March 1, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

[The Lotos Eaters][1]
By: Homer

I[2] might have made it safely home,[3] that time,
but as I came round Malea the current
took me out to sea, and from the north
a fresh gale drove me on, past Kythera.[4]
Nine days I drifted on the teeming sea 5 (90)
before dangerous high winds.[5] Upon the tenth
we came to the coastline of the Lotos Eaters,[6]
who live upon that flower.[7] We landed there
to take on water. All ships’ companies
mustered alongside for the mid-day meal. 10 (95)
Then I sent out two picked men and a runner
to learn what race of men that land sustained.
They fell in, soon enough, with Lotos Eaters,[8]
who showed no will to do us harm, only
offering the sweet Lotos to our friends— 15 (100)
but those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotos,
never cared to report, nor to return:
they longed to stay forever, browsing on
that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland.[9]
I drove them, all three wailing,[10] to the ships, 20 (105)
tied them down under their rowing benches,
and called the rest: “All hands aboard;
come, clear the beach and no one taste
the Lotos, or you lose your hope of home.”[11]
Filing in to their places by the rowlocks 25 (110)
my oarsmen dipped their long oars in the surf,
and we moved out again on our sea faring.

Notes & Comentary

  1. From Homer (1990, Book X).
  2. Still early in his narrative, Odysseus still has not reconciled his own well being with that of his crew. This is a constant struggle for him throughout the next four books. His “I” here also shows his characteristic solitude as a leader and foreshadows the sole-survivor motif (De Jong 2004, p. 223).
  3. Odysseus begins his tale of the Lotos-Eaters by reminding his audience that this is a nostos or an epic of return. This idea is highlighted in this encounter and becomes a theme that is emphasized throughout Odysseus’ Apologue (De Jong 2004, p. 231).
  4. To prolong the narrative and also give tantalizing glimpses of Odysseus’ goal, Homer shows Ithaca within reach, but something thwarts his attempt. Here it seems to be random—a current—but elsewhere it could be a malevolent force, like Poseidon (Hexter 1993, p. 126).
  5. Odysseus has left the reality of the Mediterranean and has entered a magical realm of folklore (Heubeck & Hoekstra 1990, pp. 17–18).
  6. The Lotophagi whose sole crop and diet is the Lotos, or lotus, seems to produce in them a trance-like state and passivity (Romm 2011, p. 489.
  7. The exact nature of the Lotos remains unknown, though it seems to be the poppy from which opium is derived. Opium, however, is smoked after the seeds are refined, and Odysseus states below that those who ate this honeyed plant feel its effects. Likely, this is a magical plant with no actual analog. It’s symbolic importance is significant as it represents “the insecurity of human existence poised precariously between the spheres of empirical reality and mythical unreality” (Heubeck & Hoekstra 1990, p. 18). Like Persephone who ate the pomegranate, the Lotos is a mythological food that transports those who eat it into a mystical realm or into the kingdom of the dead.
  8. While not always acting imprudently, Odysseus’ crew are characterized at the beginning of the epic as “children and fools,” which I take to mean they are simple folks in need of much guidance to make the right decisions because of their parochialism or lack of judgment. Odysseus struggles as a leader battling external forces and often internal ones as well—the suitors also make questionable decision. Here, acting as characterized, his men likely unthinkingly accepted the Lotos and got high.
         That said, they might not be at total fault, as Xenia would make them less suspicious of hosts and accept what they had to offer not considering the mystical properties of the plant (Heubeck & Hoekstra 1990, p. 18). However, I wouldn’t let them off the that easily, as they likely missed observing the apparent effects of the drug on the locals, just as they will miss the clue of Circe’s power in her tamed menagerie in the next book.
  9. Established by Odysseus here explicitly, anything that makes one lose hope of home is the antagonist in the Odyssey. The lotos becomes a strong symbol of temptation in the epic, one that echoes through Odysseus’ narrative in books 9–12 especially.
  10. It would be interesting to have Homer mention these men again. Since they have tasted the Lotos, they are likely lost to reality, or addicted, and will never be the same. It may be moot, however, as all of Odysseus’ men will soon be dead.
  11. Odysseus’ encounter with the Lotos-Eaters marks a turning point, where he enters another world of folklore and legend, but instead of being trapped there, Odysseus is able to reverse his course and return home eventually (Heubeck & Hoekstra 1990, p. 18). Books nine through twelve have him wandering in this land.

Works Cited

  • De Jong, Irene J. F. (2004). A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge, UK. pp. Cambridge University Press.
  • Heubeck, Alfred; Hoekstra, Arie (1990). A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. II, Books IX–XVI. Oxford: Claredon Press.
  • Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to the Odyssey. New York: Vintage.
  • Homer (1990). The Odyssey. Translated by Fitzgerald, Robert. New York: Vintage.
  • Romm, James (2011). "Lotophagi". In Finkelberg, Margalit. The Homer Encyclopedia. II. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 479.