Throughout history, sailors have faced a variety of hazards at sea. There was a constant worry that a man who boarded a ship might never return home.
This was often because of the dangers of the open water. Greek mythology’s sea monsters embodied the dangers that could sink a ship, from sudden storms to unexpectedly striking rocks.
Other dangers, however, were on shore. Like other seafaring cultures, Greek sailors were at risk of losing themselves in the allure of the ports they visited.
Many of these dangers are, like the monsters of the sea, represented in the Odyssey. Odysseus and his men battle not only monsters, but also temptation in their ten-year long journey home.
One of the first temptations they face is on the island of the Lotus Eaters. Historians believe that this threat to their return was based on a problem that is familiar to many in the modern world.
When Odysseus set out from Troy after ten years of war, he had twelve ships. Another ten years later, he would finally reach Ithaca alone.
The voyage began to go poorly from the very beginning. Not long after sailing from Troy, the Ithacan fleet was battered by a sudden storm and driven for nine days by rogue winds.
Having lost their way and sustained slight damage, Odysseus ordered the ships to land on the next island they came across. There, they could take on fresh water and make repairs before continuing toward home.
The ships landed on an unknown island and, according to the Odyssey, rested and ate their lunch on the shore. After they had eaten, Odysseus ordered three of his company to investigate the island further.
Odysseus knew there were people living on the island, although none had come to the beach to greet the twelve ships. He told three men to go inland and report back on what type of people lived there.
After many hours, the three men had not returned. Odysseus himself led another party onto the island to find out what had happened to them.
They soon discovered the three men in a stupor. They had not been injured, but had been warmly greeted by the island’s natives.
Homer called these people the lotophagoi, or Lotus Eaters. They were happy and peaceful people who lived off the fruits of the lotus tree.
This fruit was so delicious that it made any person who ate it completely forget about anything else. The Lotus Eaters never thought about leaving their island or even making improvements to it because they were completely consumed by their obsession with the lotus fruit.
The fruit was so intoxicating that a single bite of it could completely overpower a man. When the three scouts sent by Odysseus had taken fresh fruit, a luxury for sailors, from the Lotus Eaters they had immediately forgotten all about their homes and their duty to their captain.
Odysseus realized that the men were in the thrall of the Lotus Eaters’ food. He immediately ordered the rest of his men not to eat anything from the island or bring any food on board the ships with them.
He had to drag the three men back to the ships, crying as they were pulled away from the lotus fruits. They were so enthralled by the island’s food that they had to be tied below the ships’ benches to prevent them from jumping overboard and attempting to swim back to the Lotus Eaters’ island.
Luckily for them, the effects of the lotus fruit seemed to wear off after time. It was later said that the men who had eaten the lotus fruit eventually returned to sanity and were embarrassed by their behavior on the island.
Many scenes in the Odyssey have been interpreted by modern scholars as allegories for the things that could keep a man from seeing to his duties at home.
Some of these threats were the dangers that could lead to death on the sea. The Sirens and Scylla, for example, are both thought to represent rocky cliffs and outcroppings that could sink a ship and keep the sailors from ever reaching home.
Other threats were more mental, however. On the island of Circe, for example, Odyssey’s affair with the beautiful sorceress nearly leads him to forget about his goal of returning to his wife and child in Ithaca.
The intoxicating food of the Lotus Eaters is interpreted as a real distraction that could keep men from returning to their duties.
The encounter with the Lotus Eaters is sometimes framed as a warning against becoming too distracted by pleasure in a general sense. This has been advice given to sailors in many cultures, who consistently had a reputation for seeking out vice when they came to shore.
As a general symbol for excess, many fruits have been proposed as the possible real-world counterparts of the mythical lotus tree. Certain berries and even specific varieties of dates have been identified as fruits that were so delicious and luxurious that they might inspire men to never want to leave the place they grew.
A more specific interpretation, however, is that the lotus fruit specifically represented the danger of losing oneself to the pleasures of alcohol and other drugs. While it seems unlikely that a man would forget his home because of a pleasant-tasting fruit, an addictive substance would be much more likely to inspire a complete abandonment of responsibility.
Those who support this theory believe that Homer may have used the lotus tree to represent another plant that was well-known in the ancient world: the opium poppy.
The effects of the lotus fruit on the three crewmen and the Lotus Eaters seem similar to the effects of opium use.
Opium, for example, causes lethargy and a lack of ambition. The three men who ate the plant were immediately so consumed by it that they did not even want to take the time to report back to the ship and tell Odysseus what they had found on the island.
Opium is, of course, also highly addictive. After just a few hours on the island, the three crewmen were already so addicted to the fruit that they had to be physically dragged away from it and restrained until the effects had worn off.
The effects of opium on sailors would not have been unknown in the Greek world. The poppies that produce it are native to Turkey, where Troy was located, and other parts of the Near East that would have been major sites of trade with the city-states of mainland Greece.
Some translations of the Odyssey further support the idea that Homer’s lotus was based on the opium poppy. While the Lotus Eaters are usually said to eat the lotus tree’s fruits, some translations specify that the fruit came from a flower.
While the episode of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey is often taken as a warning against overindulgence and preoccupation with leisure or pleasure, it is likely a more targeted warning. When sailing around the Mediterranean, the allure of opium posed a real threat that could keep sailors from returning to their lives at home.
One of the first stops made by Odysseus’s ships after leaving Troy was on the island of the Lotus Eaters. Putting ashore to take on fresh water and make repairs to their ships, they nearly lost three men to the island’s unusual produce.
The Lotus Eaters who lived on the island welcomed the three men who were sent to scout it. They offered them the only food they ate, the fruit of the lotus plant.
Hours later, Odysseus found his men completely under the thrall of this delicious fruit. After a single bite, they forgot all about their homes and their duty to their commander.
The men were so obsessed with this fruit that they had to be dragged back to the ships and restrained as they sailed away. Odysseus warned the others not to touch anything that came from the island or bring it on board for fear of losing more men to the fruit’s spell.
The episode of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey is generally taken as a warning against overindulgence and excess pleasure. Many, however, see it as a more specific warning against intoxication.
The lotus plant is likely based on the opium poppy, which is native to the Near East. The reactions of the men are similar to opium addiction, which could be powerful enough to make a man abandon his home and family.
Rather than being a general warning against excess, the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey likely served as a specific warning against the intoxicating drugs Greek sailors could encounter in foreign lands.