Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia
Growing, in the shadow of the gallows, is a monstrous fruit. It is a prodigious aphrodisiac, but it also serves as an indispensable ingredient in the witch’s recipe book-who, according to legend, mixes it with the fat of stillborn children, thus creating an ointment with which she can fly to the sabbath.
As Pliny and Dioscorides relate, this anodyne natural was applied as an analgesic before surgical operations because of the discrete soporific and sedative properties attributed to it by learned medicine prior to the 16th century, which made use of it in various forms-from the extract of the fruit, to the seeds, to the actual root.
Countless ailments were said to be cured by the mandrake: it was used both for external and internal use, as well as to heal infertility and impotence (its renowned value as an erotic stimulant is even attested by one of the epithets of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite Mandragoritis, and, by the more puritanical, by nicknames for it as the apple or even testicle of the devil), both against menstrual disorders, quartan fever, excess black bile (the dreaded melancholia, the cause of numerous ailments, including mental ones), diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more parts of the body, from the eyes to the anus, against abscesses, indurations, and even tumors.
Mandrake was used according to the many uses suggested by premodern pharmacopoeia, but also as a fetish: it was sold as an amulet by the root-diggers, a branch of merchants who specialized in extracting the plant-who, however, apparently peddled in its place roots of bryony or other common plants, tactically carved.
A vegetable at the intersection with the other kingdoms-the mineral, because of its chthonic origin, and the animal, indeed, even human… – sought after yet feared, admirable and deadly, the mandrake belongs to the family of the infamous nightshade, associated like its “sister” with witchcraft for its psychoactive properties due to its high concentration of scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid found mainly in its roots. It is a solanacea, whose intricate, vaguely anthropomorphic shaped roots have intrigued the human imagination since ancient times, so much so that it has been attributed a sex (which determines its shape and color), human-like genitalia and a rather difficult character, which causes it, for example, to hide from impure people and allow itself to be tamed only by those who show it a cross or spray it with menstrual blood or urine.
This sort of personification has resulted in the plant sometimes being treated as a small individual, made of living flesh: a homunculus, literally, endowed among other things with a power execrable. Around the figure of this prodigious plant, in fact, hovers for centuries a gloomy legend : it is said that it screams, when extracted from the earth, with such shrieks as to make the unwary “pickers” lose their senses or even kill them on the spot. This deadly capacity of the prized booty then necessitates complex contrivances by which those about to dig the mandrake out of the ground can preserve their health (and survive it).
The most common contrivances follow a common pattern: at the center of all variants, there is in fact the sacrifice of a dog (the only exception is the one Frazer attributes to the Jewish tradition, in which a donkey), most often with black fur; to this animal before dawn on Friday-not coincidentally, the day named after the goddess of love-the plant is tied, of whose roots a single strand is left still buried. The dog, purposely hungry, is then made to run away with the call of a tasty morsel; in doing so it snatches the entire plant from the ground, which bursts into deadly squeals, which, unfortunately, cause the sudden death of the unsuspecting animal. The humans present-who up to that point have kept their ears well covered or even plugged with cotton sealed with pitch or wax-can then approach and pick up the plant, which, thus “let loose,” is now rendered harmless.
A fascinating aspect of the mandrake is its origin, according to legend, which makes it a literal fruit of hanging-the product of thecross between man and the earth(Zarcone).
Certain Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions call this plant gallows man, mad plant e dragon doll, terms that evoke the human and somewhat monstrous origin of the mandrake. Indeed, the seed from which this fabled “capestro flower” is formed would be precisely the human one, scattered on the ground at the moment of death by the criminal subjected to the infamous execution par excellence.
Already climbing the steps of the gallows, the dying man imagines himself suspended between heaven and earth, thrown into a limbo from which only divine forgiveness could pull him to safety, as well as rejected by the community gathered there to voraciously admire his agony, in all its physiological aspects.
The suspension of which the condemned man was a victim would obliterate his body(Tarlow – Battel Lowman), annihilating it as a social object, placing it in exile in a liminal zone both geographically and metaphorically (as, moreover, also occurred in the display of the corpse through gibbet); the rope, the instrument of execution, which although theoretically should have fractured or dislocated the upper cervical vertebrae of the condemned man, leading him quickly to death, most often ended up strangling him, thus disrupting his features and causing him to inevitably evacuate feces, urine and, depending on the sex of the victim, menstrual blood or seminal fluid.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that, by virtue of the magical-medical theory of the transfer of life energy from the dead person to his or her survivor, people eagerly sought contact with the body of the punished offender, still imbued with vitality (which gave him or her invaluable medical potency). These are the secrets of the corpse, passed down in a veritable consumer literature in which, as Camporesi explains, therapeutic occultism combines with necromantic pharmacopoeia and natural magic to crown a Faustian dream of long life and eternal youth.
