Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alraun the Spirit Root

An alraun is a magickal charm composed of a plant part, typically a root and traditionally the root of the mandrake plant, that is used as a corporeal domicile by a helping familiar spirit.

Because of the connection between them, any reading or research about the alraun invariably forces one to research the mandrake. But during my study, I have come to question a couple of connections that are unclear. I have therefore come to these conclusions, which I will discuss:

  1. The alraun has a uniquely Germanic name despite that the traditional alraun plant - the mandrake - does not grow in any Germanic area, signaling possible confusion between the mandrake and another plant more common to Germanic latitudes.
  2. The lore of the mandrake has become so notorious that any original alraun lore has become potentially obscured through cultural marriage with the mandrake. Consequently, exposure of unadulterated alraun lore has become impossible.

In contemporary usage, the german word for the mandrake plant is “alraune.” All of the living Germanic languages have a similar word. None of these words directly refer to any plant except for the mandrake plant. This poses a serious problem since the mandrake plant grows only around the Mediterranean, having a distribution no further north than the mountains of Italy.

The lore of the mandrake plant may originate in the 3rd c. BC, when Appollonius of Rhodes, who wrote the story of Jason and the Argonauts, revealed a plant that sprang up from the ground where the juices of the damaged liver of Prometheus dripped onto the ground.

She [Medea] spake, and brought a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing . . . . 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 [Hecate], 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 beneath, the dark earth shook and bellowed when the Titanian root was cut; and the son of Iapetus [Prometheus] himself groaned, his soul distraught with pain (Book III, 828).

Based on the description above, this is a plant known by the ancient Greeks to be an anesthetic against “blazing fire.” It required a ceremonial sacrifice and when picked would cause the earth to shake and Prometheus to groan. Lee claimed that the plant has been identified as the Corycian crocus (281), but its description also matches the plant called the male mandrake by Pedanius Dioscorides (Book IV, 76). Interestingly, Hecate was often associated with dogs, an animal we shall soon see is strongly associated with mandrakes during harvest.

Dioscorides, in his famous materia medica of the 1st c. describes the highly anesthetic qualities of the plant, stating that it is used useful during surgery by causing a “dead sleep.” In fact, the use of mandrake as an anesthetic continued until the eventual adoption of anesthetic ether as late as the mid 1800’s.

The Bible reveals the most famous quality of the mandrake: how to collect it using an animal tied to its roots. In Genesis (largely accepted as being written in the 6th or 5th c. BCE) we learn that whoever uproots the mandrake must die (Frazer, 393). Josephus ties this tale to the description of the herb he calls Baaras, which has been identified by many scholars as the mandrake, by stating that the animal to uproot the herb should be a dog. Neither source states exactly what particular action actually kills the animal. Frazer's suggestion that the action is a kind of "charge" (395) sounds both mysterious and divine.

The mandrake is simply a plant with a vaguely humanoid shape, but coupled with the ability of the plant to bring about sleep, the herb gained significant magical associations (Carter, 144). Also known throughout the Ancient Near East as a powerful aphrodisiac, it produces small fruits known as love apples. The many folk names for the mandrake all express the sentiment that the root housed spirits, though more commonly evil ones. Incidentally, I wouldn't be surprised if the mandrake was actually the plant referenced in the Biblical story of  the fall in the Garden of Eden, but that is an examination for a Biblical exegesis. M.R. Lee’s paper expertly outlines how the idea of spirits in a plant root as well as the ceremonies surrounding how the alraun came to be.

In Armenia and other parts of Europe, where the mandrake does not grow, lore exists that the fleshy, humanoid shape of the bryony root was substituted for the mandrake (Frazer, 395).

Cultural transmission may explain how the Germanic people came to believe in a root in which a spirit lives, and even the ceremonies surrounding the use of the plant as a spirit poppet, though the deeply animistic characteristics of celto-Germanic spirituality does not need cultural transmission to inspire such a concept. Nonetheless, it does not explain why the Germanic people have their own linguistic family of names for the plant.

