From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Nepenthe /nɪˈpɛnθ/ (Ancient Greek: νηπενθές, nēpenthés) is a fictional medicine for sorrow – 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.

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, 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.

Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides believed nepenthe to be the medicinal herb Borage.[citation needed] In modern times prior to the 20th Century it was accepted that Indian Hemp was the nepenthe.[5] Quoting this passage in his 2015 novel Boussole (Compass), French writer Mathias Énard identifies nepenthe with opium.[6] Likewise, in Forbidden Drugs, Philip Robson writes: "What else could Helen of Troy’s nepenthe have been but opium?"[7] The issue with the identification of opium, however, is that by the time of Homer the Greeks already had a long history of its use, and nepenthe was something unknown.


  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. ^ "The American cyclopaedia: a popular dictionary of general knowledge. Edited by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana : Ripley, George, 1802-1880 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
  6. ^ Compass, trans. Charlotte Mandell (NY: New Directions, 2017), pp. 73–74.
  7. ^ Philip Robson (1999). Forbidden Drugs. Oxford University Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-19-262955-5.