According to a logic that considers putrefaction a black copulation capable of making the dead a “wellspring of health,” the living can keep healthy by preying on the deceased; it can even transmit its own ills to it, deriving from them the energy that the spirits, in turmoil in those last moments, still bestow on the corpse. The dead person is thus paradoxical dispenser of life (Camporesi).
That is why the stroke, or the touch of the hanged man, was believed to be curative: the hand of the corpse was shaken or put in contact with the parts of the body affected by skin diseases, blemishes, goiters and excrescences (from leek to wart to sebaceous cyst), as Davies and Matteoni masterfully explain. Imagine, then, how much power may reside in the seminal legacy left by the hanged man: the mandrake, inhuman progeny of the gallows!
The plant that ignites eros and brings death arises from the intersection of these same two principles, that is, from the climax reached in so-called “angelic lust.”
This euphemism designates the post-mortem priapism observed since antiquity in the corpse of the executed, especially if it died by strangulation. This is a phenomenon that has inspired not only various essays on sexology and the psychology of deviance but also great novelists such as Sade, Musset, Joyce and Burroughs. We are thus speaking of a “mortal erection” that was sometimes followed even on the scaffold by ejaculation, and it was to this very phenomenon that ancient herbaria traced the origin of the mandrake, which arose from the semen emitted by the condemned at the moment of death.
The ability to exhibit an erection literally terminal and culminating in ejaculation, among other things, was a decisive component in the name that qualified this mode of execution as an “infamous death.” Indeed, hanging appears as the most shameful of departures throughout Western history (but not only, according to Old Testament Deuteronomy, where it is associated in this ignominious aura with crucifixion, another example of death by suspension). Whether it was considered degrading because it was imposed on criminals of the humblest background and/or despicable crime, or conversely imposed on them precisely because it was felt to be dishonorable, hanging was in any case the most common type of execution; according to tradition, it was also the death of the last and worst, as the apocryphal last events of Judas, the victim of a grotesque and studiously humiliating agony, remind us. Such an aura of infamy is probably why, as Owens notes in Stages of Dismemberment, hanging is almost absent in hagiography, and may have arisen precisely from the “embarrassing” physiological phenomena that accompany this particularly spectacular form of death.
Among these bodily events, the celestial orgasm we have already discussed-which in the female corpse has its counterpoint in the possibility of a loss of blood from the vagina, accompanied by a sprinkling of the labia and clitoris, in a spontaneous menstruation caused by the action of gravity on the uterus resulting in prolapse of the sexual organs-is simply the most “scandalous” because it involves the genitals. As Hurren vividly recounts in Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, many condemned men urinated and/or defecated, at the fatal moment; others, victims of suggestion, stained their robes with ejaculated semen; there were gaseous exchanges caused by the deceased’s digestion, and decaying blood leaked from the mouth and nostrils, in a purgation made all the more disconcerting by the rigor mortisduring which the gases, unable to escape entirely through the anus or nose, passed through the trachea, giving the impression that the corpse groaned and croaked as if it had still been alive and aching.
Although life, as commonly understood, no longer resided in the limbs of the hanged man, something remained that seemed to defy the justice that had been done. From the invicible erection, that is, from the last “tears”-as this ejaculation was poetically called in articulo mortis – shed by the criminal on the ground, would then form, under his corpse left hanging, the mandrake.
This therapeutic and dangerous plant-a veritable pharmakon, remedy and poison, in the dual Greek sense – constitutes in short, on a par with the rope used to execute the criminal or the healing touch of the hanged man’s hand, another example of the posthumous ways by which the condemned man, once dead, goes from nefarious to salvific for the community that expelled him. In fact, once he repents, it is as if the criminal is reintegrated into the community through his own execution, moving from the status of a tainted and defiling individual to that of a “salutary” element.
The corpse of the executed criminal, through the medicinal virtues of his mortal remains or through the generation of the mandrake, thus acquires a “posthumous” social life through the distribution of his energies, and becomes the site where, in a tangible way, the salvation that resides in repentance occurs.