Then Zeus’ daughter thought of something else.
Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine
she slipped a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger,
magic to make us all forget our pains…
No one who drank it deeply, mulled in wine,
could let a tear roll down his cheeks that day…
So cunning the drugs that Zeus’ daughter plied,
potent gifts from Polydamna the wife of Thon,
a woman of Egypt, land where the teeming soil
bears the richest yield of herbs in all the world:
many health itself when mixed in the wine,
and many deadly poison.
Every man is a healer there, more skilled
than any other men on earth — Egyptians born
of the healing god himself.
(Odyssey, Book 4, ll. 243-260, Fagles)
At face value Homer’s “nepenthe” went unnamed; yet general consensus seems to agree that the herb was very likely what we know as “borage”. The above scene takes place in the palace of Menelaus and Helen after the Trojan war — they receive Odysseus’ son Telemachus, and Helen adds something to their drink to help induce a more relaxed and comfortable state of company.
“Borage was sometimes called Bugloss by the old herbalists, a name that properly belongs to Anchusa officinalis, the Alkanet, the Small Bugloss being Lycopsis arvensis, and Viper’s Bugloss being the popular name for Echium vulgare.
Henslow suggests that the name is derived from barrach, a Celtic word meaning ‘a man of courage.’
‘Pliny calls it Euphrosinum, because it maketh a man merry and joyfull: which thing also the old verse concerning Borage doth testifie:
Ego Borago – (I, Borage)
Gaudia semper ago. – (Bring alwaies courage.)
Those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde. The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirme. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person.’
According to Dioscorides and Pliny, Borage was the famous Nepenthe of Homer, which when drunk steeped in wine, brought absolute forgetfulness.
Francis Bacon says that it ‘hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.'”
(culled from: http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/borage66.html)
We see a very non-chalant snapshot of herbalism in the ancient world in this scene of Homer, even despite the fact that the nature of the application is admittedly in a context which may seem, at first glance, unsavoury to some in a modern audience.
Fagles’ vocabulary choice of “drug” is wholly acceptable (and maybe even required) in context, and yet said context is entirely positive in nature and there is no unwholesome or conspiring connotation implied whatsoever. While there is no mention of “consent” to its application on the part of the other characters in question, yet as mentioned there is no negative connotation; which all elements taken together leads one to presume that the practice was not unacceptable or uncommon overall. One may think also that the dosage distributed was possibly low in general, that the effect blended enough with the normal euphoria of wine-consumption and didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows.
More lines that catch attention come forth in the statements of “magic” (although the term itself is not used in the original Ancient Greek line from Homer, Fagles correctly interprets the sense) — and “so cunning [were] the drugs that Zeus’ daughter plied” (τοῖα Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἔχε φάρμακα μητιόεντα) — which may imply some sort of touch of witchcraft mentioned in a roundabout way (possibly seen as simple or mundane in context).
Elements of the supernatural seem to follow Helen throughout the tradition of her story: she is praised as the most beautiful woman of her time; she is the object of Aphrodite’s attentions and favours from the beginning (hence how the tale of the Trojan war itself becomes to be), and the association of magic/witchcraft with Aphrodite in history goes without saying; goddesses visit her frequently, and a scene in the Iliad depicts Helen weaving (an activity strongly associated with magic in the old world), while the subjects she weaves are legendary events and battles going on outside the palace:
Now to Helen of the white arms came a messenger, Iris,
in the likeness of her sister-in-law, the wife of Antenor’s
son, whom strong Helikaon wed, the son of Antenor,
Laodike, loveliest looking of all the daughters of Priam.
She came on Helen in the chamber; she was weaving a great web,
a red folding robe, and working into it the numerous struggles
of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaians,
struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war-god.
(Iliad Book 3, ll. 121-128, Lattimore)
Not to mention she is the daughter of Zeus, and the “twin” sister of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). Her birth is wrapped up in swan-myths. The implications of the mystical abound as concerns this woman.
Her significance was not lost on the ancients — shrines, worship and reverence for Helen could be found widely: majorly in Laconia/Lakedaemonia (i.e. the land of Sparta), as well as Attica, Rhodes, etc.
The elaboration of such observations far surpasses the scope of this article, but it does spark ideas and gives something to think about.
In the train of thought concerning herbs and witchcraft in epic poetry, the mind jumps ahead many centuries to Augustan Rome — the alluring scene of Medea’s spell in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to rejuvenate the waning Aeson, father of the Argonaut-hero Jason. (Herbs, ritual, deities of witchcraft and earth and even mention of a Lycanthrope – what more could be wanted in this passage!)