The connection could possibly be related to beer, or rather brewing. History shows that Mandrake was used as an additive in beer and wine to produce an anesthetic drink. The Greeks used the mandrake to produce a wine designed to bring about an easy, aphrodisiac effect as well as complete unconsciousness. With the dosage correctly measured, the brew could produce a semi-lucid trance state not unlike a shamanic trance used by holy men and seers to gain knowledge. The mandrake herb, after being passed from the Romans to the Germanic tribes in the first century, could have been renamed by the Germans as an herb for brewing an insightful shamans brew. The reader should recall that the mandrake was an herb of the goddess Hecate, who was associated with magic at crossroads. The German word “alraun” could come from the word “alruna” after the Valkyrie, Alruna, who is associated with crossroads, or from the words “ale rune” (Simek). Shamanic practices in Celto-Germanic culture are linked to crossroads because they are places of transition, where the edges of different worlds meet.

Primarily in Germany (Lee, 281) the herb is also known as the “gallows man.” Dr. William Turner cites in 1568 that a doctor in Cologne taught his students that the mandrake only grew under the gallows as a result of the emissions of the dead that hung there (Carter, 146). In folklore, those who die on the gallows are buried at crossroads. These are interesting ideas considering that the runes themselves were inspired when Odin (patron of crossroads and travelers) hung himself on the world tree and become inspired to discover the runes - an experience believed by many scholars to be a description of a shamanic trance. Could there have been an earlier herb used by the Germanic peoples to enter trance, whose name was later applied to the mandrake as the herb and its powers culturally migrated northward from the Mediterranean? This idea is likely, thought what the original herb might have been is no longer known.

Scopolamine, the psychotropic chemical found in the mandrake is found in other plants of the Solanaceae family, namely Belladonna,  Nightshade, Datura, Henbane and other ingredients typically used in recipes for witch's flying ointments. However, the depressive nature of scopolamine alone is more likely to produce unconsciousness than hallucinations, unless another chemical modified the mixture, and with it, the response of the body.

The lore that surrounds the mandrake has become linked to the alraun as a general principle, so there is no way of knowing which elements of the original alraun ceremony (if there was one) correctly belong to the Germanic alraun, and which belong to the use of the mandrake root, specifically. In my study of alrauns (and mandrakes by default) I have run across an exhausting list of rules that must be followed when gathering and using mandrake and alrauns. Here are some of them.

  • The root grows under gallows or over graves as a result of the excretions of the dead
  • To gather the root, it must be at before dawn, or at least at night
  • It must be a Friday
  • It must be a new moon
  • You must face west
  • You must make a sign of the cross three times over the plant
  • You must offer the plant some of your blood
  • You must spill on the plant the urine of a woman or menstrual blood
  • You must dig up most of the root by digging around it, but leave the very bottom root fibers attached
  • You must stop up your ears before pulling it free to prevent its screams from killing you
  • You must tie a dog to the root and force the dog to pull it out, sacrificing the dog.
  • You must bathe the root in water and/or wine immediately
  • You must keep the root in a box decorated to look like a coffin
  • You must give the root a funerary shroud that is white and/or red
  • You must bathe the root every Friday with water, wine, milk, honey, and/or the owner's blood
  • You must give the root a new white shirt every first Friday (the day of Venus)
  • You must bequeath the root to your youngest son
  • To accept the root, your youngest son must bury his father with a loaf of white bread and a piece of money
  • You can buy an alraun, but you must not sell it for less than you paid for it.
You can see how many hoops there are through which one must jump to maintain this root. Much of this comes from the mandrake lore, which was believed to be a place where evil spirits were apt to reside. The useful common thread behind most of this practice employs the rule of putting your money where your mouth is. If you want power in the alraun, you have to do the work to put it there. Traditionally, you treated the alraun just like you would a dead ancestor.

The alraun itself is no longer an idea tied only to the mandrake root. Any root can be used to host a spirit if the proper processes are followed. But an alraun is not a host for just any spirit you can call upon. You should consider these points before beginning. The smartest advice I've found when beginning such a process are these three points from a local witch, Nalaya Oddly.

1. Many spirit forms desire the experience of entering a physical body, having never done so before, and they will be rather sinister in their attempts to gain that access. As a result, the alraun should be opened as a host to only a particular spirit that you know well. (Therefore, this spirit must carry a name that you use to summon it. Since names are actually words of power bound to a being, using the spirit's name exerts your control over it's occupation of the root).
2. You should have a good working relationship with the spirit through trance work. It should be a spirit whose behavior you can safely control.
3. The inhabited alraun is not a pet. It requires a great deal of routine responsibility to keep it working positively for you. You must treat it with respect and honor it as its magic formulae require you to do. No spell works out well if you execute it halfheartedly.

