Diana Craig Patch
The small fragile faience ornaments that were collected during the first years the Met excavated at Malqata have always been favorites of mine. These colorful images of floral elements were probably used to decorate different things, including broad collars. This season one of the images for these pendants, fruit of the mandrake (Mandragora sp.), has appeared on several objects.
The mandrake is a short plant whose leaves occur in a basal rosette on the ground. Found traditionally around the northern and eastern part of the Mediterranean, it appeared in Egypt during the New Kingdom, grown in gardens of the elite members of Egyptian society.
A perennial herbaceous plant, it is best known for its long thick branched root that in many folk cultures were assigned human characteristics. The flowers are greenish white, pale blue, or even violet and its short-stemmed fruit, a berry, is a deep yellow to orange with a calyx in dark green. The fruit was translated into Egyptian imagery as bright yellow fruit whose calyx in paintings is green and in faience, a deep blue.
The leaves and root contain deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids, making the plant potentially poisonous. Depending on the amount ingested, which varies from plant to plant, the parts used, and preparation technique, emetic, purgative, and narcotic side effects are likely; a mandrake can cause a toxic overdose. Based on what records survive from antiquity, it appears that the plant was used medicinally. Greek literature suggests possible applications for treating gout, wounds, and sleeplessness; for the Sumerians, it was a remedy for pain.
The mandrake, however, becomes a popular image in Egyptian art because the plant and its berries are associated with the concepts of love and desire, possibly to be achieved or aided by a potion made from the plant. As suggested by Kate Bosse-Griffiths, the mandrake had connotations for male potency and the strengthening of sexual power, especially in the mid to late Dynasty 18.
In love poems and in contexts where rejuvenation is the theme, such as in the festival city of Amenhotep III, we find many images and representations of this beautiful but toxic little fruit.
January 25, 2016
Kate Bosse-Griffiths, “The Fruit of the Mandrake in Egypt and Israel,” in Amarna Studies and Other Selected Papers (ed. by J. Gwyn Griffiths), pp. 82-96, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 182 (Fribourg, Switzerland and Göttingen, 2001).