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Witchy Woman

Power, Drugs, and Memory in the Odyssey

By Marissa Henry

Abstract: In the Odyssey of Homer, one recurring trope is the use of drugs by one character to gain power over another. The two most prominent examples of the trope are Helen and Circe. Helen uses a drug to assuage the grief of Telemachos, while Circe tries to use drugs to seduce and capture Odysseus and his men. Both drugs are described as causing men to forget their homes. At the same time, Helen uses rhetoric to rewrite history, and Circe is mysteriously able to narrate Odysseus’s future. A comparison of the two incidents, and of the women’s other deceptive actions, reveals that these memory-altering drugs are part of a more general pattern of divine women having the ability to manipulate reality, along with the constant threat their beauty poses to the familial stability of mortal men. When the analysis is broadened to include other uses of drugs in the poem—those of the Lotus-Eaters and of Odysseus—their significance becomes more complex. They are associated with the danger of forgetting family, but also with godlike powers forbidden to mortals, and, finally, with the sort of deceitful intelligence and dishonorable fighting techniques employed equally by Helen, Circe, and Odysseus. Thus, an analysis of the instances of drugs in the poem reveals unexpected ideas about the protagonist. His position on the continuum between men and gods, and between male and female, becomes oddly unstable.

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