Thursday, March 10, 2011

'Mandrake Root'

Today I had a lot of time on my hands. I couldn't think of any better way to utilize it than in the procurement of a mandrake root -- after all, who hasn't fantasized about owning their very own magic mandrake root, wrestled from the unyielding earth at the risk of being driven mad by the terrible scream it emitted when dragged out of its native habitat?

Since I had no good guidebooks to tell me where to go in Downey or Los Angeles to look for mandrake plants -- where's a witch when you need one (like this one from last year)? -- I decided to make my own. Half a dozen sheets of unbleached, recycled-paper towels were used to make this one 'mandrake root'.

The only images of mandrake roots I've ever seen are fanciful old prints that exaggerated their anthropomorphic qualities and made them look like actual homunculi, complete with facial features (like the ones in the Harry Potter movie); but I wanted to make a more naturalistic one, so my only real guide was the ginseng root, the Asian counterpart to the mandrake, with which I am well familiar. This 'mandrake root' is, therefore, really a model ginseng root more or less (still, I think it's a close approximation), with the addition of a tuft of 'hair' for effect.

Here's a piece of ginseng trivia:  while ginseng is found in diverse places in East Asia, I've read that traditionally the kind that grows in Korea is the most highly prized. To my mind it may owe this favored status to the physical remoteness of the Korean peninsula and the air of mystery that goes with it, as well as whatever actual efficacy the plant possesses; but in any case native ginseng is still a perennial favorite at gift shops in Seoul that cater to tourists from other Asian countries. Although most of the commercially available supply is cultivated on farms, the most valuable kind is wild ginseng, which grows in mountainous terrain.

Here's a photo I took of a ginseng vendor's display at Namdaemun market on that previously-referenced trip to South Korea, with signs in Vietnamese and Japanese. These particular roots are steeped in spirit, to make 'ginseng wine'. Expand the image and you'll see they really do look unsettlingly like little people -- I actually find that pale naked-skin color, in conjunction with some of the shapes, a little embarrassing (or maybe my mind is just in the gutter).

In Korea, mountains are objects of veneration -- or at least they were until modern times. It's all bound up with the native variety of animism, which is a loosely-defined belief system that holds that all things in nature are imbued with spirits. Animals, trees, boulders, bodies of water -- all are inhabited by spirits that can interact with humans, to either help or hinder.  Mountains, being some of the mightiest features of the natural world and sources of all sorts of valuable things, are 'owned' by especially powerful spirits ('San-Shin'/산신, literally 'mountain spirit'). In the old days, when folk had business to carry out on a mountain, they would make offerings to the resident spirit and ask for its permission before setting out, lest they offend the spirit with their presumptuousness.

I remember reading an interesting article in the paper once, when I was still living in Seoul -- I might have been ten or so. It was about a lucky man who'd gone up a mountain to look for wild ginseng and scored a particularly valuable specimen.

The man was quoted as saying that before going to bed on the preceding evening he prayed to the local mountain spirit for its blessing. Pleased with the man's devotion the spirit appeared to him in a dream (probably in the usual guise of a venerable old man, similar to the depictions below that I nicked off the internet -- although I wouldn't be surprised if it had chosen to look more up-to-date, like a university professor or corporation chairman in a three-piece-suit), and told him where to look.

[BTW, I've read that sometimes a mountain spirit is envisioned as a beautiful woman, but I haven't yet seen such an image]

Next day the ginseng hunter went straight to the place pointed out to him by the spirit, and sure enough, there he found the largest, best wild ginseng root he had ever seen.

What an intriguing story! Was he simply spinning a yarn? Or was it perhaps the man's own psychic ability that unconsciously divined the location of the ginseng and revealed the message in a dream?

As for myself, I prefer to believe it really was the mountain spirit, much as I choose to believe that my artificial mandrake root, made out of paper, really possesses magical qualities just like the natural kind.


  1. I like your page very much. It is interesting to read about ginseng hunting in Asian countries, and the way people show respect for the roots.
    I have hunted ginseng here in the north eastern parts of the US for well over 50 years.
    There is just as much ginseng here now as there was when an aged neighbor showed me my first ginseng plant. Of course, I had walked by many hundreds of them before I discovered that it was more than just a weed.
    Very few people here know what ginseng looks like or where it usulally grows. It is a well kept secret.
    Keep up the great work, Shy One.
    Your friend,
    Wild Spirit Ginseng

  2. I googled Mandrake and found your site/blog quite by accident. This is a wonderful blog, it is hard to imagine you are shy, you show such intelligence and creativity here. I grew up in Downey, am a grandma in Northern California now. Just thought I'd let you know how much I enjoy your blog.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. Sometimes I get to thinking that this blog is too offbeat and idiosyncratic for anyone else to appreciate-- it's a huge boost when someone lets me know they 'get' me :)

  3. I followed a link to a link and found you. Or, this blog to be exact. I simply love it. I've been thinking about starting a blog of my own but I was a bit nervous about how some of the things I would post would seem so random.
    You have inspired me!
    Keep posting and I'll keep reading.

    1. Hi, Monica:

      I'm glad you found my blog, and gratified that you're enjoying it. For a semi-recluse like me it's always a great pleasure when I find someone else who finds the same things interesting as I do. I hope you will start that blog, and I wish you great success with it!