The Lotus Eaters, or Lotophagi, are a group of people described in the Greek epic The Odyssey. Odysseus and his crew encounter them in Book Nine, and while their encounter is brief, it is memorable. These people have so captivated generations of readers that they have appeared in numerous works of art from poems to paintings, and they are sometimes referenced in popular culture.
According to legend, the Lotus Eaters live on an island off the coast of North Africa. While several intrepid historians have tried to locate the site of the island, they have yet to find a location which matches the description in The Odyssey. The Lotophagi feed on a soporific plant which causes them to forget their homelands and live apathetic, uncaring lives. Their diet causes them to be sleepy and languid, as well as disinterested in the world around them.
There is some discussion as to what the Lotus Eaters actually ate. In some translations, they are described as the Lotos Eaters, which muddies the waters a bit, as the Greeks used the term “lotos” to discuss several edible plants. While they could have eaten the roots, fruit, or flowers of water lotuses, they might also have eaten dates, persimmons, jujubes, or several other plants, none of which are known to be particularly narcotic.
When Odysseus encounters the Lotus Eaters, some of his crew famously partake of the food, and they express a desire to stay on the island. Odysseus is forced to drag the members of the crew back to the ship, “weeping bitterly,” and they are chained to the benches until the ship gets away. No doubt the memories of the delicious and intoxicating fruit haunted the crew for the rest of their lives. If this epic poem is taken as a recounting of true events, perhaps Odysseus fudged the location of the island a little to ensure that no one else was ensnared by the Lotus Eaters.
The Island of the Lotus Eaters turns up again and again in songs, stories, and myths, suggesting that the idea has a powerful influence on us even today. Some form of this legend has popped up in locations as varied as Star Trek, Brave New World, and The Lotos-Eaters, a famous Tennyson poem.