Can We Reduce Homer's Odyssey to Science? A New Book and TED-Ed Lesson Say Yes
This week the TED organization posted a “lesson” on the pharmacological reality behind Homer’s Odyssey from Economist science journalist Matt Kaplan, who wrote a book published two weeks ago called Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers. The TED-Ed Original lessons are cutely produced videos with animation and narration that give a brief overview of a topic while, totally coincidentally, promoting the narrator’s latest project. Kaplan is currently on a nationwide tour promoting the book at events in places like the Harvard Museum of Science, the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, etc. So far, I have only read the chapter of the book from which the video is directly (and often verbatim) adapted.
In the video, Kaplan attempts to make the case that the story of Circe’s magical transformation of Odysseus’ men into animals was based on the use of specific hallucinogenic plants. In Book 10 of the Odyssey, Odysseus explains that he and his men arrived at Circe’s island of Aeaea, and Polites convinced everyone to go meet with Circe:
So he spoke, and they cried aloud, and called to her. And she straightway came forth and opened the bright doors, and bade them in; and all went with her in their folly. Only Eurylochus remained behind, for he suspected that there was a snare. She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon. (Odyssey 10.229-243; trans. A. T. Murray)
For consistency, I’ve given the passage from the same translation Kaplan uses, from the Loeb edition.
The mixed drink mentioned above would be instantly recognizable to Greek readers as kykeon (cf. Iliad 9:638-641), a ritual drunk used in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and one that has long been suspected of containing psychoactive compounds, either intentionally or through contamination of the barley by ergot. However, Kaplan isn’t interested in that part of the story, and he instead focuses on the “baneful drugs.” Weirdly, he says that these drugs are mentioned only in the “earliest versions” of Homer’s texts, which makes no sense since the line clearly appears in the standard Homeric texts.
He suggests that Circe used jimsonweed, a hallucinogenic plant long used to relieve asthma and to induce visions. It is fatal in high doses, but according to Kaplan, while under its influence the men might have had visions that could lead them to be convinced they were animals.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” and besides, unbeknownst to our author, the claim goes back a long way, though with a different plant. As far back as the Renaissance, rationalizing scholars attributed Circe’s magic to a plant, Circaea lutetiana, known as “Enchanter’s Nightshade” and scientifically named in her honor.
One of the biggest challenges is proving that jimsonweed (Datura stramonium), also called the thorn-apple, was present in the Mediterranean basin at the necessary time, not to mention what that necessary time was. There is the question of where exactly jimsonweed originated. About half the sources I was able to find say it is native to Mexico and then spread to Europe after Columbus. The other half claim it is indigenous to India and spread to Europe sometime around the Roman era or later, with a few arguing for an earlier diffusion. Part of this seems to be confusion over similar species of Datura prior to the twentieth century, but there is apparently no clear consensus on where the genus Datura originated or how exactly it spread around the world. Something answering to the name of the thorn-apple was known to the Persians, who secondary sources say used it to induce visions, though so far as I can tell, this was actually Datura metel, described in medieval Persian sources.
So to settle this, I turned to Kaplan’s book, where he confirms that he is referring to Datura stramonium, the North American species, which he says was widespread in the Classical world:
We think she was using Datura and not some other poison for two reasons. First, jimsonweed is found all over the classical world. Second, The Odyssey makes it clear that Circe expects the crew to forget their fatherland. More specifically, she is expecting an amnesia-like effect on par with what Datura actually causes.
His source for this is the CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants (2012), and he says that the information appears on page 637. It does not. That page doesn’t even refer to the plant at all. The relevant entry appears on pages 1337-1338, where the plant’s range is given as “Africa, Asia.” It then lists all the places where the plant has local names, and that list is notable for excluding Europe and the Mediterranean basin. It covers Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. I read through the dictionary’s entries for all nine Datura species, and there isn’t a mention of Greece or the Mediterranean in any of them.
Now, it isn’t impossible that the plant was found in the Mediterranean, or at least one of the Datura species, but it seems that the Greeks weren’t aware of it until after they started having commerce with India, many centuries after Homer.
