Soon after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his fleet make landfall at a sleepy backwater port which is the Land of the Lotus Eaters.
The Land of the Lotos Eaters straddles two worlds. Odysseus, a great war hero, is leaving the competitive, combative, outer-directed and ego-oriented realm of The Iliad, centered on conquests, one-upmanship and material accomplishments. This is the world that we know.
He could continue on as he has, business as usual, sacking cities and claiming treasure, expanding his reputation and influence, and getting very rich. If he did nothing more in his life, Odysseus would still be remembered as famous and successful, the shrewdest of the Greeks at Troy. He could rest on his laurels. We would still be reading about him, although perhaps not with such consequence.
Or he can change direction and head for Home; this is the difficult inner journey toward a deepening of meaning, and toward who he really is supposed to be – king and husband and father – and what he really wants.
Lotos Land is at the fork in the road. It is where the people who can’t decide which way to go get stuck.
Lotos Eaters are an easygoing, no-hassle, copacetic tribe that goes with the warm-and-fuzzy flow. They are the first counter-culture in Western culture.
But underneath their super-languid persona, they have a dark secret: they are drug addicts, hooked on a herb called lotos. And they are pushers too: they share their noxious weed with the sailors Odysseus has sent ashore.
When he hears that his men have taken lotos, Odysseus storms off his ship, furious, a one-man shore patrol. He collects his stoned, disoriented sailors. He lashes them to the ship’s rowing benches (for they fight hard to stay in Lotos Land), and they urgently sail on.
Why does lotos stall the journey? Why is Odysseus so alarmed?
Lotos is not just some mellow herbal tea. It’s a potent narcotic that triggers a specific, disastrous amnesia: everyone who takes lotos loses all memory of Home.
What’s the big deal?
Home is where the heart is of course, the place where you are most at-home in the world; it is the place, safe ‘beyond the reach of the perils of wayfaring’, where you are not a stranger, where your most private struggles are known and understood, and where you are seen and appreciated for your special virtues, your own unique powers. Home, at essence, is where you are recognized for who you really are, not more and not less. When you make yourself at home, you show your true nature, no matter where you are.
Home is not only the world that knows you, but it’s where you can recognize the world for what it is, where you can see clearly without exaggeration or distortion, inflation and deflation. Free from pretense, you can see past appearances, past roles and titles, past your fears and projections and defenses to glimpse someone’s else’s true nature. Home is where you can get out of your own way.
From the perspective of the psyche, each traveler holds deep in the soul the knowledge of the place where he or she is most real, most easily seen for who one is, and where he or she need not pretend to be more or different than that. That place, of course, is your true Home.
For Odysseus, Home is the small, rocky island of Ithaca where his beloved wife and soul mate Penelope awaits, and so does his real life as king and husband and father. Homer’s principal epithet for Ithaca is ‘clear-seen’: it is the place where one sees and is seen clearly.
Until he gets there, no matter how edifying his travels, no matter how welcoming and supporting the natives no matter how divine the goddesses along the way, Odysseus is everywhere a foreigner, a refugee from the wars. Later on, Calypso is the hostess with the mostess, and the Phaecians sing Odysseus’ praises, both ask him to stay on and mean it, but he is not at-home even in their fulsome care. Each new stop means an alien nation where he is, at least in part, not quite known or knowable.
The psychologist Carl Jung called this very sort of journey home individuation, the arduous journey to ‘divest the self of false wrappings’, as he put it, so as to engage and express the true self. ‘Individuation, Jung wrote, ‘is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is’, so that he fulfills a particular calling which is distinctively his own.
If home is the place where you are most yourself, then the distance between who youare pretending to be, your ‘false wrappings’ as Jung has it, and who you really are, is how far you are from home. For Odysseus it is a long and difficult trip.