The occupied alraun is different than a spirit occupying an object through direct spirit possession. During possession, the spirit must expel significant energy to remain attached to something material. As a consequence, this attachment does not last very long. The ceremony of creating the alraun is not only an invitation to the spirit to use the body of the plant root, it is also a vow from you that you will feed the spirit with your own energy. You do this by honoring the spirit through repetitious ritual.

Because the spirit is invited to occupy the alraun, it gains a stronger link to it such that it can feel more corporeal, pleasing the spirit, which longs for a proper corporeal life. By giving the spirit a body in which to occasionally reside and receive your adoration, it becomes more powerful and thus a more effective agent for getting things done for you. A similar practice is used in hoodoo magick known as a “spirit box.”

The alraun ritual accomplishes two things. First, it creates a contract between you and the spirit in which you promise to honor and feed it, while it promises to act for you in the aetheric world. Second, it creates a corporeal body protected by you and your magic that no other spirit can occupy. You magically “lock” the root against all spirits except the one you name.

The mandrake is the most traditionally used root, because its lore is both old and related to spirit possession and its root is often bifurcated, making it resemble human legs. Another common root is bryony, used more often than the mandrake by those in central and northern Europe. Roots used in America can be any that are large and fleshy, but that will dry without rotting. Some commonly used have been American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), carrots, parsnips, parsley root, mature Queen Anne’s Lace, and the dandelion (particularly appropriate because the herb belongs to the goddess, Hecate).

To maintain the alraun, you must provide it with three things.
1. The alraun requires a box to act as its resting place. Like any human being when it is no longer alive, the body resides in a coffin, which is more than just a holding place for the body after the spirit leaves, it is a special container expressing your honor of the ancestor and acting as a sacred doorway to the otherworld. In the case of the alraun, the spirit comes and goes from the plant root as it journeys to complete what you ask of it. The alraun coffin does not have to be an actual coffin; it can be any box into which the alraun fits, but it must be ornately decorated by you. These decorations are usually those that are appropriate funerary motifs, because the box should have the feel of being a coffin. The more honor you represent in the decoration of the coffin, the more honor you pay to the spirit of the alraun, and thus the deeper will be your bond with the spirit.

Along with a coffin, the dead should have a funerary shroud. The shroud is simply a red, white or black cloth made from a high quality fabric like silk or linen. This shroud must be periodically changed as it ages, just as you would change an ancestor's funeral shroud. The funeral “shirt” can be very simply made by stitching together the parallel edges of a strip of cloth to make a tube long enough to completely contain the alraun.

2. The alraun requires regular feeding. By feeding the alraun regularly, you honor the cyclical nature of pagan time. You echo the regular visits to a dead ancestor's grave site. You set aside mundane time to augment the magickal working. Just as people need three meals per day, so spirits need regular "meals" of energy to keep working. Feeding can consist of a ceremony to honor it or providing the favorite food of the spirit, if is has one (wine is a standard substitute). The goal is to make the alraun spirit powerful enough to execute the tasks you request of it. The repeated attention is actually reinforced intention. It flatters the spirit and provides it energy to get work done. The best schedule is one that uses your tables of correspondence. Honor it on the day of the deity that it feels most like. If it has an astrological connection, use that day of the week. If you want to use a particular phase of the moon, or other astrological event, that works well also. The goal-schedule is that you should do something to honor it at least once monthly.

3. Because the alraun is not a pet, you should have clear expectations of it. It should be a resource to which you can turn when you want a spiritual helper to do magical work. If you keep it constantly locked in it's box, the alraun spirit will grow bored and will wander away in search of someone more willing to honor it regularly.

The Alraun Ritual

So now that you know all about working with the alraun, how do you actually get the spirit into the plant root? There is no specific ceremony I could find. However, there are patterns in the folklore that can reveal how one can work with this particular magickal power. Here are some suggestions if you are going to write your own alraun invocation ritual.

1. The moment you decide you are going to create an alraun is the moment you begin to rouse nearby spirits. They will feel your intent to create a corporeal body. If you are particularly intuitive, you may notice an increase in spiritual presences in your vicinity. This should subside when the chosen spirit is finally fixed to the root. You should have at least a visiting relationship with the spirit you will ask into the alraun and you should know its name. That means you have spent time with your spirit in dreams, journeys, meditations, or other trance states. The name can be one that you have invented, but it must be one that encompasses the essence of a single spirit in your mind. You must know the spirit to gain a successful invocation.

