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Nepenthe /nɪˈpɛnθ/ (Ancient Greek: νηπενθές) is a fictional medicine for sorrow, literally an anti-depressant – a "drug of forgetfulness" mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology, depicted as originating in Egypt.[1]

The carnivorous plant genus Nepenthes is named after the drug nepenthe.

Description in the Odyssey[edit]

The word nepenthe first appears in the fourth book of Homer's Odyssey:

ἔνθ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἄλλ᾽ ἐνόησ᾽ Ἑλένη Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα:
αὐτίκ᾽ ἄρ᾽ εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον,
νηπενθές τ᾽ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων.

Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.

Odyssey, Book 4, v. 219–221[2]

Figuratively, nepenthe means "that which chases away sorrow". Literally it means 'not-sorrow' or 'anti-sorrow': νη-, ne-, i.e. "not" (privative prefix),[3] and πενθές, from πένθος, penthos, i.e. "grief, sorrow, or mourning".[4] In the Odyssey, in the passage quoted above, nepenthes pharmakon (i.e. an anti-sorrow drug) is a magical potion given to Helen by Polydamna the wife of the noble Egyptian Thon; it quells all sorrows with forgetfulness. Quoting this passage in his 2015 novel Boussole (Compass), French writer Mathias Énard identifies nepenthe with opium.[5] Likewise, in Forbidden Drugs, Philip Robson, Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, writes: "What else could Helen of Troy’s nepenthe have been but opium?"[6]

In culture[edit]

  • In the Incubus song "Calgone", on their S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album, it is referenced in the hopes of forgetting the day's series of negative events, "I heard a voice say, come sail aboard S.S. Nepenthe!"
  • Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe is the fourth track on the album The Magic Garden by pop/soul group The 5th Dimension.
  • In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, book 4, canto 3, the effect of the drink is extended: "such as drinck, eternall happinesse do fynd" (verse 43). Spenser likens Nepenthe to the magic potion from Ariosto's Orlando furioso.
  • Erasmus mentions Nepenthe in the opening paragraphs of In Praise of Folly.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven": "Quaff, oh quaff this kind Nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
  • In Chapter Four, "The Interview", of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth administers a soothing medicine to the sickly infant Pearl, saying to Hester Prynne: "I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe ... but I have learned many new secrets in the wilderness ... Drink it! It may be less soothing than a sinless conscience. That I cannot give thee. But it will calm the swell and heaving of thy passion, like oil thrown on the waves of a tempestuous sea."
  • Norman Douglas's novel "South Wind" takes place on a fictional island named Nepenthe, which seems to exert a drug-like effect on the residents.
  • Sentenced's song "Nepenthe" revolves around the wish to forget via alcoholic means "All the tears and the fears and the lies and the cries of the past."
  • Uttered during host segment 1 by Bill Corbett's character Brain Guy in Season 9, Episode 1 (The Projected Man) of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a protective invocation against angry ghosts, which turned out to be the howling hunger-pangs of Kevin Murphy's character Professor Bobo.
  • The band Opeth wrote a song called "Nepenthe" on their album Heritage.
  • In H.P. Lovecraft's "The Outsider", "But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe." and "For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men."
  • Kostas Karyotakis' second poetry collection was called "Nepenthe".
  • Adam Lindsay Gordon's Ye Wearie Wayfarer refers to "respite and nepenthe bringing" (verse 22)
  • In Shelley's Prometheus Unbound the Spirit of the Hour invokes nepenthe in a description of the earthly effects of the liberation of Prometheus (Act 2, Scene 4, Verse 61).
  • American singer-songwriter Julianna Barwick's second album is called Nepenthe.
  • Producer Seven Lions wrote a song called "Nepenthe" on his EP Worlds Apart.
  • The protagonist of the movie Equilibrium at one point refers to Prozium, a plot-crucial drug, as "The great nepenthe. Opiate of our masses."
  • The album, Fresh Aire VI, by Mannheim Steamroller, includes a song titled "Nepenthe".
  • "Lethe," a poem in Les Fleurs du mal by French poet, Charles Baudelaire contains the line "Come; I would drink Nepenthe and long rest."
  • James A. Michener's The Drifters (p 629), "And Ilha de Moçambique exceeded their hopes. It was nepentheland, an enclave in history where days drifted by under a flawless sun, beside a controlled sea."
  • In The Sandpiper, directed by Vincente Minnelli and set in Big Sur, California, Elizabeth Taylor ("Laura") and Richard Burton ("Edward") approach a table in a club, which resembles the restaurant Nepenthe. James Edwards ("Larry") tells them, "We were just discussing the meaning of the word 'nepenthe.'" The discussion ends when Charles Bronson ("Cos") asks if one can "...find it at the end of a...needle?" Nepenthe and the wish/search for it seems to be the theme of the movie.
  • In Watchmen, Sally Jupiter, the first Silk Spectre, has retired to Nepenthe Gardens Rest Resort.
  • In the Showcase series Lost Girl, Nepenthe is depicted and referred to as cannabis by Kris Holden-Ried playing the Cowardly Lion in a dream. It is said to be the Greek drug of forgetfulness.


  1. ^ νηπενθές. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. ^ Homer; Murray, A.T. (translator) (1919). "4.219-221". Odyssey. "4.219-221". Homer, Odyssey (in Greek). At the Perseus Project.
  3. ^ νη-. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  4. ^ πένθος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  5. ^ Compass, trans. Charlotte Mandell (NY: New Directions, 2017), pp. 73–74.
  6. ^ Philip Robson (1999). Forbidden Drugs. Oxford University Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-19-262955-5.