Custom and Myth/Moly and Mandragora

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Custom and Myth by Andrew Lang
Moly and Mandragora


'I have found out a new cure for rheumatism,' said the lady beside whom it was my privilege to sit at dinner. 'You carry a potato about in your pocket!'

Some one has written an amusing account of the behaviour of a man who is finishing a book. He takes his ideas everywhere with him and broods over them, even at dinner, in the pauses of conversation. But here was a lady who kindly contributed to my studies and offered me folklore and survivals in cultivated Kensington.

My mind had strayed from the potato cure to the New Zealand habit of carrying a baked yam at night to frighten away ghosts, and to the old English belief that a bit of bread kept in the pocket was sovereign against evil spirits. Why should ghosts dread the food of mortals when it is the custom of most races of mortals to feed ancestral ghosts? The human mind works pretty rapidly, and all this had passed through my brain while I replied, in tones of curiosity: 'A potato!'

'Yes; but it is not every potato that will do. I heard of the cure in the country, and when we came up to town, and my husband was complaining of rheumatism, I told one of the servants to get me a potato for Mr. Johnson's rheumatism. "Yes, ma'am," said the man; "but it must be a stolen potato." I had forgotten that. Well, one can't ask one's servants to steal potatoes. It is easy in the country, where you can pick one out of anybody's field.' 'And what did you do?' I asked. 'Oh, I drove to Covent Garden and ordered a lot of fruit and flowers. While the man was not looking, I stole a potato—a very little one. I don't think there was any harm in it.' 'And did Mr. Johnson try the potato cure?' 'Yes, he carried it in his pocket, and now he is quite well. I told the doctor, and he says he knows of the cure, but he dares not recommend it.'

How oddly superstitions survive! The central idea of this modern folly about the potato is that you must pilfer the root. Let us work the idea of the healing or magical herb backwards, from Kensington to European folklore, and thence to classical times, to Homer, and to the Hottentots. Turning first to Germany, we note the beliefs, not about the potato, but about another vegetable, the mandrake. Of all roots, in German superstition, the Alraun, or mandrake, is the most famous. The herb was conceived of, in the savage fashion, as a living human person, a kind of old witch-wife.[1]

Again, the root has a human shape. 'If a hereditary thief who has preserved his chastity gets hung,' the broad-leafed, yellow-flowered mandrake grows up, in his likeness, beneath the gallows from which he is suspended. The mandrake, like the moly, the magical herb of the Odyssey, is 'hard for men to dig.' He who desires to possess a mandrake must stop his ears with wax, so that he may not hear the deathly yells which the plant utters as it is being dragged out of the earth. Then before sunrise, on a Friday, the amateur goes out with a dog, 'all black,' makes three crosses round the mandrake, loosens the soil about the root, ties the root to the dog's tail, and offers the beast a piece of bread. The dog runs at the bread, drags out the mandrake root, and falls dead, killed by the horrible yell of the plant. The root is now taken up, washed with wine, wrapped in silk, laid in a casket, bathed every Friday, 'and clothed in a little new white smock every new moon.' The mandrake acts, if thus considerately treated, as a kind of familiar spirit. 'Every piece of coin put to her over night is found doubled in the morning.' Gipsy folklore, and the folklore of American children, keep this belief in doubling deposits. The gipsies use the notion in what they call 'The Great Trick.' Some foolish rustic makes up his money in a parcel which he gives to the gipsy. The latter, after various ceremonies performed, returns the parcel, which is to be buried. The money will be found doubled by a certain date. Of course when the owner unburies the parcel he finds nothing in it but brass buttons. In the same way, and with pious confidence, the American boy buries a marble in a hollow log, uttering the formula, 'What hasn't come here, come! what's here, stay here!' and expects to find all the marbles he has ever lost.[2] Let us follow the belief in magical roots into the old Pagan world.

