Do Mandrakes Scream? Exploring the cross-cultural work of plant mythology in Appalachia

By Luke Manget

In 1903, Clifford Smyth, a correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, ventured deep into the mountains of eastern Kentucky to find and interview some of the “sang diggers” that supposedly lived in isolated communities and exhibited peculiar habits and customs.  He was not disappointed.  He found an old woman named Aunt Marthy who lived at the head of a creek and dug ginseng for a living.  She told him that if ginseng was dug up in the evening of a new moon, it will emit a moaning cry and leave traces of blood in the earth.  “In this respect,” he said, “Kentucky sang lore is identical to the legend of the mandrake of Europe.”[1]  If true, Smyth’s account would suggest that a remarkable cultural cross-pollination was going on in Appalachia.  It would mean that in the mountains of North America some of the oldest plant lore in western cultures came to be applied to the most legendary plant in East Asian cultures, ginseng.

Mandragor officinarum - credit: wikimedia commons.  The mandragora officinarum is one of the most mythologized plants in western culture.

The mandragora officinarum is one of the most mythologized plants in western culture. credit: wikimedia commons.

Smyth’s story should be read with some caution, as he seems to draw heavily on Appalachian stereotypes common to the era. Yet, his claim that Aunt Marthy and other sang diggers applied mandrake lore to ginseng is probably true.  First, ginseng had long been the most important marketable herb in the forest, providing countless mountain families with enough spending money to get through the winters.  Prized by the Chinese for its healing properties, ginseng had been consumed in China for thousands of years, providing a steady market for mountain residents since at least the 1750s.  Digging ginseng had become an important component of a culture that emerged out of an interdependence with the forests, and it is entirely possible that lore from several different folkways entered into that cultural matrix.  When William Byrd first learned about the Chinese regard for American ginseng around 1729, he thought that it “as fabulous as that extraordinary plant mentioned by Theophrastus,” referring to mandrake.[2]

Furthermore, the mandrake legends have proven very durable across time and space ever since they were first circulated some 3,000 years ago.  A fragrant and low-growing, leafy species of nightshade, the mandrake has captured the western imagination more than any other plant.  Medically, the plant possessed varied healing properties.  Ancient Greeks and Romans used it as an anesthetic, as a soporific to induce sleep, and to treat a variety of illnesses. They also described it as a hallucinogen and a narcotic and believed it to possess mysterious powers over the mind.  In large doses, it was fatal.[3]  In its early folklore, however, the mandrake was something of a love potion.  Some folklorists think the plant is the same one that appears in the book of Genesis as a highly sought after cure for barrenness.  Rachel, jealous of her sister Leah’s four children, convinced Leah to give her her mandrakes so that she too could have children.  After eating of the fruit, she bore her first son, Joseph, by Leah’s husband (it’s a long story, see Genesis 30).  Use of the mandrake as a love potion seems to have spread among the ancient Greeks and Romans.  According to folklorist James Frazer, the goddess of love herself, Aphrodite, was known by the title Mandragoritis, “She of the Mandrake.”[4]  William Byrd remarked that if ginseng “should be the same with Theophrastus’s plant, the ladys will cry it down and with very good reason, because it will make their spouses exceedingly troublesome, and introduce a new way of shortening their own lives.”[5]

Aunt Marthy’s claim that uprooted ginseng would scream apparently began with the mandrake some time before the first century.  The first-century Roman physician Dioscorides claimed that the mandrake emitted a screaming sound when it was uprooted from the earth.  To hear the scream either meant death or instant insanity to anyone who heard it.  In order to safely harvest it, one had to perform several rituals.  The digger was supposed to approach the plant at dawn, circle it three times with a sword, and begin digging facing west.  Once he dug around the root so that it was almost free from the earth, he would tie one end of a rope around a starving black dog’s neck with the other attached to the plant. The digger would then throw a piece of meat for the dog, and the dog would jerk the plant from its moorings and then fall dead.

The mandrake harvesting ceremony is depicted in this 15th century health text, tacuinum sanitatis. Note the starving dog on a chain and the man covering his ears so he cannot hear the plant scream.

The mandrake harvesting ceremony is depicted in this 15th century health text, tacuinum sanitatis. Note the starving dog on a chain and the man covering his ears so he cannot hear the plant scream.

