Medea’s Ritual of the Mandrake

Medea’s Ritual of the Mandrake

Witch, pharmakon, demi-goddess, princess, niece of Circe, fierce devotee of Hecate, and beloved sorceress of ancient Greek and Roman literature. Whether a fictional or historical figure, Medea has always fascinated me. MandragoraMy favourite tale featuring the witch Medea is Apollonius Rhodius’ The Argonautica from around 200 BC (though its sources are so old as to be indeterminate). This famous tale of Jason and the Argonauts is the only surviving Hellenistic epic. It is hard to say if it is legend or myth, fact or fiction, but the tale has enchanted mortals for millennia.

Today it exists in the form of numerous movies, tv episodes, children’s books, and even as a video game. The beauty of the survival of such an ancient epic from pre-Christian times are the rituals and magic that have survived along with it. Enshrouded within the pages of The Argonautica is Medea’s ritual of the Mandrake. It is in fact two rituals — one of the harvest and one of the consecration of this famous magical root. Combining the ritual fragments from this epic with other knowledge of ancient Greek magic, one is able to reconstruct these rites so they may be performed today.

The Ritual of the Harvest

In the following excerpt from The Argonautica the witch Medea has fallen in love with the foreigner Jason and decides to betray king and country to aid him in his quest for the golden fleece by preparing a special liniment for Jason to anoint himself with:

“And she called to her maids. Twelve they were, who lay during the night in the vestibule of her fragrant chamber, young as herself, not yet sharing the bridal couch, and she bade them hastily yoke the mules to the chariot to bear her to the beauteous shrine of Hecate. Thereupon the handmaids were making ready the chariot; and Medea meanwhile took from the hollow casket a charm which men say is called the charm of Prometheus. If a man should anoint his body therewithal, having first appeased the Maiden, the only-begotten, with sacrifice by night, surely that man could not be wounded by the stroke of bronze nor would he flinch from blazing fire; but for that day he would prove superior both in prowess and in might.

It shot up first-born when the ravening eagle on the rugged flanks of Caucasus let drip to the earth the blood-like ichor of tortured Prometheus. And its flower appeared a cubit above ground in colour like the Corycian crocus, rising on twin stalks; but in the earth the root was like newly-cut flesh. The dark juice of it, like the sap of a mountain-oak, she had gathered in a Caspian shell to make the charm withal, when she had first bathed in seven ever-flowing streams, and had called seven times on Brimo, nurse of youth, night-wandering Brimo, of the underworld, queen among the dead,—in the gloom of night, clad in dusky garments. And beneath, the dark earth shook and bellowed when the Titanian root was cut; and the son of Iapetus himself groaned, his soul distraught with pain. And she brought the charm forth and placed it in the fragrant band which engirdled her, just beneath her bosom, divinely fair.”

"Medea" by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919)

“Medea” by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919)

It is amusing to realize that Medea and her twelve handmaids make a “coven” of thirteen at the shrine of Hecate – though having a number of thirteen isn’t stated to be important to this ritual. Comparing this passage to other bits of Greek mythology we find that the “charm of Prometheus” is in fact the mandrake root (Mandragora officinarum). The Titan Prometheus was known as a teacher of plant knowledge and medicine. According to myth, the mandrake sprung up from the ichor (poisonous god-blood) of Prometheus as it soaked into the earth during his torturous punishment by Zeus for gifting humankind with intelligence and wisdom. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, mandrake was sacred to Hecate and believed to grow in her garden, so Medea’s invocation of Hecate before harvesting the root makes perfect sense.

Before harvesting the mandrake root, Medea bathes in the waters of seven ever-flowing streams. Bathing before approaching or working with nature spirits or supernatural spirits is a common practice in animistic and pre-Christian cultures throughout the world. Not only does the water purify the bather spiritually, but physical cleanliness is also a sign of respect and common sense. Many spirits were believed to be offended by the stench of humans and would be able to easily locate and strike down a smelly person.  The loophole one can take here is that the passage doesn’t specify the seven streams must come from different sources. I was lucky enough to find a small nearby mountain with more than seven streams, which never dry out, flowing from its top from the same artesian source. To make this process easier on myself I collect water from each stream, asking each spirit for permission first, and bring the waters home for later use. Don’t skimp out – make sure you collect the waters of all seven streams as seven is an important and repeated number in this rite.