The ancients knew mandragora and the superstitions connected with it very well. Dioscorides mentions mandragorus, or antimelon, or dircæa, or Circæa, and says the Egyptians call it apemoum, and Pythagoras 'anthropomorphon.' In digging the root, Pliny says, 'there are some ceremonies observed, first they that goe about this worke, look especially to this that the wind be not in their face, but blow upon their backs. Then with the point of a sword they draw three circles round about the plant, which don, they dig it up afterwards with their face unto the west.' Pliny says nothing of the fetich qualities of the plant, as credited in modern and mediæval Germany, but mentions 'sufficient it is with some bodies to cast them into sleep with the smel of mandrago.' This is like Shakespeare's 'poppy and mandragora, and all the drowsy syrups of the world.' Plato and Demosthenes[3] also speak of mandragora as a soporific. It is more to the purpose of magic that Columella mentions 'the half-human mandragora.' Here we touch the origin of the mandrake superstitions. The roots have a kind of fantastic resemblance to the human shape; Pliny describes them as being 'of a fleshy substance and tender.' Now it is one of the recognised principles in magic, that things like each other, however superficially, affect each other in a mystic way, and possess identical properties. Thus, in Melanesia, according to Mr. Codrington,[4] 'a stone in the shape of a pig, of a bread-fruit, of a yam, was a most valuable find,' because it made pigs prolific, and fertilised bread-fruit trees and yam-plots. In Scotland, too, 'stones were called by the names of the limbs they resembled, as "eye-stane," "head-stane." A patient washed the affected part of his body, and rubbed it well with the stone corresponding.'[5] In precisely the same way, the mandrake root, being thought to resemble the human body, was credited with human and superhuman powers. Josephus mentions[6] a plant 'not easily caught, which slips away from them that wish to gather it, and never stands still' till certain repulsive rites are performed. These rites cannot well be reported here, but they are quite familiar to Red Indian and to Bushman magic. Another way to dig the plant spoken of by Josephus is by aid of the dog, as in the German superstition quoted from Grimm. Ælian also recommends the use of the dog to pluck the herb aglaophotis, which shines at night.[7] When the dog has dragged up the root, and died of terror, his body is to be buried on the spot with religious honours and secret sacred rites.

So much for mandragora, which, like the healing potato, has to be acquired stealthily and with peril. Now let us examine the Homeric herb moly. The plant is thus introduced by Homer: In the tenth book of the 'Odyssey,' Circe has turned Odysseus's men into swine. He sets forth to rescue them, trusting only to his sword. The god Hermes meets him, and offers him 'a charmed herb,' 'this herb of grace' (φαρμακον εσθλον) whereby he may subdue the magic wiles of Circe.

The plant is described by Homer with some minuteness. 'It was black at the root, but the flower was like to milk. "Moly," the gods call it, but it is hard for mortal men to dig, howbeit with the gods all things are possible.' The etymologies given of 'moly' are almost as numerous as the etymologists. One derivation, from the old 'Turanian' tongue of Accadia, will be examined later. The Scholiast offers the derivation 'μωλυειν, to make charms of no avail'; but this is exactly like Professor Blackie's etymological discovery that Erinys is derived from ερινυειν: 'he might as well derive critic from criticise.'[8] The Scholiast adds that moly caused death to the person who dragged it out of the ground. This identification of moly with mandrake is probably based on Homer's remark that moly is 'hard to dig.' The black root and white flower of moly are quite unlike the yellow flower and white fleshy root ascribed by Pliny to mandrake. Only confusion is caused by regarding the two magical herbs as identical.

But why are any herbs or roots magical? While some scholars, like De Gubernatis, seek an explanation in supposed myths about clouds and stars, it is enough for our purpose to observe that herbs really have medicinal properties, and that untutored people invariably confound medicine with magic. A plant or root is thought to possess virtue, not only when swallowed in powder or decoction, but when carried in the hand. St. John's wort and rowan berries, like the Homeric moly, still 'make evil charms of none avail;'

   Rowan, ash, and red threed
   Keep the devils from their speed,

says the Scotch rhyme. Any fanciful resemblance of leaf or flower or root to a portion of the human body, any analogy based on colour, will give a plant reputation for magical virtues. This habit of mind survives from the savage condition. The Hottentots are great herbalists. Like the Greeks, like the Germans, they expect supernatural aid from plants and roots. Mr. Hahn, in his 'Tsui Goam, the Supreme Being of the Khoi Khoi' (p. 82), gives the following examples:—

   Dapper, in his description of Africa, p. 621, tells us:—'Some of them
   wear round the neck roots, which they find far inland, in rivers, and
   being on a journey they light them in a fire or chew them, if they
   must sleep the night out in the field. They believe that these roots
   keep off the wild animals. The roots they chew are spit out around
   the spot where they encamp for the night; and in a similar way if they
   set the roots alight, they blow the smoke and ashes about, believing
   that the smell will keep the wild animals off.

   I had often occasion to observe the practice of these superstitious
   ceremonies, especially when we were in a part of the country where we
   heard the roaring of the lions, or had the day previously met with the
   footprints of the king of the beasts.