Considering its length, we’ll only recount the second half of the scene here; presented below is Brookes More’s translation from the early 20th century, but I also highly recommend obtaining David Raeburn’s translation of Ovid’s epic — as it is not only splendid in its handling of meter and verse, but is a strong translation of worth itself.
… she built up from the ever-living turf
two altars, one of which upon the right
to Hecate was given, but the one
upon the left was sacred then to you,
O Hebe, goddess of eternal youth!
Festooning woodland boughs and sweet vervain
adorned these altars, near by which she dug
as many trenches. Then, when all was done,
she slaughtered a black ram, and sprinkled with blood
the thirsty trenches; after which she poured
from rich carchesian goblets generous wine
and warm milk, grateful to propitious Gods—
the Deities of earth on whom she called—
entreating, as she did so, Pluto, lord
of ghostly shades, and ravished Proserpine,
that they should not, in undue haste,
deprive her patient’s aged limbs of life.
When certain she compelled the God’s regard,
assured her incantations and long prayers
were both approved and heard, she bade her people
bring out the body of her father-in-law—
old Aeson’s worn out body—and when she
had buried him in a deep slumber by
her spells, as if he were a dead man, she
then stretched him out upon a bed of herbs.
She ordered Jason and his servants thence,
and warned them not to spy upon her rites,
with eyes profane. As soon as they retired,
Medea, with disheveled hair and wild
abandon, as a Bacchanalian, paced
times three around the blazing altars, while
she dipped her torches, splintered at the top,
into the trenches, dark: with blood, and lit
the dipt ends in the sacred altar flames.
Times three she purified the ancient man
with flames, and thrice with water, and three times
with sulphur,—as the boiling mixture seethed
and bubbled in the brazen cauldron near.
And into this, acerbic juices, roots,
and flowers and seeds—from vales Hemonian—
and mixed elixirs, into which she cast
stones of strange virtue from the Orient,
and sifted sands of ebbing ocean’s tide;
white hoar-frost, gathered when the moon was full,
the nauseating flesh and luckless wings
of the uncanny screech-owl, and the entrails
from a mysterious animal that changed
from wolf to man, from man to wolf again;
the scaly sloughing of a water-snake,
the medic liver of a long-lived stag,
and the hard beak and head of an old crow
which was alive nine centuries before;
these, and a thousand nameless things
the foreign sorceress prepared and mixed,
and blended all together with a branch
of peaceful olive, old and dry with years. —
And while she stirred the withered olive branch
in the hot mixture, it began to change
from brown to green; and presently put forth
new leaves, and soon was heavy with a wealth
of luscious olives.—As the ever-rising fire
threw bubbling froth beyond the cauldron’s rim,
the ground was covered with fresh verdure — flowers
and all luxuriant grasses, and green plants.
Medea, when she saw this wonder took
her unsheathed knife and cut the old man’s throat;
then, letting all his old blood out of him
she filled his ancient veins with rich elixir.
As he received it through his lips or wound,
his beard and hair no longer white with age,
turned quickly to their natural vigor, dark
and lustrous; and his wasted form renewed,
appeared in all the vigor of bright youth,
no longer lean and sallow, for new blood
coursed in his well-filled veins.—Astonished, when
released from his deep sleep, and strong in youth,
his memory assured him, such he was
years four times ten before that day!
(Metamorphoses Book 7, ll. 242-etc.)
I plan to do an appropriately comprehensive commentary on this particular section of the poem in a following article; for now let us simply muse on all the openly observable elements detailed in the poetry, and the nature of such goings-on in the ancient mind, in “classical” authors such as the ancient Greek Homer all the way up to the Roman Ovid.
Herbalism, witchcraft, magic — the “Other” — these things were an accepted facet (whether sceptical or not) of their world, while their interest and intellectual investment in the topics is evident even in the most cursory overview of classical material.
Again religious rites and dark magic are woven together in Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid, where the hero learns from the Cumaen Sibyl how to obtain passage to the underworld. Aeneas puts forth his plight, and the Sibyl tells him truly what he must do; and she includes in her speech, as an aside, the death of one of their comrades yet unbeknownst to them — which they see when they return to the ship, and all too clear is proven the truth of the Sibyl’s words.
Aeneas knows she does not lead him astray.
“A bough is hidden in a shady tree;
its leaves and pliant stem are golden, set
aside as sacred to Proserpina.
The grove serves as its screen, and shades enclosethe bough in darkened valleys. Only he
may pass beneath the earth’s sacred spaces
first plucks the golden-leaved fruit of that tree.
Lovely Proserpina ordained that this
be offered her as gift. And when the first
bough is torn off, a second grows again —
with leaves of gold, again of that same metal.
