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The Greek translation for drug is pharmakia, the root word for “pharmacy,” and refers to potions, herbs or substances thought to have transformational properties. Throughout The Odyssey, there is a prevalence of various types of herbs and drugs that are beneficial, lethal, protecting, or mind enhancing, and offer valuable perspective to Homeric thought.

After Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta, king Menelaus and his queen, Helen, reminisce on Odysseus’ cleverness at Troy. The household becomes despondent and a deep desire to grieve is stirred in them by Menelaus’ musings (4.204). Helen decides to slip a potent drug into the wine before resuming the conversation and entertaining the group (4.262). Helen’s potion causes one to forget the ills of the world, even the death of a loved one, when it’s mixed. This “cunning” drug, possibly a form of opiate, was a “heart’s-ease, dissolving anger,” and possessed “magic to make us all forget our pains…” (4.245-46). There may be several reasons why Helen seized the opportunity to spike the wine; she has shown herself to be cunning in the past and here again is an example of her craftiness. Helen may have wanted to share her cherished memories about Odysseus without angering her husband. Since Telemachus was grieving the absence of his father, maybe this was the only way she could share intimate details about her past relationship with Odysseus and comfort his son. Helen may have also wanted the beginning of Telemachus’ journey to be a happy time, and to encourage him to continue pursuing his father. Her drugs were “potent gifts from Polydamna…a woman of Egypt” (4.252-4). Egyptians are known for their land rich with herbs of all kinds, and their healing skills greater than any other on earth (4.255-59). Menelaus had visited Egypt before, so perhaps he acquired these drugs for his wife during his stay. Helen possibly believed she could remedy whatever sadness and anger was present since the people of Egypt were known to be great healers.

In Sparta, and other instances in the Odyssey, there is a constant conflict between reality and appearances complicated by the presence of drugs. In reality, Telemachus and the Spartan household are weeping, but Helen’s drug induces forgetfulness and gives the appearance of happier times. After they take the drug, she is free to speak about Odysseus in a loving, familiar way without fear of upsetting her husband. On the island of the Lotus-eaters, the crewmen are unable to see through the appearance of a luxurious lifestyle, where in reality they must continue their journey and return home. Homer may be warning against the danger of accepting appearances for reality, or forgetting what is known to be true.

In Ancient Greece, the command a man maintained over his household defined his social status and reputation. Far more important than any inner character or conscious distinction between right and wrong, Odysseus would have found his identity in his home. For Odysseus to lose sight of his goal to return home would mean that he also lost sight of his identity. On the hero’s return voyage, he faces many temptations that would efface his identity and threaten to remove him from his logical course. In each encounter with drugs in The Odyssey, Odysseus faces mental and psychological battles in which he must overcome the danger of physical temptation. In enacting his homecoming, Odysseus embodies the cunning mind as a way to preserve his identity.

The land of the Lotus-eaters introduces a naturally occurring drug, which tempts its users to submit to complete oblivion and surrender their will. Odysseus’ scouts discover the Lotus-eaters have a relaxed way of living, spending their days feeding on the mellow lotus fruit and flower. Once the crewmen tasted the fruit, “their only wish [was] to linger there with the Lotus-eaters, grazing on lotus” (9.107-08). The seductive temptation of the drug lies in the consumer’s desire to remain in a primitive state without work or toil in a “lush green land.” The weaker minds of the crew fail to perceive the dull existence, no more thrilling than the mundane life of a grass-fed cow, shrouded in an illusion of happiness. On the island of the Lotus-eaters, drugs are a form of surrender of individual identity by forgetting home. As a result, Odysseus is the only one who maintains enough self-preservation to adhere to his journey home and forces the men back to the ships, strapping them to the ship’s oars and quickly sailing away.

On Circe’s island, Odysseus discovers that the Queen of Aeaea has bewitched his men, transforming them into pigs. However, they retain their human reasoning and minds but trapped in a beastly body. While the men enchanted by the Lotus-eaters were tempted to stay in order to forget their existence and return to an animalistic state, the men on Circe’s island face the opposite challenge. These men represent an image of what Plato describes as a “city fit for pigs,” a society governed only by necessary desires and the principles of specialization. Neither the republics of the pigs or the Lotus-eaters is desirable, since Aristotle calls men “political animals,” and believes that what separates men from animals is our capacity to reason and participate in dialogue about justice. The effects of these drugs perhaps offer a hypothetical picture of what a society would look like if men failed to participate in democracy and warn against the loss of individual identity.

Hermes visits Odysseus in order to reveal to him an herb named moly, which is the only known defense against Circe’s pharmakon. The powerful effects of Circe’s “wicked” drugs are absolute and whoever comes into contact with them can find no middle ground: her victims either succumb to their powers or escape like Odysseus. While showing Odysseus the moly plant, Hermes only mentions its external properties, but teaches Odysseus its “name and nature.” What he may be revealing here is that knowledge is more important for Odysseus rather than the physical plant itself. Hermes says moly is “dangerous for a mortal man to pluck from the soil but not for deathless gods” because “all lies within their power” (10.338-40). In a sense, Odysseus gains god-like abilities with the use of the moly because it allows him to resist Circe’s bewitching and maintain his cunning. Circe’s behavior is without a doubt complex. Homer meant her actions to be viewed as malevolent and terrifying, although not necessarily defined as sorcery. Her astonishment of Odysseus’ resistance just about sums up The Odyssey’s didactic purpose in a single line: “You have a mind in you no magic can enchant” (10.365). Forgetting his homecoming under Circe’s attractions is a greater temptation to Odysseus than forgetting evils, despite having the counter-drug.

In The Odyssey, drugs are not just a physical apparatus. Pharmakia creates a deceitful intelligence and manipulates reality, distorting the true nature of things and leading to questions about individual identity and the cunning mind. A common danger is the fading of the mind and memory, and Odysseus constantly faces temptations to forget his homecoming. Helen uses drugs to make her household forget the past, the lotus fruit causes forgetfulness of the present, and Circe uses drugs to make the men forget the future. The appearance of drugs, or pharmakia, in The Odyssey not only makes for a long, strange trip, but also embodies the necessity of individual identity and reasoning.

20 Responses to “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been: Pharmakia and Drug Use in Homer’s The Odyssey”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Hunter,

    A thoughtful and well-written piece. I particularly like the points about identity. I think you are right to suggest that home is tied to identity and that part of the problem with the Lotus is that it makes one forgetful of home (9.107-110). On this point, we should not forget that Odysseus stays for a year (!) on Circe’s island (10.520-521) and is in danger of forgetting about home, despite using the moly to resist Circe’s original alchemy. Though Circe says that Odysseus “has a mind” that “no magic can enchant” (10.365-6), she perhaps finds other ways to ensnare him.

    Helen was with Menelaus in Egypt when they were returning from Troy, so she could have gotten the drugs herself, conceivably; Menelaus did not have to get them for her. Still, her use of drugs implies that she is sorcerous / witch-like in the manner of Circe and that somehow she is dealing with the problem of home or identity. She does not make the group forget home but she does make them forget about their home-inspired grief, though each has a particular, personal grief.

    Although I mentioned the Republic passage about the city of pigs in class, we will see whether it actually stands up. For one thing, it is far from clear that Socrates thinks this is a flawed city; it is Glaucon who disavows its lack of luxury and calls it a city fit for pigs. But it is certainly tempting to suggest a Homeric parallel, perhaps even with democracy.

    Derrida has a famous essay called “Plato’s Pharmacy” that is available online and that you may want to look at, although it is not an easy read at times.

    KH

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