   The Korannas also have these roots as safeguards with them. If a
   Commando (a warlike expedition) goes out, every man will put such
   roots in his pockets and in the pouch where he keeps his bullets,
   believing that the arrows or bullets of the enemy have no effect, but
   that his own bullets will surely kill the enemy. And also before they
   lie down to sleep, they set these roots alight, and murmur, 'My
   grandfather's root, bring sleep on the eyes of the lion and leopard
   and the hyena. Make them blind, that they cannot find us, and cover
   their noses, that they cannot smell us out.' Also, if they have
   carried off large booty, or stolen cattle of the enemy, they light
   these roots and say: 'We thank thee, our grandfather's root, that thou
   hast given us cattle to eat. Let the enemy sleep, and lead him on the
   wrong track, that he may not follow us until we have safely escaped.'

   Another sort of shrub is called ābib. Herdsmen, especially, carry
   pieces of its wood as charms, and if cattle or sheep have gone astray,
   they burn a piece of it in the fire, that the wild animals may not
   destroy them. And they believe that the cattle remain safe until they
   can be found the next morning.

Schweinfurth found the same belief in magic herbs and roots among the Bongoes and Niam Niams in 'The Heart of Africa.' The Bongoes believe, like the Homeric Greeks, that 'certain roots ward off the evil influences of spirits.' Like the German amateurs of the mandrake, they assert that 'there is no other resource for obtaining communication with spirits, except by means of certain roots' (i. 306).

Our position is that the English magical potato, the German mandrake, the Greek moly, are all survivals from a condition of mind like that in which the Hottentots still pray to roots.

Now that we have brought mandragora and moly into connection with the ordinary magical superstitions of savage peoples, let us see what is made of the subject by another method. Mr. R. Brown, the learned and industrious author of 'The Great Dionysiak Myth,' has investigated the traditions about the Homeric moly. He first[9] 'turns to Aryan philology.' Many guesses at the etymology of 'moly' have been made. Curtius suggests mollis, molvis, μωλυ-ς, akin to μαλακος, soft.' This does not suit Mr. Brown, who, to begin with, is persuaded that the herb is not a magical herb, sans phrase, like those which the Hottentots use, but that the basis of the myth 'is simply the effect of night upon the world of day.' Now, as moly is a name in use among the gods, Mr. Brown thinks 'we may fairly examine the hypothesis of a foreign origin of the term.' Anyone who holds that certain Greek gods were borrowed from abroad, may be allowed to believe that the gods used foreign words, and, as Mr. Brown points out, there are foreign elements in various Homeric names of imported articles, peoples, persons, and so forth. Where, then, is a foreign word like moly, which might have reached Homer? By a long process of research, Mr. Brown finds his word in ancient 'Akkadian.' From Professor Sayce he borrows a reference to Apuleius Barbarus, about whose life nothing is known, and whose date is vague. Apuleius Barbarus may have lived about four centuries after our era, and he says that 'wild rue was called moly by the Cappadocians.' Rue, like rosemary, and indeed like most herbs, has its magical repute, and if we supposed that Homer's moly was rue, there would be some interest in the knowledge. Rue was called 'herb of grace' in English, holy water was sprinkled with it, and the name is a translation of Homer's φαρμακον εσθλον. Perhaps rue was used in sprinkling, because in pre-Christian times rue had, by itself, power against sprites and powers of evil. Our ancestors may have thought it as well to combine the old charm of rue and the new Christian potency of holy water. Thus there would be a distinct analogy between Homeric moly and English 'herb of grace.'

'Euphrasy and rue' were employed to purge and purify mortal eyes. Pliny is very learned about the magical virtues of rue. Just as the stolen potato is sovran for rheumatism, so 'rue stolen thriveth the best.' The Samoans think that their most valued vegetables were stolen from heaven by a Samoan visitor.[10] It is remarkable that rue, according to Pliny, is killed by the touch of a woman in the same way as, according to Josephus, the mandrake is tamed.[11] These passages prove that the classical peoples had the same extraordinary superstitions about women as the Bushmen and Red Indians. Indeed Pliny[12] describes a magical manner of defending the crops from blight, by aid of women, which is actually practised in America by the Red Men.[13]

