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Minerva Anestesiologica 2001 October;67(10):751-66

language: Italian

The mandrake root and the Viennese Diosco-rides

Peduto V. A.

Università degli Studi - Perugia Dipartimento di Medicina Clinica e Sperimentale


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Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarba in Cilicia lived in the first century. He was a Greek physician who served as a surgeon in Neròs army. He wrote several books on materia medica. One of his manuscripts with drawings of medicinal herbs was copied down in the fifth century. In this book on Greek Herbal, still kept in the National Library of Vienna, Dioscorides gave a detailed description of mandragora (mandrake). Over the ages, the mandrake has been endowed with a wonderful and mystical aura. Examples are superstitions regarding harvesting of the plant. While being torn from the ground, the mandrake would emit a horrible shriek, that would be fatal to the harvester who hears it. So, if someone simply pulled the plant, they would either die or go mad. To avoid that fate, the plant could be partially dug with a few remaining roots staying in the ground. Then a starved black dog was tied to the mandrake with a rope. The harvester, with plugged ears, would throw some scraps to the hungry dog. When the unsospecting animal lunged for food, the mandrake would be completely unrooted and the ensuing shriek would kill the dog and spare the man. According to different legends quoted by Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder, other dire consequences of unrooting a mandrake could be avoided by making circles around the plant on the ground with a sword and then facing west while digging. If there were a true “Anaesthetic of Antiquity” it would have been mandragora. Dioscorides describes how the wine made from mandragora produces anaesthesia: “Using a cyathus of it on those who cannot sleep, or are grievously pained, or are being cut, or cauterized they will not feel pain”. Here Dioscorides used for the first time the word “anaesthesia” as absence of sensation as we mean it today.

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