The plant we know as “mandrake” was formerly known as mandragora, which is still its scientific name.
Five or six hundred years ago, however, although actually of Greek source, this name was thought to be a combination of man and dragon.
But at that time a dragon was commonly known as drake; so mandragora became mandrake in common speech. Because the plant is poisonous and because the root sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to a diminutive man, all sorts of fantastic beliefs have been associated with the plant from remote times.
Thus in the Bible (Genesis 30) we find that the plant was anciently thought to be able to cure barrenness in women; nevertheless, as Josephus records (History of the Jewish War, Book vii, chapter 6), it was exceedingly dangerous to dig up the root.
The safest way, he says, was to remove most of the soil about the root, taking care to avoid touching it, then with a cord tied with one end about the stalk of the plant and the other to a dog, the dog could be lured to drag the root from the ground.
The dog would die, but thereafter anyone could handle the plant harmlessly. Josephus called the plant baaras, but probably referred to the mandrake. He thought that its chief virtue lay in the power that it possessed to cast out demons from sick persons.
The plant, even in the times of Shakespeare, was supposed to shriek when drawn out of the ground, and to cause madness, or sometimes death, to any who might taste of it.
Sometimes the roots were thought to have a female form. Such were supposed to have especial potency when concocted into a love philter for men.