In book four of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ son Telemachus embarks on a coming-of-age journey to seek word of his missing father. The lad’s second stop is at the palace of king Menelaus and his wife, Helen - recently retrieved from Troy, where she’s spent the last 10 years as the ‘wife’ of the gorgeous young Trojan prince Paris (and then of his brother, Deiphobus)! One might well imagine that the conversation around the dinner table at Sparta was already strained, but the mood turns to downright despair when Telemachus’ arrival stirs up memories of the war. Soon Telemachus is weeping for Odysseus, Menelaus for his brother Agamemnon – and so Helen takes the situation in hand and slips them both a mickey. Homer tells us that ‘into the wine of hospitality’ they were drinking, she casts a drug to ease all sorrow, a nepenthes pharmakon. Pharmakon is any potion made from a plant, be it medicine, poison, or enchantment; nepenthes is an adjective meaning literally ‘lest you mourn,’ or ‘mourn no more.’ This nepenthe was no mild sedative. Homer tells us that for one day, those who drank it down would not shed a single tear, not even if they saw their own family slaughtered before their very eyes! That’s some strong stuff, and there have understandably been many attempts over the centuries to identify the plant in question, and debate over whether or not it is real or entirely an invention of Homer’s. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t take much to see that the drug is a metaphor for the effect of Helen’s beauty - or that a theme of the epic as a whole is that the most potent drug of them all is the beauty of poetry. At Nepenthe Press, we couldn’t agree more. We believe in the power of stories to transport us, to help us forget our cares, and to release us from sorrows. Is it presumptuous to take our name from Homer? Possibly. We prefer to think of it as a tribute.
The Sorrow of Telemachus, Angelica Kauffman 1783. MMOA AN 25.110.187, public domain