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Nepenthe /nɪˈpɛnθi/ (Ancient Greek: νηπενθές, nēpenthés) is a fictional[dubious ] 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-, nē-, i.e. "not" (privative prefix),[3] and πενθές, from πένθος, pénthos, i.e. "grief, sorrow, or mourning".[4]

In the Odyssey, νηπενθές φάρμακον : nēpenthés phármakon (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 the passage cited above 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 problem with identifying the drug as opium, however, is that by the time of Homer, it already had a long history of use by the Greeks, whereas nepenthe was something unknown to them.[citation needed]


  1. ^ νηπενθές. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. ^ Homer (1919). "4.219-221". Odyssey. Translated by Murray, A.T.; from Homer. Odyssey (in Greek) – via 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.