Now that you’re shiny clean and have waited until the last of the sun’s rays have disappeared leaving the world in darkness, Medea instructs to go to the site where you will harvest the mandrake root wearing “dusky raiment” or darkly coloured clothing. Medea’s favourite harvesting haunts usually involve graveyards, but it’s more likely you’ll be harvesting from a pot in your yard or living room. Invoke Hecate seven times, clearly and loudly.

“Hekate Einodia, Trioditis, lovely dame,
of earthly, watery, and celestial frame,
sepulchral, in a saffron veil arrayed,
pleased with dark ghosts that wander through the shade;
Perseis, solitary goddess, hail!
The world’s key-bearer, never doomed to fail;
in stags rejoicing, huntress, nightly seen,
and drawn by bulls, unconquerable queen;
Leader, Nymphe, nurse, on mountains wandering,
hear the supplicants who with holy rites thy power revere,
and to the herdsman with a favouring mind draw near.”

— Orphic Hymn to Hecate (2-3rd Century BC)

After the invocation, Medea pulls up the mandrake root. If the ground is dry and hard, water around it first to make the root more easily let go of the earth. Once pulled from the ground, Medea stores the root whole in a “hollow casket” — a chest or box to keep it in a cool, dark place for storage. When needed, Medea takes it out and  juices the root. Mature mandrake roots are tough and not so easy to juice so it’s likely she used a mortar and pestle of some kind. She puts the juice in a shell from the Caspian sea, but any non-metallic vessel would do. It’s likely she also places it in a sealed vessel after for easier storage and transport to deliver it to Jason.

And so ends the first half of the ritual. I have also used this part of the rite to cleanse myself before handling dried mandrake root to be used after in the making of magical potions and ointments. I recite the Hymn to Hecate once and then call her name seven times. The concoction is set to infuse that same night and the following night (or a few days or weeks later) the second half of the ritual is performed to consecrate (or “activate”) the magical substance for use.

The Ritual of Consecration

The second half of the ritual is no less easy and a lot more gruesome. The rewards, Medea says, are power and strength to match the Gods themselves. From my own experiences with mandrake, I can say with certainty that it does give one unnatural stamina and energy making it excellent for sex magic or ecstatic rituals lasting all day or all night. Medea gives the fresh mandrake juice “charm” to Jason with the following instructions:

“Take heed now, that I may devise help for thee. When at thy coming my father has given thee the deadly teeth from the dragon’s jaws for sowing, then watch for the time when the night is parted in twain, then bathe in the stream of the tireless river, and alone, apart from others, clad in dusky raiment, dig a rounded pit; and therein slay a ewe, and sacrifice it whole, heaping high the pyre on the very edge of the pit. And propitiate only-begotten Hecate, daughter of Perses, pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees. And then, when thou hast heedfully sought the grace of the goddess, retreat from the pyre; and let neither the sound of feet drive thee to turn back, nor the baying of hounds, lest haply thou shouldst maim all the rites and thyself fail to return duly to thy comrades. And at dawn steep this charm in water, strip, and anoint thy body therewith as with oil; and in it there will be boundless prowess and mighty strength, and thou wilt deem thyself a match not for men but for the immortal gods. And besides, let thy spear and shield and sword be sprinkled. Thereupon the spear-heads of the earthborn men shall not pierce thee, nor the flame of the deadly bulls as it rushes forth resistless. But such thou shalt be not for long, but for that one day; still never flinch from the contest.”

"Jason et Médée" by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)

“Jason et Médée” by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)

Again, dress yourself in darkly coloured clothing and venture out alone at midnight. Bathe in a stream or river that never dries up or use the waters of seven streams you have collected. The Argonautica passage does not say so, but I would highly recommend invoking Hecate again, seven times, before proceeding. It doesn’t have to be at a crossroad, but one would be a perfect location for an offering to Hecate. After bathing and invoking, dig a round pit in the earth and slit the throat of a female sheep so that its blood flows into the hole and then place the body on a “funeral” pyre of wood right next to the pit. Light the pyre and let it burn well.

