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This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 239 pages of information about Custom and Myth.

MOLY AND MANDRAGORA.

‘I have found out a new cure for rheumatism,’ said the lady beside whom it was my privilege to sit at dinner.  ’You carry a potato about in your pocket!’

Some one has written an amusing account of the behaviour of a man who is finishing a book.  He takes his ideas everywhere with him and broods over them, even at dinner, in the pauses of conversation.  But here was a lady who kindly contributed to my studies and offered me folklore and survivals in cultivated Kensington.

My mind had strayed from the potato cure to the New Zealand habit of carrying a baked yam at night to frighten away ghosts, and to the old English belief that a bit of bread kept in the pocket was sovereign against evil spirits.  Why should ghosts dread the food of mortals when it is the custom of most races of mortals to feed ancestral ghosts?  The human mind works pretty rapidly, and all this had passed through my brain while I replied, in tones of curiosity:  ‘A potato!’

’Yes; but it is not every potato that will do.  I heard of the cure in the country, and when we came up to town, and my husband was complaining of rheumatism, I told one of the servants to get me a potato for Mr. Johnson’s rheumatism.  “Yes, ma’am,” said the man; “but it must be a stolen potato.”  I had forgotten that.  Well, one can’t ask one’s servants to steal potatoes.  It is easy in the country, where you can pick one out of anybody’s field.’  ‘And what did you do?’ I asked.  ’Oh, I drove to Covent Garden and ordered a lot of fruit and flowers.  While the man was not looking, I stole a potato—­a very little one.  I don’t think there was any harm in it.’  ’And did Mr. Johnson try the potato cure?’ ’Yes, he carried it in his pocket, and now he is quite well.  I told the doctor, and he says he knows of the cure, but he dares not recommend it.’

How oddly superstitions survive!  The central idea of this modern folly about the potato is that you must pilfer the root.  Let us work the idea of the healing or magical herb backwards, from Kensington to European folklore, and thence to classical times, to Homer, and to the Hottentots.  Turning first to Germany, we note the beliefs, not about the potato, but about another vegetable, the mandrake.  Of all roots, in German superstition, the Alraun, or mandrake, is the most famous.  The herb was conceived of, in the savage fashion, as a living human person, a kind of old witch-wife. {144}

Again, the root has a human shape.  ’If a hereditary thief who has preserved his chastity gets hung,’ the broad-leafed, yellow-flowered mandrake grows up, in his likeness, beneath the gallows from which he is suspended.  The mandrake, like the moly, the magical herb of the Odyssey, is ‘hard for men to dig.’  He who desires to possess a mandrake must stop his ears with wax, so that he may not hear the deathly yells which the plant utters

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