So let your eyes search overhead; and when
the bough is found, then pluck it down by hand
as due: for if the Fates (fata) have summoned you,
the bough will break off freely, easily;
but otherwise, no power can overcome it,
hard iron cannot help to tear it off.
And more, the lifeless body of your friend
low lies — but you have still to learn of this —
defiling all your fleet with death, while you
still ask your destiny and linger at
our threshold. First, you are to carry him
to his own place of rest and burial
and bring black cattle as peace offering.
And so, at last, your eyes shall see the groves
of Styx, the lands the living never pass.”
(ll. 190-216, Mandlebaum)
Aeneas and his men return to the ships to find their friend Misenus indeed dead. There was a certain sting in the Sibyl’s words, that while Aeneas inquires and pries after his self-centered goal their comrade falls to his own doom; and she says a “peace offering” is required, presumably in propitiation of some sort (whither the propition is directed is not clear; we learn that Misenus died in result of arrogantly challenging a deity to a trumpet contest: is the propitiation for that, or because of his comrades abandoning Misenus, or for the negative taint upon their property, in so near conjunction with conducting rites to the gods of the underworld?).
They prepare his funeral and the appropriate rites; in the midst of this, the hero finds his way to the coveted boon required of him — Proserpina’s fruit:
… but gazing on the giant forest, he
is sad within his heart and prays: “If only
that golden bough might show itself to us
upon some tree in this great wood; for in
all things that had to do with you, Misenus,
the priestess has foreseen only too truly.”
No sooner was this said than from the sky
twin doves descended, there before his eyes,
settling along the green grass. And the chief
of heroes recognized his mother’s birds [ie Venus]
and prayed with gladness: “Be my guides if there
is any passage, strike across the air
to that grove where the rich bough overshadows
the fertile ground. And you, my goddess mother,
be true to me in my uncertainty.”
As he said this, he stayed his steps. He watched
for omens, for the way the birds would turn.
Then, as they fled, they flew along as far
as sight could follow. But when they have reached
the jaws of foul Avernus, there they rise
and swiftly glide along the liquid air;
they settle, twins, on their desired treetop.
In a moving scene (unquoted here), the burial rites of their dear friend are carried out with propriety and sadness, and a “mighty tomb” is raised is in his honour. This scene is very important to studies of Roman burial customs and the nature of Roman reverence for the dead. We do not quote it here simply because it doesn’t have much to do with our current topics — we’ll tackle it at a later date.
But now, there is work to be done, rites to be unraveled, and our “pius Aeneas” carries onward:
… he now moves swiftly to fulfill
all the commands and warnings of the Sibyl.
There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast
and rugged, sheltered by the shadowed lake
and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those
black jaws to heaven’s vault, no bird could fly
above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called
the place “Aornos,” or “The Birdless”). Here
the priestess places, first, four black-backed steers;
and she pours wine upon their brows and plucks
the topmost hairs between their horns and these
casts on the sacred fires as offering,
calling aloud on Hecate, the queen
of heaven and of hell. Then others slit
the victims’ throats and catch warm blood in bowls.
Aeneas sacrifices with his sword
a black-fleeced lamb for Night, the Furies’ mother,
and Terra [Earth], her great sister; and for you,
Proserpina, he kills a barren heifer.
And then for Pluto, king of Styx, he raises
nocturnal altars, laying on their fires
whole caracasses of bulls; he pours fat oil
across the burning entrails. But no sooner
are dawn and brightness of the early sun
upon them than the ground roars underfoot,
the wooded ridges shudder, through the shadows
dogs seem to howl as Hecate draws near.
“Away, away, you uninitiated,”
the priestess shrieks, “now leave the grove: only
Aeneas move ahead, unsheathe your sword;
you need your courage now; you need your heart.”
This said, she plunges, wild, into the open
cavern; but with unfaltering steps Aeneas
keeps pace beside his guide as she advances.
As can be seen, the scenes are filled with not only ritualistic and religious symbolism but even ritual itself in the latter section — yet there the lines are blurred between what we term proper religious ritual and witchcraft; for what else but “witchcraft” could even aspire to such? The answer is simple: these women (i.e., the Cumaen Sibyl, and Medea earlier) were executing witchcraft while performing what was considered established ritual form in their time; hence taking on the implication of what we would term “proper” religious rites. Gods are invoked, space is recognized, goals are acknowledged, whilst there are particular features which define what the on-looker is actually witnessing in terms of action and outcome.
The tradition of the sibyls and priestesses of Apollo goes far back into antiquity and demanded reverence for centuries; their importance and bridge to the “Other” in the ancient world bears mentioning and exhortation to further study.