I realize this part is very unlikely to happen today unless you should be a sheep farmer devoted to Hecate. In records of other rituals and offerings to Hecate, it is clear she simply likes blood. You could spill a few drops of your own or some pig or cow’s blood from a butcher, burning it on a charcoal in a censer with an incense made with juniper (a traditional ancient sacrifice and funerary wood – also sacred to Hecate) instead of a large pyre. If you’re still too squeamish for that, try red wine or pomegranate juice instead, though the results may not be the same. Next, pour a cup of good unpasteurized honey into the pit.

I add another step here when I am making potions, ointments, or charms from mandrake root using Theocritus’ words from his 3rd century BC poetry to consecrate the creation. I present it to the pit and recite:

“Moon, shine brightly; softly will I sing for you Goddess, and for Hecate in the underworld — the dogs tremble before her when she comes over the graves and the dark blood. I welcome you Hecate, the grim one, stay by me until the end. Make this magical substance as effective as that of Circe, of Medea, and of the blond Perimede.”

Now you fill in the pit and walk away without looking back. You must NOT look back not matter what happens or what you hear. This is a recurring theme in Greek myth and rites — especially when it comes to leaving offerings to underworld deities. Horrible things happen to those who look back… usually involving an untimely and gruesome death for insulting the Gods (remember what happened to Orpheus?). You might be lucky to escape with insanity, however. When the sun rises, Jason mixes the mandrake juice in a cup of water and covers his naked body in the mixture. Note that he uses it externally and does not drink it. With its help he succeeds in his quest to steal the golden fleece and bring it back to his homeland, taking Medea with him as his new wife. When the sun rises, use the mandrake potion or ointment you have made or wear the mandrake talisman. According to Medea’s instructions, the effects will last for the day until sunrise the following day.  The effects of an external application of potent fresh mandrake could easily last for 12-24 hours.

Medea’s potion, being fresh with no preservative measures taken, had no shelf-life and had to be used right away. If you have used this ritual to consecrate a jar of mandrake ointment (usually with a shelf-life of 1-3 years), then the time period for its magical potency will be for whenever you actually use it, rather than only the day following the night you performed the ritual. Be careful what you use it for and be respectful and responsible in wielding the power of the mandrake which is also the power of the Titans Prometheus and Hecate.

Further Reading:

Article © 2013 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is welcome. All images used are in the public domain.

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Halia says:

    Sometimes thinking that Medea and Circe are different aspects of Hekate. Your words arrive in a moment in which I am just “working” on connections in the triad Hekate-Circe-Medea, so…blessed be!

  • I am so pleased, I can’t hardly stand it! Great timing, Sarah…

  • True Chaote says:

    “This is a recurring theme in Greek myth and rites” <– isn't this more like a warning to not dwell on past events rather than taking the literal "don't turn around to look"?

    Anyways, great write-up!

    • Sarah says:

      Pretty sure it’s literal rather than psychological if one compares this belief and practice to other cultures who interact with spirits and believe it is taboo to look upon them lest you be killed or cursed. There are such spirits here in the PNW and I had a friend who had a pretty terrifying encounter with one, “do not turn around and look at me or you will die.” It’s also a recurring theme in fairy lore. From the lore, the ancient Greeks were none too eager to work with chthonic deities as they were greatly feared to the point their names were not even spoken aloud, hence the endless epithets (to the point that it’s doubtful we even know their true names today). It doesn’t surprise me that their practice was to leave the offering and run.

      • Great point here. In some shamanic traditions there’s the belief the if a spirit approaches you from behind, then it’s because it has an agenda you’re not aware of, and perhaps not a good one. The last thing you want to do is be foolish, turn around, look at it, and perhaps defy it. The best thing to do is simply acknowledge its presence, and perhaps say the following, while your back is still turned: ‘I can sense you here. I don’t know what you want, but I’m here for this or that reason.’ Make sure you also say you come in peace. That’ll do it. So, indeed, the line: ‘don’t look back’, or ‘don’t turn if you’re approached from behind’ has a very specific function and it must be taken literally. Thanks for your post, Sarah.

  • adya says:

    Nice post, as always Miss Lawless