Here, then, are proofs enough that rue was magical outside of Cappadocia. But this is not an argument on Mr. Brown's lines. The Cappadocians called rue 'moly'; what language, he asks, was spoken by the Cappadocians? Prof. Sayce (who knows so many tongues) says that 'we know next to nothing of the language of the Cappadocians, or of the Moschi who lived in the same locality.' But where Prof. Sayce is, the Hittites, if we may say so respectfully, are not very far off. In this case he thinks the Moschi (though he admits we know next to nothing about it) 'seem to have spoken a language allied to that of the Cappadocians and Hittites.' That is to say, it is not impossible that the language of the Moschi, about which next to nothing is known, may have been allied to that of the Cappadocians, about which we know next to nothing. All that we do know in this case is, that four hundred years after Christ the dwellers in Cappadocia employed a word 'moly,' which had been Greek for at least twelve hundred years. But Mr. Brown goes on to quote that one of the languages of which we know next to nothing, Hittite, was 'probably allied to Proto-Armenian, and perhaps Lykian, and was above all not Semitic.' In any case 'the cuneiform mode of writing was used in Cappadocia at an early period.' As even Professor Sayce declines to give more than a tentative reading of a Cappadocian cuneiform inscription, it seems highly rash to seek in this direction for an interpretation of a Homeric word 'moly,' used in Cappadocia very many centuries after the tablets were scratched. But, on the evidence of the Babylonian character of the cuneiform writing on Cappadocian tablets, Mr. Brown establishes a connection between the people of Accadia (who probably introduced the cuneiform style) and the people of Cappadocia. The connection amounts to this. Twelve hundred years after Homer, the inhabitants of Cappadocia are said to have called rue 'moly.' At some unknown period, the Accadians appear to have influenced the art of writing in Cappadocia. Apparently Mr. Brown thinks it not too rash to infer that the Cappadocian use of the word 'moly' is not derived from the Greeks, but from the Accadians. Now in Accadian, according to Mr. Brown, mul means 'star.' 'Hence ulu or mulu = μωλυ, the mysterious Homerik counter-charm to the charms of Kirkê' (p. 60). Mr. Brown's theory, therefore, is that moly originally meant 'star.' Circe is the moon, Odysseus is the sun, and 'what watches over the solar hero at night when exposed to the hostile lunar power, but the stars?' especially the dog-star.

The truth is, that Homer's moly, whatever plant he meant by the name, is only one of the magical herbs in which most peoples believe or have believed. Like the Scottish rowan, or like St. John's wort, it is potent against evil influences. People have their own simple reasons for believing in these plants, and have not needed to bring down their humble, early botany from the clouds and stars. We have to imagine, on the other hand (if we follow Mr. Brown), that in some unknown past the Cappadocians turned the Accadian word for a star into a local name of a plant, that this word reached Homer, that the supposed old Accadian myth of the star which watches over the solar hero retained its vitality in Greek, and leaving the star clung to the herb, that Homer used an 'Akkado-Kappadokian' myth, and that, many ages after, the Accadian star-name in its perverted sense of 'rue' survived in Cappadocia. This structure of argument is based on tablets which even Prof. Sayce cannot read, and on possibilities about the alliances of tongues concerning which we 'know next to nothing.' A method which leaves on one side the common, natural, widely-diffused beliefs about the magic virtue of herbs (beliefs which we have seen at work in Kensington and in Central Africa), to hunt for moly among stars and undeciphered Kappadokian inscriptions, seems a dubious method. We have examined it at full length because it is a specimen of an erudite, but, as we think, a mistaken way in folklore. M. Halévy's warnings against the shifting mythical theories based on sciences so new as the lore of Assyria and 'Akkadia' are by no means superfluous. 'Akkadian' is rapidly become as ready a key to all locks as 'Aryan' was a few years ago.


  1. Grimm, D. M., Engl., Trans. p. 1202.
  2. Tom Sawyer, p. 87.
  3. Rep. vi. 488. Dem. 10, 6.
  4. Journal Anthrop. Inst., Feb. 1881.
  5. Gregor, Folklore of North-east Counties, p, 40.
  6. Wars of Jews, vii. 6, 3.
  7. Var. Hist., 14, 27.
  8. Max Müller, Selected Essays, ii. 622.
  9. Myth of Kirkê, p. 80.
  10. Turner's Samoa.
  11. Josephus, loc. cit. For this, and many other references, I am indebted to Schwartz's Prähistorisch-änthropologische Studien. In most magic herbs the learned author recognises thunder and lightning—a theory no less plausible than Mr. Brown's.
  12. Lib. xxviii.
  13. Schoolcraft.