will immediately flee from an unclean man when he cometh to it not with the iron but thou shalt earnestly with an ivory staff delve the earth.
And when thou seest its hands and its feet, then tie thou it up. Then take the other end and tie it to a dog’s neck so that the hound be hungry; next cast meat before him so that he may not reach it except he jerk up the wort with him.
This is a confusing account, but the iron is probably a sword used to draw the magic circle, and the ivory is likely a staff used to loosen the earth around the roots. Why does the hound appear in this account? The Anglo-Saxon poet Philip de Thaun, in his Bestiary of 1121, makes clear that the hound is there to act as a scapegoat for the gatherer: when the plant is gathered, “Such virtue this herb has, that no one can hear it but he must die and if the man heard it he would directly die. Therefore, he must stop his ears and take care that he hear not the cry, lest he die as the dog will do which shall hear the cry.”
Mandrakes were so important because of the doctrine of signatures, the belief that plants resembling parts of the body could be used to treat those parts of the body. The root of the mandrake can look like a human being. Therefore, it was believed to cure a variety of diseases. Hippocrates thought that a dose in wine would relieve depression and anxiety, although he was aware that if given in large quantities, the mandrake was a dangerous plant, causing delirium and even death. According to Pliny, the root beaten with oil and wine cures “defluxions of the eyes and pains in these organs, and indeed the juice of this plant still forms an ingredient in many medicaments for the eyes.” The Romans commonly used mandrake as an anaesthetic and to put patients to sleep before surgery.
In the Middle Ages, since mandrake roots were difficult to come by, the roots of other plants were artificially shaped and manipulated to look like mandrakes, and sold at a high price. Andrea Mattioli, whose Commentaries on the Materia Medica of Dioscorides was published in 1544, says that a doctor he met in Rome would sell such false mandrake roots: “These false mandrakes he palmed off on childless women, some of whom gave him as much as 5, 20, or even 50 gold pieces for a single specimen, fondly expecting to become joyful mothers of children.” These false mandrake roots, often carved to resemble small men, look much more like the ones from Harry Potter than natural mandrake roots ever could. Since they resembled human children, it was believed that they would aid conception. But they were also believed to bring good fortune. As part of her trial for witchcraft, Joan of Arc was accused of carrying a mandrake root in her bosom in the hope of acquiring riches; of course, she denied the accusation.