A dog digging for mandrake roots, from Mandragora Tacinum Sanitatis (Wikipedia)
I wanted to talk today about a dog’s occupation you will find in Lita’s forthcoming (next month, in October) story, Forever Boy. I searched for a 15th or 16th century practice involving a hazardous, magic-related activity for dogs. Let me tell you what I found.
All in the (Nightshade) Family
The mandrake is a medicinal plant related to deadly nightshade, and causes a narcotic effect. Mandrake has a parsnip-like root 3 to 4 feet long. Large, dark-green leaves extend from the root crown like a tobacco plant. Mandrake leaves have a foul odor. The primrose-type flowers produce a fruit with a yellow-apple appearance.
Mandrake roots resemble a human torso. It purportedly has magical powers. Old texts depict the male root with a long beard, and the female with bushy hair.
Killer of a Job
The best mandrake plants grew under gallows trees, where the body fluids of hanged murders fell to the ground and quickened the root’s magical properties. The problem was that the roots shrieked when pulled out of the earth. These cries killed anyone within hearing distance. It was hard to find employees for this work. The position had high turnover.
Here is where a dog’s occupation came in.
Mandrake harvesters dug a trench to reach the roots, tied a dog to a root, ran out of earshot, and coaxed the dog to come to them (usually with a piece of meat). The tethered dog pulled the root out of the earth and died from the plant’s screams. The dog’s death placated the root and the men could then safely handle it.
No Dogs Were Harmed in the Writing of This Book
Fiction writing is all about answering “What if…?” So, what if a mandrake-digging dog did not die? Why didn’t it die? Why would Wizard Kadmeion and his assistant Bright be interested in this dog? And most important, what happened to the jerk of a mandrake harvester who let other dogs die?
We meet our Forever Boy while he is digging for mandrake roots. He doesn’t die. There’s a minor demon involved. Kadmeion and Bright are nearby. And of course, things go horribly wrong.
I’ll tell you all about it in October.