The Lotus Eaters
The island drug culture of Homer’s Odyssey, and where we might find it today.
The land of the lotus-eaters is known only from a few classical fragments, but it has thrown a long shadow over modernity. The story is most familiar from the brief passage in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, in which after nine days of storms Odysseus finds himself beached on an unknown island. He sends scouts to contact the inhabitants, a gentle race who live on the ‘flowery lotus fruit’. Some of Odysseus’ crew taste the fruit, after which they lose all desire to continue their voyage: ‘all they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return’. Odysseus resists the temptation to taste the lotus; instead, he drags his crew forcibly back to the ship and sets sail as quickly as possible, ‘for fear that others of them might eat the lotus and think no more of home’.
Legends of the land of the lotus-eaters persisted in the ancient world. Herodotus, in his Histories, records a tradition locating it near the coast of Africa: perhaps near Libya, perhaps the island of Djerba off present-day Tunisia. He speculates, too, about its botanical identity: some believed it be a sweet and heady fruit like the date, and others a wine made from such a fruit. More recently it has been suggested that its flower might have been that of the Egyptian blue water-lily (Nymphaea caerulea), which is now known to have mild psychoactive and sedative properties. But the appeal of the story has always been more mythical than literal. Odysseus was the archetypal man on a mission: the central theme of his story, and the core of his character, is his determination to resist all distractions and temptations, remaining focused on his prime imperative. Just as he was obliged to stop his ears to the song of the sirens, he could not allow himself to taste the lotus fruit. Across the subsequent centuries his self-command, and the conviction with which he lashes his unwilling crew to the oars, has exemplified the ideal of leadership.
But what lay behind Odysseus’ unbending resolve?. If his commitment to his mission was truly unshakeable, why not at least try the lotus? At the most he might enjoy a few days of contentment before resuming his quest refreshed. Or did he fear that the lotus might be too good to resist? That it might reveal his mission to be less important than he told himself? That if he tried it he would no longer be able to lead by example, or to convince his crew to make the sacrifices he demanded of them? Did his crew lack the moral fibre of their commander – or was his mission simply less important to them than it was to him? By denying them choice, was he exercising leadership or tyranny?
And what, precisely, is wrong with the happy society of the lotus-eaters? There might be deep wisdom in their serenity; perhaps they have resolved the questions that still spur the rest of us on our endless quests. In 1832, just as the industrial revolution was blanketing the British countryside with factories and submerging ancient rural ways of life under a pall of smoke and steam, Alfred Tennyson wrote an epic poem, The Lotos-eaters, inspired by his visit to Spain during which he saw remote farms and villages untouched by the modern world: a land where it seemed to be ‘always afternoon’. In Homer’s telling we hear only that those of Odysseus’ crew who ate the lotus wept and begged at Odysseus’ stern commands, but Tennyson gives words to their lament:
Then someone said, ‘We will return no more’;
And all at once they sang, ‘Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.’
Life on Odysseus’ ship, in this telling, had become a quest without end, a self-imposed torment that had sapped their strength and destroyed their souls. They had marched, fought and sailed their way across half the world; now, among the lotus-eaters, they had found another way of living:
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind
In the hollow lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
Tennyson’s lotos-eaters are not frenzied Dionysiac revelers, greedily and wantonly pursuing pleasure. They are a collective of ‘mild-eyed, melancholy’ figures who, like Odysseus’ reluctant crew, have seen too much of suffering and death to refuse the chance of peace and happiness. Like Epicurus and the classical philosophers of his school, their ideal is not sensual indulgence or even ecstatic transcendence but ataraxia, the state of tranquility that holds no illusions, no hopes or fears of a life beyond this one. Odysseus may choose to defy death, or live as if he were immortal; but the lotus-eaters know that it will come soon enough – and when it does, the moments of satisfied repose will hold more meaning than the years of strenuous toil.
The myth of the lotus-eaters continued to resonate throughout the nineteenth century as industrialists and imperialists found themselves, like Odysseus, faced with subject populations who failed to grasp the urgency of their mission or to understand why it was necessary to replace a life of ease with one of perpetual labour. In some cases the myth was projected onto the foreign drug habits of the colonized – the opium-smoking Chinese, the coca-chewing Andean or the hashish-eating Egyptian – and their resistance to modernity explained by the newly-developed pathology of ‘addiction’. But there’s no suggestion in Homer that the lotus is addictive: those who eat it are not suffering from a psychological illness or medical dependency. Addiction asserts that the drug overrides free will, but the lotos-eaters have made their choice deliberately. When their fruit is taken from them Odysseus’ crew don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms, only an overwhelming sorrow that their chosen life is receding beyond the waves.