Incidentally, the claim that Circe used Datura stramonium isn’t original to Kaplan, despite his use of first-person pronouns. I’ve found it in books going back to the 1990s, and they in turn say that it goes back to at least 1983, when it appeared in A. Plaitakis and R. C. Duvoisin, “Homer’s Moly Identified as Galanthus nivalis L.: Physiologic Antidote to Stramonium Poisoning,” Clinical Neuropharmacology 6, no. 1 (1983): 1–5. However, I have not read this article to know their reasoning or evidence; secondary sources say that they raise it as a possibility to justify identifying the white-flowered Homeric plant moly as the snowdrop, an antidote for Datura. They apparently derive this conclusion entirely from treating the Homeric description as a list of “symptoms” to compare to various poisons. In other words, they assumed that the story was true in order to prove it had a basis in fact.
None of this should detract from the fact that the ancient Greeks, and the Mycenaeans before them, were highly skilled in the use of plants, both for medicine and for magic. As I discussed in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, there is a strong argument many scholars have made that the medicinal skills attributed to Medea were originally the possession of Jason before the Greeks decided that “magic” was an affront to the gods and devolved it onto witches. Certainly, the passage in Homer is meant to reflect what the Archaic Greeks imagined plant-based magic could do, but that isn’t the same thing as tracing a specific magical action to the chemical processes of a specific plant, much less, as Kaplan does, outlining which neurotransmitters were involved in the hallucination.
It’s funny that those who investigate myth always find in it a reflection of their own beliefs: Folklorists find in them storytelling, historians distortions of real events, and scientists misunderstood science.
Kaplan, for his part, plays the role of Euhemerus and imagines that there were real events that undergird the Homeric fantasy:
Does this mean that Odysseus and Circe were real? In the literal sense, I doubt it. However, a talented female poisoner might have been living on an island who used her knowledge to lead natives to worship her as a demigod. At some point in history someone might also have learned that consuming snowdrop provided protection against certain diseases and poisons. A local hero might have known a thing or two about herbalism, stood up to a cruel poison-wielding witch, proved that he was resistant to her magic, and come to be known as the great-grandson of Hermes . . . and wouldn’t that be cool?
It would, but that presupposes that the Circe episode was imported unchanged in to the Odyssey from the originally separate story it once comprised. And since it seems likely that Circe began as a Near Eastern goddess (as per M. L. West and Judith Yarnall), or even a character split off from the goddess-witch Medea (Strabo, Geography 1.2.40), and the whole episode borrowed from or reflective of one in the lost oral Argonautica (as per West and others), it’s not a safe bet to take the Odyssey text at face value. Kaplan’s simplistic euhemerism is a little too dismissive of the rich set of interlocking influences that formed the Homeric corpus.
11/12/2015 02:32:43 pm
No-one really knows for certain which psychoactive plants were used by the ancients - and the preparation is lost to us (a major factor), even if we did find out.
11/12/2015 02:55:25 pm
A potion of cheese, barley meal, yellow honey and wine? I'm 100% certain Circe's goal was to cause those men to pass out, only to wake up having soiled their own sheets.
An Over-Educated Grunt
11/12/2015 03:29:37 pm
While like most euhemerisms, it's certainly possible that "they were on drugs!" is the explanation, the problem with this, like with most alternative explanations, is that they are not absolutely and necessarily true; that is to say, by the very fact of being alternative explanations, they aren't the only explanation that fits all of the (thoroughly fragmentary) data. This is only a problem so long as the author doesn't go around asserting its certainty; unfortunately, TED talks of any stripe lend themselves much better to sales pitch than sober examination.
11/12/2015 04:04:57 pm
Apparently, even alternative or fringe ideas are included in the Sapling Foundation's slogan "Ideas Worth Spreading."
11/12/2015 05:12:03 pm
Graham Hancock did one. There was a big fuss about it being removed.
11/12/2015 05:12:48 pm
Not fringe ideas. It's called anthropology.
11/12/2015 05:37:07 pm
Reading comprehension, Nobody. I said alternative OR fringe. Since you're having difficulty, I break it down for you.
11/12/2015 05:44:04 pm
You just can't stop citing mainstream scholars who study shamanism and entheogens.
11/12/2015 05:53:38 pm
So, whose trying to stop these citations?
Always The Skeptic
11/12/2015 03:54:59 pm
And how does this relate to ancient astronautics?
11/12/2015 05:15:46 pm
The logic on this blog goes like this:
11/12/2015 05:42:47 pm
No, YOUR logic on this blog is as follows:
11/12/2015 05:46:20 pm
Drugs are the origins of religion. The earliest priests were those who prepared the sacred potions and the earliest congregations were those who partook of them.
