In Greek myth
In the story the Odyssey, Hermes gave this herb to Odysseus to protect him from Circe's wizardry when he went to her palace to rescue his friends. These friends came together with him from the island Aeolus after they escaped from the Laestrygonians.
According to the "New History" of Ptolemy Hephaestion (according to Photius) and Eustathius, the plant mentioned by Homer grew from the blood of the Giant Picolous killed on Circe's island, by Helios, father and ally of Circe, when the Giant tried to attack Circe. In this description the flower was white, either after the white Sun that killed him, or the fact that Circe grew pale of terror, and a derivation of the name was given, from the "hard" (Greek malos) combat with the Giant.
Homer also describes Moly by saying "The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly, Dangerous for a mortal man to pluck from the soil, but not for the deathless gods. All lies within their power". So Ovid describes in book 14 of his Metamorphoses - "A white bloom with a root of black".
Assignment to a real species
There has been much controversy as to the identification. Philippe Champault decides in favour of the Peganum harmala (of the order Rutaceae), the Syrian or African rue (Greek πἠγανον), from the husks of which the vegetable alkaloid harmaline is extracted. The flowers are white with green stripes. Victor Bérard relying partly on a Semitic root, prefers the Atriplex halimus (atriplex, a Latin form of Greek ἀτράφαξυς, and ἅλιμος, marine), order Chenopodiaceae, a herb or low shrub common on the south European coasts. These identifications are noticed by R. M. Henry, who illustrates the Homeric account by passages in the Paris and Leiden magical papyri, and argues that moly is probably a magical name, derived perhaps from Phoenician or Egyptian sources, for a plant which cannot be certainly identified. He shows that the "difficulty of pulling up" the plant is not a merely physical one, but rather connected with the peculiar powers claimed by magicians.
Medical historians have speculated that the transformation to pigs was not intended literally but refers to anticholinergic intoxication. Symptoms include amnesia, hallucinations, and delusions - this description of "moly" fits the snowdrop, a flower of the region that contains galantamine, which is an anticholinesterase and can therefore counteract anticholinergics.
In other works
- In Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters, the moly is coupled with the amaranth ("propt on beds of amaranth and moly").
- Carl Linnaeus referenced the mythical plant with Allium moly, the scientific name for golden garlic, though the perianth of this species is yellow, not white.
- Thom Gunn made his poem 'Moly' the title poem of his 1971 collection. See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52888/moly
- In the Harry Potter universe, moly is a powerful plant that can be eaten to counteract enchantments.
- John Milton referred to "...that Moly/That Hermes once to wise Ulysses gave" in lines 636 and 637 of the Mask Performed at Ludlow Castle, also known as Comus. See https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/comus/text.shtml.
- In Ursula K. Le Guin's, The Farthest Shore, the true names of the moly plant are taught to students of Roke, “Now the petal of the flower of moly hath a name, which is iebera, and so also the sepal, which is partonath; and stem and leaf and root hath each his name..."
- Chisholm 1911, p. 681 cites: Homer, Odyssey, x. 302–306.
- Chisholm 1911, p. 681.
- HELIUS : Greek Titan god of the sun
- Rahner, Hugo. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery New York. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. 1971. pg. 204
- Homer & Butler 1898, Book X.
- Chisholm 1911, p. 681 cites: Phéniciens et Grecs en Italie d'après l'Odyssée (1906), pp. 504 seq.
- Chisholm 1911, p. 681 cites: Victor Bérard Les Phéniciens et l'Odyssee, ii. 288 seq.
- Chisholm 1911, p. 681 cites: R. M. Henry Class. Rev. (Dec. 1906), p. 434.
- Andreas Plaitakis & Roger C. Duvoisin (1983). "Homer's moly identified as Galanthus nivalis L.: physiologic antidote to stramonium poisoning". Clinical Neuropharmacology. 6 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1097/00002826-198303000-00001. PMID 6342763.