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In Book IX of The Odyssey, Odysseus recalls his time he and his men spent in the land of the Lotus-eaters. While there, some of Odysseus’ men begin to feast on the lotus fruit, which causes them to forget their desire to return home and their only wish is to continue to eat the lotus fruit forever. Odysseus does not stand for this and forces his men to leave by tying them to his ship. He insists that they continue their journey home to Ithaca.

Upon reaching the land of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus sends three men to discover what kind of people inhabit the island. He wonders if they are, “men like us perhaps, who live on bread”(9.101). Homer consistently identifies groups of people by what they are known to eat. The way that a group eats and cultivates their food can unify them with one another or distinguish them as being quite different from one another. In the land of the Cyclops for example Odysseus notes that they “never plant with their own hands or plow the soil,” which is a clear indicator that these beings are not human (9.121).

The three men Odysseus sends out do not discover bread-eating men, like themselves, but rather inhabitants known only as Lotus-eaters. The land they inhabit is also known only as the “Land of the Lotus-eaters” (9.95).  This sheds light on the importance of the Lotus itself. This fruit is how these people and their land receive their identity. Odysseus and his men are not known as the bread-eaters, and Ithaca is not the land of the bread-eaters.  Bread is simply sustenance for these men where as the Lotus is something entirely different to the lotus-eaters. Upon consumption it becomes the only thing that one lives for and the number one priority of whomever has consumed it. Odysseus says of the men who ate the lotus that, “their only wish was to linger their with the Lotus-eaters, grazing on lotus” (9.108).  The lotus becomes the meaning of life for those who consume it.

It appears that if eating lotus was one’s only desire and this desire could be fulfilled on the land of the lotus-eaters, then by staying in that land and eating that fruit one could live a life where all of their desires were fulfilled. Therefore if the fulfillment of one’s desires is equivalent to happiness, then one could live a perfectly happy life in the land of the lotus-eaters. In fact, Odysseus causes himself and his men more pain and suffering by leaving the land of the lotus-eaters than if he had simply stayed and allowed the lotus to become the meaning of his life too.

Had Odysseus and his men stayed and ate the lotus then not only would all of his men be alive but they would also be happy and so would Odysseus. The lotus would have caused them all to have “lost all desire to send a message back, much less return” and “all memory of the journey home dissolved forever” (9.108-110). Odysseus and his men would have all had the chance to live a life of blissful ignorance. Odysseus would not stand for this though. He wanted to make sure that his men never forgot their home and never gave up on returning to Ithaca. Returning home had become the meaning of Odysseus’ life.

Odysseus says that the lotus-eaters had, “no notion of killing my companions, not at all, they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead…”(9.105-106). It seems that Odysseus is equating the taste of the lotus with death itself because it causes men to forget the meaning of their own lives. They forget their goals and desires and hopes, all for a fruit. They lose their sense of self and their former self does die and is replaced by a single faceted being that craves only the lotus. The lotus takes away the humanity from a person leaving a shell.

Through this very short episode of the Lotus-eaters, Homer is able to explore and question various aspects of life itself and the human condition. The question of whether or not ignorance is truly bliss is seen in the decision of Odysseus to force his men to leave. Had they stayed would they have been truly happy? Is it even possible to be truly happy if you have no memory of pain or suffering to compare it to? Homer also questions what it means to be human.  Part of being a human is having unlimited desires. Therefore if a person has only one desire and it is fulfilled, then have they lost their humanity? It appears that the lotus-eaters have indeed lost their humanity.  The negative view Homer takes on the lotus-eaters reveals a pride taken in humanity and loyalty to one’s homeland. It shows that people, even in the time of Homer, want to live for something important.

20 Responses to “Lindsey Pelland – On the Lotus Eaters”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    I like your points about agriculture being a sign of humanity. Both working the land and eating from it seem to be a key component of what it means to be human in the Odyssey. As you note, one of the biggest signs that the Cyclopes are not like human beings is that they do not work the land or eat bread (which is why Odysseus appears to expect trouble [9.219 or so, when he takes the strong, Ismaran wine with him]). So the Lotus eaters neither work nor eat the fruit of their labors; they just eat fruit that they have not worked for, as far as we can tell, and it makes them forget everything else. I like your point about the Lotus becoming the only thing that matters, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that nothing else other than the Lotus matters any more. This captures the element of forgetting. Note that Odysseus was able to bring back his men who had eaten Lotus but only with force (9.110-110). Maybe they ended up okay–at least until they died (!).

    Though Odysseus is able to resist Circe (with the help of Hermes and moly), he does stay there for a year, implying that there are many ways to forget home and one’s self. I think the Siren episode is also important on this score.

    We should perhaps not be too hard on the Lotus eaters, as I think many people are like this. Life is difficult, even when it is joyous, and many people desire simply to forget about anything other than pleasure. It is to Odysseus’ credit that he (almost) always wants to get back home. Maybe that is the Homeric (pre)conception of philosophy–finding your own way, against all odds, to return to your self.

    KH

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