The lotus-eaters of Greek mythology lived on the sandbanks of waters near Carthage and ate the fruit of the lotus. There is still some argument about what was meant by the “lotus” they ate, but the plants were thought to have roots in the underworld and so drew water from the river Lethe. That water had the power to remove all memories.
The lotus-eaters (Lotophagi) who arrived there lived in an idle, paralyzed, trance-like state with no recollection of the past nor concept of the future and with no desire to return to their native lands. Reading about them, it sounded not unlike some older people today living in the strange worlds of senility and in our retirement villages.
You might have discovered the lotus-eaters as I did, in the tales of Odysseus. When he was sailing home, he landed on one of those sandbanks and sent a few men out to explore. The men discovered the Lotophagi, ate their fruit and fell into the same twilight state of idle paralysis. Odysseus had to drag them back to their ship as they pleaded to be left behind.
There certainly were examples in ancient religions of plants and substances being used in rituals and ceremonies: Soma in the Bhagavad Gita, Huoma in pre-Zoroastrian Persia, and the Manna of the Bible which fell from heaven.
The blue lotus (AKA lily of the Nile) was a psychedelic plant used by ancient Egyptian high priests. It is referenced in the oldest recorded story known to man, the tale of Gilgamesh. Is that the plant Homer’s lotus-eaters were using?
Idleness can be quite addictive even without drugs. I thought a lot about retirement n the years before it became my reality. A lot of my friends are now retired. One thing we seem to have in common is a fear of becoming lotus-eaters – a fear of just becoming mind-numbingly idle.
Now, after a bad work day, the thought of just “doing nothing” is very appealing. I have some lotus-eater kinds of days when I feel like I have done nothing. But when I think about the day, I wasn’t really idle. I was reading and writing and working in the garden and taking a walk and taking some photos and communicating with people online and in person. But I didn’t do what I once defined as “work.”
One of the dangers if you are unprepared for retirement is that you become idle. You need a plan. When a car is idling, it isn’t going anywhere. You need to get in gear and get moving, though even a machine needs to rest and be idle at times.
Maybe that is why I keep so many To Do lists. They remind me that I have things to do. They also remind me in their undoneness of times when I am idle.
I visited someone a few years ago who had newly arrived at a retirement community. there was much of a lotus-eater feel to the place. No one seemed to be doing anything, but no one seemed to be looking for something to do.
Is it apathy? I think about it at times, such as when it’s time to eat and I am hungry but there is nothing I want to eat. I’ll eat almost anything you put in front of me to fill myself, but I don’t want anything, and I don’t even want to think about it. What if that becomes my attitude to everything?
In my online research, I found the island of Djerba which the legend says is the island of the Lotus-Eaters where Odysseus was stranded on his voyage through the Mediterranean. One of the vacation photos I saw showed a nude woman being misted at a spa and she looked blissed out.
But Odysseus would not recognize the island. I saw a coffeehouse on Djerba where I might sit and chill out, but it is just down the street from the Yasmine Shopping Center. How much of a lotus-eater would I be there drinking a powerful Tunisian coffee? Would I end up walking to the shopping center? Is there a lotus-eater cafe?
Homer set Ulysses’ sailing buddies onto a sandy beach to have them become seduced by un-mindfulness. There is something about the beach that does that. On vacations, my mind often can’t turn off. I’m looking for something to do, to read, to eat or drink, a place to go. But on beaches, I can actually turn off my brain. What is it? The sound of the ocean, the sand, salty air, warm breeze, the heat of the Sun, women without much clothing?
In his 1833 poem “Song of the Lotos-Eaters,” Alfred Tennyson used this myth to explore our desire to reject the work world for a state of idleness:
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep…
It sounds pretty sweet, but I think I would need someone nearby to drag me back to the ship after a time. I can’t help thinking that I have things to do and miles to go before I end my odyssey.