2. Decide "the what" and "the how" of the root you will use. This will employ your knowledge, or research of magickal herbalism. You might choose a root associated with a particular astrological purpose or deity. It is possible to have alrauns that function as magickal specialists, each with their own working purpose, but maintaining that can be tiresome; a generalist alruan is most common. You should also set up a process for gathering this root by employing electional astrology so that the plant is collected or purchased at the most auspicious time for the end result.

3. When you know how big the root will be, you should design the "coffin" to hold it. This can be a wooden cigar box that you paint, or a box you make yourself. Many craft stores sell small pre-made boxes in the shape of a coffin for Halloween. The symbols you use should be symbols of honor and respect, symbols of your patron gods, and symbols of death or transition such as skulls, spirals, portals. You can paint them or draw them with markers, or even decoupage images clipped from magazines. The interior should look comfortable and restful. The point is to make it look reverent and special to you. Remember that it is your energy that feeds the alraun, so you must enjoy and appreciate all of the details of the experience.

4. Decide where the coffin will reside. You don't put all of your energy into a magickal tool only to store it with the dust bunnies under your bed. It should have a place of reverence, but not a place that it will be unnecessarily disturbed by pets, children or curious house guests.

5. Create the invocation ritual. This should ideally be executed inside a protective circle to reinforce that only the particular spirit you invite will be the one that takes up residence in the alraun. Once the circle is cast, you should conduct the ceremony much like a funeral. Ask the spirit into the circle with you and take time to speak directly to the spirit. Talk openly about the qualities of the spirit as you know them. Use the spirit's name often to reinforce in your intent exactly which essence you are letting into the alraun. Let it know that you have honored it by spending time crafting its body and coffin. Pledge that you will honor and feed it with regular acts of reverence. The root should be carved or marked with symbol(s) that are for the target spirit. These can be a bindrune of the spirit's name, or a symbol that has been revealed during your workings with the spirit. Most spirits have a sigil. Tell the spirit that this root is for it alone, to act as its body - as its home. Create the image of an open door in your mind and raise power. Tell the spirit you will help it into its new home, which is where you wish it to reside until you call upon it for help. At the moment you are about to release your power, tell the spirit to pass through the door, then release your power into the alraun. The ceremony is done. Close the box and the circle. Ground and center.

6. Don't forget to honor the alraun regularly. I find that once per week is sufficient. I like to annoint the alruan and give a short prayer of honor. I have made up my own herbal oil blend that I use only for this. You can make your own also, so long as the blend feels appropriate for you.


Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica. Book III, 828. Translated by Seaton, R. C. Loeb Classical Library Volume 001. London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1912.

Carter, AJ. "Myths and mandrakes." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2003; 96:144-147.

Dioscorides. Materia Madeica. First Century. Book IV, 76.

Frazer, James George. "Jacob and the Mandrakes." Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919. Volume 2,  p. 372.

Josephus. Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter VI, 3

Lee, MR. "The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil." Journal of the Royal College Physicians, Edinburgh. 2006; 36: 278-285.

Oddly, Nalaya. "Working with Alrauns." Something Oddly. website composed April 12, 2011. at:

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Brewer, 2008.

Other Sources

Huson, Paul. Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
Pennick, Nigel. Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition. Leicestershire, UK: Thoth Publications, 2002.
Thompson, C.J.S. The Mystic Mandrake. London: Rider, 1934.
Leland, Charles Godfrey. Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, chapter 10.
"The Sacred Flora." Harper's New Monthy Magazine. Vol 42 (June-Nov, 1870), 731.
Grimm, Jacob. "Alraun." Deutsche Mythologie. Vol II, p. 1154.
Silberer, H. "The Homonculus." The Psychoanalytic Review. 1919. Volume 6,  pg. 206
Newman, William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, pg. 208.
Heiser, Charles B. “Nightshades, The Paradoxical Plant“, (131-136). W. H. Freeman & Co.
Christian, Paul. “The History and Practice of Magic” (402-403). Kessinger Publishing.
Illes, Judika. "Mandrake." The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
Larson, Gerald James, C. Scott Littleton, and Jaan Puhvel. Myth in Indo-European Antiquity. p. 157
Simoons, Frederick J. "Mandrake, a Root in Human Form." Plants of Life, Plants of Death. 1998.  p. 127