In Greek mythology, the Lotophagi (Greek Λωτοφάγοι, lotus-eaters) were a race of people from an island near Northern Africa dominated by "lotus" plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary foodstuff of the island and were narcotic, causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy.
The relevant part from the Odyssey (Book IX, translated by Samuel Butler):
- "I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."
Which "lotus" did the Lotus-eaters eat?
The Greek word lôtos can refer to several different plants:
- a fodder plant such as clover, Trifolium fragiferum; the fellbloom, Lotus corniculatus; a fenugreek or melilot, Trigonella species; the Italian melilot, Melilotus messanensis; or Medicago arborea
- a water-lily, either Nymphaea lotus, Nymphaea stellata, or Nelumbo nucifera (formerly known as Nymphaea nelumbo)
- the nettle-tree, Celtis australis
- Ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube
It is the last of these, or another member of genus Ziziphus, that is traditionally taken to be the plant meant in the Odyssey .
Recent studies have shown that the blue water-lily of the Nile, Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the blue lotus (already known under this name to the Greeks), is a stronger candidate. It can be processed to be used as a soporific and in some formulations has psychedelic properties. It is very common in Egyptian iconography which suggests its use in a religious context.
Where is the island of the Lotus-eaters?
The island of the Lotophagi may be the modern Djerba. It is a likely candidate because there are very few islands on the North African coast; however, Herodotus says that the Lotophagi live on a peninsula, not an island.