Luctantius connects the historical legend of the Sibylline Books with the Cumaen priestess; this tale is well-known, and plays a great part in the identity of ancient Rome. In short, the Sybil brought a collection of volumes, their contents of prophetic nature, to the king Tarquinius — upon attempting to impart the material to him for a (large) price, which was met with scorn, the situation carries on in several confrontations resulting in the most lamentable case of destroyed books until the king relents, obtaining the remaining three of nine volumes.
These volumes were in turn cherished and protected by an appointed order — consulted in times of great need, and also bringing about a handful of very influential interpretations that would deeply affect Roman culture.
In connection with the authors of epic verse and the perceived sanctity of literature, bibliomancy assumes a long history. In staying a moment on the Roman vein here — the practice of “sortes Vergilianae” probably sprouted almost immediately after the passing of the poet Vergil himself; and here the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (most known for his spectacular sonnet-sequence “Astrophel and Stella” which helped set the stage for Renaissance English verse) paints a picture of the powerful image of the poet, and possibly one of the earliest accounts of the sortes Vergilianae as used by Albinus:
“Among the Romans a poet was called a vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words, vaticinium and vaticinari, is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making. Whereof the Histories of the Emperors’ Lives are full: as of Albinus, the governor of our island, who in his childhood met with this verse:
Arma amens capio, nec sat rationis in armis,
(Arms taken up in a rage, with little reason to be armed) *
… and in his age performed it.”
These sortes were carried on in different form later with the overtaking of Christianity, replacing pagan texts with scripture (“sortes Sanctorum” etc.); such practices as have come down unbroken amongst many people of the religion to this day in some form or other.
To errantly jump back to the famed author of the Iliad and Odyssey — it is with Homer we see roots in this tradition of bibliomantic sortes. As far back as the Homeridae can be imagined (the inspired bards who recited Homeric verse by memory in live performance), and the larger-than-life character of Homer amongst the peoples envisioned, it is likely such sortes Homericae existed.
Such was the influence of Homer’s poetry that extended variants of such practice existed as well, as we see in the dice-divination recorded in ancient papyri: a selection of Homeric verses were presented, each with a designated combination of three single-digit numbers which were reached by three rolls of the dice (for example, if you rolled a 1-4-6, the oracle presented would be Iliad, Book 21, line 223: “These things, Zeus-nurtured Scamander, will be as you order”, interpreted as appropriate to context).
The significance of dice-traditions in Indo-European cultures, in matters both mystical and secular, is certainly worth note here.
The connections of epic verse poets and magic seem to have a solid concept amongst the ancient peoples, and it doesn’t take too long to figure out why.
From the deep-voiced, far away, gem-studded speeches of Homer, to the flawless and awe-inspiring visions of Vergil and the enchanting yet honey-flowing lines of Ovid; masters of the word and language, were masters of elements beyond the mundane — gods and the supernatural fall into metrical narratives without struggle or coersion, whilst the strange and magnificent is raised to a high seat. Heroes, heroines, witches, and gods are glorified in art: the ultimate honour and gift of immortality.
Bibliography and Resources:
Homer, Richmond Lattimore. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1961. Print.
Virgil, Allen Mandlebaum. The Aeneid of Virgil. Bantam Classic, 2004. Print
Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox. The Odyssey. Penguin, 1997. Print
Ovid, David Raeburn. Metamorphoses. Penguin, 2004. Print
Sir Philip Sidney, Gavin Alexander. Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism. Penguin, 2004. Print
Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek magical papyri in translation including the Demotic spells. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1986. Print.
Kershaw, Priscilla K. The one-eyed god: Odin and the (Indo- )Germanic Männerbünde. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2000. Print. *(See Ch. 2 for Indo-European dice traditions.)*
Online Resource for Book 4 of Homer’s Odyssey in the Ancient Greek:
Online Resource for Book 7 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Latin:
Online Resource for Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid in the Latin:
Lactantius’ Institutiones Divinae (in the Latin):
To top off my post, here’s a great video, relevant to our topics, by the renowned Mr. Levy
Quoting from the Luthieros webpage:
“The phorminx (in Ancient Greek φόρμιγξ) was one of the oldest ancient Greek stringed musical instruments, intermediate between the lyre and the kitharis (or kithara). It consisted of two to seven strings, richly decorated arms and a crescent- shaped sound box. It almost probably originated from Mesopotamia. While it seems to have been common in Homer’s day, accompanying the rhapsodes, it was supplanted in historical times by the seven-stringed kithara. Despite being a descendant of the lyre and a forefather of kitharis, it was the first ancient instrument that ancient Greeks introduced a basic spring mechanism for a richer sound and a “sweet” vibrato effect.””