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Mandrake, belladonna, henbane, thorn apple (Datura stramonium)
The mandrake (Mandragora oficinarium) is one of the plants, which was covered with mysterious legends by early European scientists. Its area of diffusion is from the Mediterranean Sea to the Himalayas. A lot of the ancient Greek and Latin authors knew it quite well; maybe this is the reason why it had such a great success in the Middle Ages. In “Corpus Hyppocraticum” it is written that in small doses it serves as a cure for depression or any thoughts of suicide; but in greater doses the person runs wild and loses consciousness. Due to this fact it is used as an anesthetic during surgery operations. In the next few centuries its reputation of a powerful healing substance, which patronizes love, grew extremely rapidly.
For a very long period of time people strongly believed that the mandrake is a human creature, which sex can be identified only by the shape of its roots. To pull these roots out was considered to be very dangerous and that’s why a lot and various ways to do this were invented. The most interesting one was described in a book written by the time Jesus was born. According to this description the person, who wanted to possess the roots, had to tie a dog to the plant. This dog - when it followed its master - pulls out the roots of the mandrake from the ground. The dog itself dies immediately after this instead of the man, who wanted them. Only then could he touch those roots. People were willing to face such peril only if there was someone, who was "possessed" and there was no other way for him or her to overcome it. When the roots were placed of the head of the sick person he was immediately cured (the spirits that controlled him were now banished into Hell).
In the folklore of different the mandrake is mainly connected with sex. The name of the mandrake actually means “a strong man”; people think of it as a human being mostly because of the close resemblance between the shape of its roots and the figure of the man. The most interesting legend about the origin of the mandrake very successfully exploits the old literary link between sex and violence. According to this version the mandrake may be bred only in a place where someone was hanged. People back then were sure that when someone is hanged, at the exact moment of his death, he secretes all of his liquids out of his body – blood, sperm etc. That’s why if a woman was hanged – a female mandrake was born and if a man was killed – a male mandrake “came to life”.
In the antiquity the mandrake was referred to as an aphrodisiac. This property is even mentioned in the Old Testament (Genesis 30:14-18), where there is a description of how Rachel and Lia got pregnant and later they gave birth to their children under its influence. A lot of the ancient and medieval authors also glorified its ability to stimulate sexual desires. Shakespeare also mentioned it very often in his works. The misunderstanding that the mandrake is an aphrodisiac was carried out for quite long, despite the obvious fact that it made men impotent for a short period of time. The only reasonable explanation for this fame is the fact that the women, stunned by it, were incapable of any resistance.
Another plants from same family are also famous for the same reason. They grow mainly in Central and Northern Europe. These are the “Scopolia carniolica”, the “Atropa belladonna” and the henbane (Hyosciamus niger). As for the thorn apple (Datura stramonium) it looks like its native land is America. Bulgarians believe that in small doses it acts as a love herb but in larger doses it makes people hate each other. According to one of the legends the herb had to be boiled by a hairless woman, on Friday night, in an empty house, in a brand new pot filled with fresh water from the nearest well. The name of the belladonna (pretty woman) came because of the fact that it was used as a mean of beautifying. It actually makes the pupils get larger and the eyes look very shiny.
The connection of all these plants with “the outburst of sexual desires” makes them a natural component of the ointments prepared by witches for their wicked games. People believed that under their influence these witches were able to fly, to create a link with the unholy powers and of course to be most active in their horrible sexual orgies. All those abilities, especially the last one, made the neighbors of those, who were considered to be witches, envy them and that’s why many women were convicted guilty by the Inquisition and then perished on the stake. If the roots of the mandrake were found in a certain house this was good enough to prove that its owner is a messenger from Hell. Many of the medieval women, who tried it, were absolutely sure that they had flown in the air and they had established a link between them and some spirits and they said that in court. The judges, on the other hand, enriched their testimonies with a few perverse fantasies of their own.
There was also another belief that the ointments made by witches could turn a man into an animal, namely a wolf. This transformation was called by the medieval scientists - “lycantropy”. They were absolutely sure that this transformation could be accomplished. One of the most famous “experts” on the matter was Henry Boggett, who sent about 600 witches to the pyre. In his book “Hateful Words for the Witches”, published in 1602, he put down his studies over werewolves: ”I have seen those, who are called four-legged, to craw in their cells in a way they would do in the field. But they say they can’t completely transform into wolves, because they needed the magical cream and there was no such in the prison. In this way for some this salve is a way to turn into wolves and, for others, it's a mean to fly around in the air as the witches do.”
Although, rarely, some of these plants were also used for pleasure in all of its forms; usually the thorn apple was used because it was most widely spread. According to the report of the Indian Hemp Commission sometimes cannabis may be mixed with the leaves of Datura Stramonium. When this mixture is smoked the user gets into a strange kind of delirium, in which he tears his clothes off and sees frightening animals such as snakes, scorpions and so on. The thorn apple leaves were also smoked by some Arabic tribes.
Very few people know that there are also hallucinogenic tomatoes. A family,
who lived in the northwest part of North America, used the wild Indian
thorn apple to engraft their tomatoes over it. They hoped that these tomatoes
would grow better aided by the powerful roots of the thorn apple. The
tomatoes did get very big and juicy but right after the first salad was
eaten everyone got delirious and had to be carried to the nearest hospital.