Before reading Homer…

…I usually eat lamb chops and drink a glass of fairly rough Spanish red wine. After all, it seems that the characters in The Iliad can hardly make it through half-a-dozen pages without hurling a sheep onto the bonfire with a manly cry of ‘Have this one, O mighty Zeus!’ or something like that.

Last time I opened my Odyssey, I found myself reading the footnotes which directed the reader to other volumes where he could peruse the habits of the Lotus-Eaters. Odysseus’ crew managed to join the island-dwellers and get stoned on these luscious fruits before being dragged back to the hollow ships by their irate boss, all within the space of half a page. But other 19th century scholars made a living out of footnotes like these and compiled elegant volumes describing the customs of the lotophagi (rather like painters who created forged copies of the pictures seen in the background of real Vermeers). And Tennyson managed to get 170 lines of verse, ending with the sublime exhortation:

          “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”

It is odd to think that educated people would once have been expected to know all the minute details of how these (imaginary) island-dwellers lived.

But surely it would be strange for scholars in 1878 to learn that the pharmacology of plants had become so detailed. By inspecting the tomb carvings of ancient Egypt (Khem, hence Chemistry) we find that the lotus was recognised for its psychoactive and aphrodisiac properties. Indeed, Drs Bertol, Fineschi, Karch, Mari and Riezzo, writing in the Feb 2004 issue of J.Royal Soc.Medicine kindly inform us that:

“…apomorphine…is a centrally acting, selective D1/D2
Dopamine agonist, and activation of dopaminergic receptors
In the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus
Initiates a cascade of events ultimately resulting in
Smooth muscle relaxation and vasodilatation
Within the corpora cavernosa, leading to penile erection.”

And if that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is! Perhaps it is no accident that the tale of the lotus-eaters crops up in Book IX of The Odyssey, a scroll dedicated to his account of the Cyclops…

I always stir my wine with a knife;
It sharpens my thoughts and makes my words turn red…

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