Amnesia & The odyssey
The Odyssey, a twelve thousand line poem spanning years of Ancient Greek history, religion, and mythology has long been regarded as merely fictitious. However, the mention of certain herbs in the prodigious story has suggested the possibility that there may be a hidden scientific reality.
In a chapter of the Odyssey, Odysseus (the protagonist of the story) and his crew found themselves on the mysterious island of Aeaea. In the story, Aeaea is a Greek island located near the Greek coast and surrounded by the Mediterranean sea. Whilst desperately searching for food and resources on the island, Odysseus’s crew stumbled upon a palatial home. Little did they know that the home belonged to the sorceress Circe, fabled daughter of the goddess of magic. As the crew entered Circe’s home, Circe welcomed them with a feast. She made them a potion of cheese, barley meal, and yellow honey, but she had also mixed the food with baneful drugs that would cause the crew to suffer a sort of amnesia that led them to forget their native land. After consuming the drug, the crew also suffered a degree of hallucination where they perceived one another as pigs. Coincidently, scientific findings have discovered that a similar herb was present on a Mediterranean island. The herb was scientifically known as Datura stramonium and is commonly known as Jimson Weed, whose effects include pronounced amnesia as well as hallucinations, resulting from the difficulty to distinguish imagination from reality. This suggests that Circe was no sorcerer and in fact a resourceful chemist who knew how to utilize local plants. Now let's delve into the scientific details of the herb and how its fascinating components are capable of causing amnesia.
The Jimson weed is a herb that possesses high concentrations of anticholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These chemical compounds have the capacity to block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. Out of the three chemicals, scopolamine is the most powerful in creating hallucinating effects due to its ability to cross the blood brain barrier most efficiently. By interacting with the acetylcholine neurotransmitter, scopolamine actively disrupts the neurotransmitter’s ability to provide a cholinergic neural pathway from the basal forebrain to the cortex and thalamus. These specific regions in the brain are highly important in controlling an individual's state of consciousness. As consciousness gives a sense of reality to stimuli, the destruction of some of its principle mechanisms would cause the individual to be likened to the state that occurs during dreaming and the infected individual would no longer be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. According to Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf, ‘patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious’.Prolonged usage of the herb would eventually cause
amnesia. Little research has demonstrated the degree of amnesia that is caused by the herb, however, its chemical capacities are known to be more dangerous than those of psilocybin or LSD.
Nevertheless, Jimson weed is not the only herb found in the Odyssey. While Odysseus’s crew was trapped in Circe’s home, the god Hermes arrived and informed Odysseus about his crew’s trouble. Hermes recommended a herb for Odysseus to consume before he went into Circe’s home and he claimed that the herb was a protective plant that will inhibit the effects of Circe’s ‘magic’. Based on Homer’s description of the plant, it has been regarded by experts that the herb was Galanthus, or more commonly known as the snowdrop plant.
"So saying, [Hermes] gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature. At the root it was black, but its flower was like milk. Moly the gods call it, and it is hard for mortal men to dig; but with the gods all things are possible."
The perception that the plant described in the Odyssey was the snowdrop plant was discovered by neurologists Andreas Plaitakis from Mount Sinai school of medicine and Roger Duvoisin from Rutgers Medical school. The two neurologists based their evidence on the fact that the herb was discovered in Greece, its physical appearance is identical to Homer’s description, and that the herb was an antidote to Jimson weed. Snowdrop contains galamintine, a chemical which acts as an antidote to Jimson weed by producing a lasting protection that inhibits the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from being blocked by Jimson weed’s anticholinergic alkaloids.
In addition, further evidence that suggests that the herb Homer depicted was Snowdrop was demonstrated by two Russian scientists, Mikhail Mashkovsky and Rita Kruglikova - Lvova, during the Cold War. The two scientists had performed an experiment by extracting galamintine from Snowdrop and injecting them into the muscles of frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and the brains of rats. This experiment proved galamintine could protect neurotransmitters from being damaged by various toxins. The chemical extracted from Snowdrop still has relevance until this day as it has been used to battle diseases such as Alzheimer's. This suggests that the Odyssey did not only teach individuals about myths and folklore, but also science.
Kaplan, Matt. Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers. Scribner, 17 Oct. 2015.
“Slivers of Science in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey.’” Discover Magazine, www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/slivers-of-science-in-homers-the-odyssey.
“The Science behind the Myth: Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ - Matt Kaplan.” YouTube, 10 Nov. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVo225pUaSA&t=164s.
of the Genus Datura.” Cms.Herbalgram.Org, cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue69/article2930.html?ts=1588677715&signature=7637ecbd2621c52c8adc2830a3ff018d&ts=1589466593&signature=eeb9b5b90e3f263aeb4706834b4d42a9.
Written by: Nabhiraks (Jade) Bhakdibhumi, Grad 21 student from Bangkok Patana School