11/12/2015 05:57:05 pm
It's probably worth mentioning that drugs really have long been an influence on religion, perhaps since the earliest times. But the kind of evidence that's being thrown around, from poppy heads on Babylonian reliefs to hallucinogens used in some mystery religions, doesn't indicate the level of importance that some are suggesting. Even if we attribute all ancient civilization and religious thought to altered states of consciousness, there are other ways--sensory deprivation, meditation, fasting, etc.--to achieve those states.
11/12/2015 06:00:44 pm
Shucks, drug-taking for spiritual experiences just did not begin with Madam Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley - and witness the fact that those individuals did not discover druig taking themselves - they had to glean that information from other people.
11/12/2015 06:01:46 pm
>>>Drugs are the origins of religion.<<<
11/12/2015 06:12:31 pm
R. Gordon Wasson pioneered the subject matter of shamanism during the late 1950s and early 1960s and partly responsible for the invention of the word entheogen.
11/12/2015 06:47:10 pm
>>>a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context<<<
11/12/2015 06:49:03 pm
Whatever you say, you cannot separate drugs from religion. Drugs are the cause, religion is the effect.
11/12/2015 06:57:12 pm
>>> Drugs are the cause, religion is the effect.<<<
11/12/2015 07:09:43 pm
11/12/2015 07:16:51 pm
"Drugs are the cause, religion is the effect."
11/12/2015 07:30:52 pm
No hypocrisy - drugs enhanced human intelligence and were the reason for human civilization. Note the word enhanced, drugs did not "create" human intelligence.
11/12/2015 07:38:20 pm
>>>drugs enhanced human intelligence and were the reason for human civilization<<<
11/12/2015 08:25:34 pm
See, that's exactly what I'm talking about; you take for granted that drugs were the direct and only cause of religion, yet you claim that the dating of the Sphinx is guesswork which would require a time machine to settle. And that's despite the fact that religion has almost certainly been around for much longer than the Sphinx, and whose hypothetical origin in mind-altering chemicals has received far less attention and study than the Sphinx, and whose origins would therefore be far more speculative than those of the Sphinx.
11/12/2015 08:31:13 pm
First off, how do you know drug use came before religion?
11/13/2015 12:35:37 pm
Superstition arises easily and without use of drugs. You will find the origin of religion there. Hallucinogenic drugs cause delusions, not intelligence.
An Over-Educated Grunt
11/13/2015 06:48:27 pm
Microsoft scientists on drugs developed the microchip. Those must have been some drugs, what with Microsoft being a software company and the silicon transistor dating back to the '50s, and Microsoft to the '70s.
11/15/2015 03:02:47 pm
So, "Nobody Knows" apparently "knows" for certain that early humans were incapable of pondering the existence of supernatural beings until they discovered mood and mind altering substances.
11/12/2015 06:18:24 pm
It's not related to ancient astronauts, and I've never limited myself to ancient astronauts. I look at a wide range of ideas about the past. (See the lengthy argument I had with a fellow skeptic about Ibn Firnas' flying machine.) In this case, the claim itself wasn't necessarily wrong, but the author failed to prove it with evidence and didn't consider all of the facets of the myth that would need to be addressed to prove such a claim.
11/12/2015 08:33:54 pm
I'm sure I'm not the only reader who would have gotten bored and stopped reading if that was all you covered. I find your analysis of the many different topics refreshing.
11/12/2015 06:40:34 pm
You haven't been around here long, have you? Unlike you, apparently, Jason is not obsessed with ancient aliens.
11/12/2015 04:04:14 pm
Once, while in college, I ate some Jimson Weed seeds and had a helluva scary ride. I was going to try to document my trip by writing about it. The next day I found my notes. All it said was "8 o'clock: ate the seeds"
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
11/12/2015 04:07:26 pm
What was it like?
An Over-Educated Grunt
11/17/2015 10:35:16 am
See, you'll never be a test pilot if you can't take copious notes. And also switch out Jimson Weed for Jeremiah Weed.
11/12/2015 08:49:39 pm
The flash video is hopefully not meant to be a scientific depiction of mythical events, but someone's cute little essay on how he thinks things happened. Analyzing myth is fun but ultimately cannot be proven.
11/12/2015 08:52:08 pm
I'm not even a scientist and the blog doesn't make sense calling it science. He just wants people to go to his web site. Yawn.
11/13/2015 02:12:41 pm
A Minos is a terrible thing to waste.
11/14/2015 10:48:45 am
Basically he is claiming that ancient greeks, who invented theater, were incapable of writing fiction. Even historical fiction (if Odysseus was an actual person who got lost at sea for a few years)
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