Sunday, July 7, 2019

Puzzled about nepenthe

An answer in this morning’s Weekend Edition Sunday Puzzle, “Power of the Pen,” started me thinking. Will Shortz’s puzzle asked for words containing the accented syllable pen. Terrific? StuPENdous. Got it.

The word that started me thinking: nepenthe, which Shortz clued as “drug of forgetfulness in the Odyssey.” The word in the Odyssey is νηπενθής [nēpenthes] which means “banishing pain and sorrow.” The word joins νη- [nē-], meaning “not,” and πένθος [penthos], meaning “grief, sorrow.” The word νηπενθής appears in Odyssey 4, line 221, where it describes a substance that Helen places in the wine as her husband Menelaus, Odysseus’s son Telemachus, and Nestor’s son Peisistratus weep for the lives lost in the Trojan War. What Helen places in the wine though is a drug: a φάρμακον [pharmakon].

Today’s contestant, who said he’d read the Odyssey, did not know nepenthe. Nor did it come to my mind as the name of a substance. The drugs named in the Odyssey are magical plants: lotus and moly. None of the Big Four translations of the Odyssey include nepenthe as a name:

Robert Fitzgerald (1961): Helen drops into the wine “an anodyne, mild magic of forgetfulness.”

Richmond Lattimore (1967): Helen casts into the wine “a medicine / of heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows.” (Hearts ease, or heart’s ease, is a traditional medicinal flower.)

Robert Fagles (1996): Helen slips in “a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger, / magic to make us forget all out pains.”

Stanley Lombardo (2000): Helen throws into the wine “a drug / That stilled all pain, quieted all anger, / And brought forgetfulness of every ill.”

How did nepenthe make its way into today’s Sunday Puzzle? My guess is that Will Shortz has many lists of words, searchable in many ways, and thus found this word. I suspect that what’s at work here is the kind of out-of-one’s-element moment that turned Mel Tormé into a “cool jazz pioneer.” I doubt that someone better acquainted with the Odyssey would have chosen nepenthe for today’s puzzle. But I could be wrong.

Related reading
All OCA Homer posts (Pinboard)

[The Big Four: my term for recent American translators of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. I’ll add that nepenthe does not appear in Peter Green’s and Emily Wilson’s 2018 translations of the Odyssey. In writing this post I relied upon the Perseus Digital Library’s text of Lidell and Scott’s A Greek–English Lexicon.]

comments: 6

Elaine said...

Down in The Big Sur there is a restaurant named Nepenthe...it was used as Elizabeth Taylor's home in the movie 'The Sandpiper.' Beautiful spot! That is my association for the word.

Michael Leddy said...

Wow — the online photos suggest it’s well-named. Helen would appreciate their ample wine list. :)

brownstudy said...

My association is Poe's "The Raven". I have no idea why I remember that the word appears there.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

Michael Leddy said...

That’s great — I’ll have to read that poem again.

brownstudy said...

For whatever reason, I remember Poe most from my jr high English teacher who had a thing for Poe; I think we spent two weeks listening to Basil Rathbone reading Poe stories and we read aloud "The Raven", "The Bells", and similar poems. We locked in to those forceful rhythms and onomatopoeia.

One of my college English professors, who had a kind of snorty chortle when he laughed through his nose, during our survey of 18th and 19th century American literature, said, "I'd talk about the poems of Edgar Allen Poe but I don't want to get into stand-up comedy" (snort, chortle, snort).

Michael Leddy said...

A gateway writer, for sure. No need for that prof’s snobbery.

One of the first books I ever bought outside a school book fair was Poe, Great Tales and Poems, 45¢. I still have it.