By the middle ages, the mandrake legend took some bizarre turns.  First, it had taken on anthropomorphic and even gendered features.  The ancients had referred to some plants as “male” and others as “female” to signify their health and robustness, but later generations would claim that the shape of the root itself indicated its sex.  Because it resembled a human form, the roots were hung around their necks as talismans to bring good luck.  Some believed that it grew only at the foot of the gallows on which an innocent man was hanged for theft, sprouting from the condemned man’s urine on the ground.  During the Inquisition it was regarded as a symbol of paganism and witchcraft, and women who possessed a mandrake fetish were condemned to death.

The history of mandrake mythology illustrates the mutability of plant lore across time and space.  According to folklorist Charles Brewster Randolph the mandragora “story-complex” that emerged in the middle ages was the accretion of Greco-Roman, Persian, and medieval folklore.  This folklore often originated with other species of plants.[6]  Lore that grew up around a species of mandragora on Crete and Cyprus adopted some Persian flavor and spread across Europe to places where mandragora did not grow.   They first diffused into Germany where it became the basis for the alraune mythology, which portrayed the root as a benevolent, sentient being living below the ground that brought good fortune and wisdom to its harvester.  Armenians told similar stories about the byrony plant.  By the Elizabethan era, the mythology had spread to western Europe, where it was applied to the black byrony, cuckoo pint, enchanters nightshade, and the wild cucumber.  But according to folklorist H. F. Clark, it was never as widespread as it was in Germany and southern Europe.[7]

The question of why these legends proved so persistent across time and space might never have a satisfactory answer.  Scholars believe that the diggers and merchants traveling from Italy, Greece, and Spain to northern Europe initially spread the mandrake legends. The ancients do not seem to have cultivated the plant, as they preferred it growing wild, although sources are vague on the subject.  Diggers would search for them in open areas, in lightly wooded areas and on the edge of embankments and ruins.  These diggers were somewhat transient, traveling around to harvest the roots and sell their harvest. These astonishing legends may have been part of an attempt to enhance the value of their wares both by creating a mysterious allure to boost demand and by discouraging others from digging it.  However, this does not adequately explain why it persisted among the common folk for so long.  Why did people tell and retell these stories?

This drawing of the mandrake is from the first-century Roman physician Dioscorides, who first recorded the belief that the mandrake screams

This drawing of the mandrake is from the first-century Roman physician Dioscorides, who first recorded the belief that the mandrake screams

For such mythology to continue and spread for millennia, it must have performed some kind of cultural work.  It seems entirely plausible, then, that Aunt Marthy and other ginseng diggers inherited a tradition that attached certain familiar traits to mysterious and powerful plants that helped rural folk comprehend their environment.  Spreading the belief that bad things would happen to those who dug up these plants with no reservations might have served as an effective deterrent to overharvesting.  Smyth, the journalist, noted that “There is a singular belief prevalent in the mountains to the effect that he who meddles with the sang and endeavors to get his living from its cultivation, or by simply gathering it in the woods, will either have bad luck or become a helpless instrument for the powers of darkness to play upon…Thus, the pursuit of sang digging is surrounded with far more dangers in the eyes of the superstitious than usually fall to the lot of a purely rural occupation.”[8]  This is why, he said, many mountain people shy away from digging the root full time.  Of course, we must take his word with a few grains of salt, but could it be possible that these people maintained such superstitions in order to keep a few people from depleting the ginseng commons and, thus, maintain widespread access to the resource?  I think so.  As one observer lamented in 1911, “had every plant the traditional voice of the mandrake, the sweet summer air would be filled with wailing.”[9]

[1] Clifford Smyth, “With the Sang Diggers and Witches of Old Kentucky,” The Atlanta Constitution, 22 February 1903.

[2] William Byrd to John Perceval, 20 August 1730, in William Byrd, William Byrd II, and William Byrd III, The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776, ed. Marion Tining (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1977), 436.

[3] Charles Randolph, “The Mandragora of the Ancients in Folk-lore and Medicine,” Proceedings of the American Accademy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 40, No. 12 (Jan., 1905).

[4] Sir James Frazer, Folklore of the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend, and Law (London: Macmillan & Co., 1918), 375; it must be noted that Randolph disputes this claim, asserting that there is no evidence that it’s the same plant.

[5] Byrd, Byrd II, and Byrd III, The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776, 436.

[6] Randolph, “The Mandragora of the Ancients in Folk-Lore and Medicine,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 495.  

[7] H. F. Clark, “The Mandrake Fiend,” Folklore, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Winter, 1962), 257-269.

[8] Clifford Smyth, “With the Sang Diggers and Witches of Old Kentucky,” The Atlanta Constitution, 22 February 1903.

[9] “A Plea from the Wild,” The Youth’s Companion, 10 August 1911.

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