The lotos is a drug, but it stands for something more: the refusal to engage with the world of progress and economic productivity, and to maintain a society in readiness for war. To the imperial gaze, resistance to this imperative was often seen as a delusive retreat into fantasy. In his Colombian ethnography My Cocaine Museum (2004), Michael Taussig quotes a report to the Spanish government written in 1849 by Agustin Codazzi, an Italian cartographer engaged to assess the resources of the Pacific coast. He found a land of rich subsistence agriculture, inhabited by a population mostly of African descent; but their life of ease was, for him, an economic tragedy. ‘Plantains, a little maize and a few plantings of cacao and sugarcane do nothing more than satisfy daily consumption, while fish and wild pigs abound’, Codazzi complains; after a day in the fields, the inhabitants ‘go home to enjoy sweetmeats, smoke, talk and sleep’. He warns that unless these people are forced to work by a police system, the wealth of the colony will suffer. He concludes:
‘A race of people which spends its time in such indolence is not the race called upon for national progress. Out of ignorance, laziness and misunderstood pride at being free, these people are slaves to their lack of need.’
‘Slaves to their lack of need’: how strange this sounds to the city-dwellers of the twenty-first century. Our problem is precisely the opposite: once we are subsumed into the global economy, our needs become ever greater and the simple life an ever-receding mirage. In this world drugs are no longer, like the lotus, the talisman and sacrament of an alternative way of living: they become yet another costly commodity, tools that we use to meet or escape the escalating demands of productivity. We are no longer browsing on the fruit of the lotus but passing each other small packages of pleasure between the strokes of the oar as Odysseus commands us relentlessly onwards towards his promised land of Ithaca. It is hardly surprising that drugs occupy such a provocative role in our society, both fetishized and demonized. In a society where we must always act rationally and think of the future, the escape from responsibility that these substances offer is dangerous and must somehow be policed; yet they are always standing by to offer us a small advantage or luxury, to give us back a little control over our moods, our energies or our minds.
When I imagine the lotus-eaters I’m most often reminded of the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, which I visited several years ago. Here the drugs that have flooded the modern world are largely absent: even alcohol and tobacco are rare, costly imports out of reach of the majority whose connection to the money economy is marginal at best. Instead the islanders cultivate kava, a plant of the pepper family whose root can be prepared to produce a narcotic drink. Kava is at the centre of many social gatherings, especially when different villages or extended families come together. Like the native American peace pipe, once it has been shared any feuds or grievances are set aside.
Drinking kava is also a daily recreation. As the afternoon shadows lengthen, women begin cooking and children play in the surf, and men gather in the centre of the village to peel, grate and mash the root for the evening’s brew. After the evening meal, people gather in huts to drink the milky liquid from coconut shells. The effect is gentle and euphoric: tongues become numb, smiles spread, compliments are offered to the brew and the host. Those who are not drinking tiptoe around the ceremony with respect, speaking in hushed voices and dimming the paraffin lamps. A kava-drinker may feel the need to be alone, and leave the hut to sit on the beach, listening to the sound of the ocean and perhaps hearing in it the voices of their departed friends and relatives. Many drink every night of their adult lives: kava is not addictive, and they never need to increase their dose. One always sleeps more soundly and wakes refreshed.
Vanuatu, like many of the Melanesian nations around it, had a colonial history as brutal as any on the globe. During the nineteenth century it was devastated by disease, war and forced labour: on some islands almost all the men of working age were forced onto boats and taken to work the sugar cane fields of Australia, in countless cases never to return. Presbyterian missionaries banned the drinking of kava, along with singing, dancing and ceremonial dress: they called it ‘the devil’s root’, the same term that the Jesuits used in Mexico for the peyote cactus. Kava-drinking, in their eyes, nourished the natives’ savagery and immersion in their spirit-haunted world; only by eradicating it could they realize their vision of an obedient, hard-working and civilized population, with uniformed children processing to church or school at the sound of the morning bell.
When an independence movement finally emerged in Vanuatu in the 1970s, kava was one of the universal symbols around which a fractured people could rally. It holds an iconic role in the culture today, encouraged by the government as an alternative to the alcohol that has brought violence, crime and social division to so many of its more developed island neighbours. Unlike most of the world’s traditional drug cultures, kava is not the preserve of a marginalised minority but at the heart of society. It is perhaps no coincidence that Vanuatu remains among the poorest nations on earth, yet briefly captured the world’s attention in 2006 when it topped the global table of the ‘Happy Planet Index’. As the sun sets, you might almost catch along the darkening shoreline a faint echo of the lotus-eaters’ refrain:
‘Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.’
This piece was originally written to accompany the exhibition Los Comedores del Loto, which ran at the Casa del Lago gallery in Mexico City in 2013, and appears in its catalogue. An English version was published in Psychedelic Press UK 2014, Vol.3 and the anthology Out of the Shadows. Photos of Vanuatu © the author.
Related book: High Society