A mandrake is a plant of the Nightshade family used primarily for its anesthetic and supposedly magical properties. It is closely related to the deadly nightshade or belladonna and can cause delirium and hallucinations if ingested in sufficient quantities. The mandrake is also said to act as a fertility aid for women. There are four species, all belonging to the Mandragora genus and all with relatively similar properties.
A common ingredient in both medicine and magic spells from ancient times through the Middle Ages, mandrake continues to see such use today on a lesser scale. Its use as a drug is documented as early as 200 BCE, when besieged Carthaginians gave invading Roman troops mandrake-laced wine in order to kill them in their stupefied state. It is also an ancient anesthetic, used to numb or sedate patients before various operations. In this context, it was typically inhaled.
The mandrake has long had mystical connotations, both because of its narcotic effect and because of the appearance of its root, which is said to resemble a human. According to folklore, the humanoid root screams when it is pulled from the earth, and the human who hears it will go deaf, become insane, or in more extreme versions of the legend, drop dead. Elaborate techniques for harvesting the root were consequently invented; one of the best known involves filling the ears with wax and tricking a dog into pulling out the root, keeping one's distance so the dog will die instead of the harvester. Another macabre legend surrounding the mandrake holds that the plant grows where a man has been hanged.
The use of the mandrake as a fertility aid is alluded to, some believe, in the biblical book of Genesis. In Chapter 30, Rachael, who has not been able to conceive, allows her sister and co-wife to spend a night with their husband Jacob in exchange for some roots found on Jacob's property. Soon afterwards, Rachael becomes pregnant. Some biblical scholars suggest that the plant in question is not mandrake, but the word is the common English translation of the original Hebrew. In any case, it is traditionally believed to increase a woman's fertility, particularly in the East.