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Custom and Myth

Page: 54

So much for mandragora, which, like the healing potato, has to be acquired stealthily and with peril. Now let us examine the Homeric herb moly. The plant is thus introduced by Homer: In the tenth book of the ‘Odyssey,’ Circe has turned Odysseus’s men into swine. He sets forth to rescue them, trusting only to his sword. The god Hermes meets him, and offers him ‘a charmed herb,’ ‘this herb of grace’ (φαρμακον εσθλον) whereby he may subdue the magic wiles of Circe.

The plant is described by Homer with some minuteness. ‘It was black at the root, but the flower was like to milk. “Moly,” the gods call it, but it is hard for mortal men to dig, howbeit with the gods all things are possible.’ The etymologies given of ‘moly’ are almost as numerous as the etymologists. One derivation, from the old ‘Turanian’ tongue of Accadia, will be examined later. The Scholiast offers the derivation ‘μωλυειν, to make charms of no avail’; but this is exactly like Professor Blackie’s etymological discovery that Erinys is derived from ερινυειν: ‘he might as well derive critic from criticise.’ {148} The Scholiast adds that moly caused death to the person who dragged it out of the ground. This identification of moly with mandrake is probably based on Homer’s remark that moly is ‘hard to dig.’ The black root and white flower of moly are quite unlike the yellow flower and white fleshy root ascribed by Pliny to mandrake. Only confusion is caused by regarding the two magical herbs as identical.

But why are any herbs or roots magical? While some scholars, like De Gubernatis, seek an explanation in supposed myths about clouds and stars, it is enough for our purpose to observe that herbs really have medicinal properties, and that untutored people invariably confound medicine with magic. A plant or root is thought to possess virtue, not only when swallowed in powder or decoction, but when carried in the hand. St. John’s wort and rowan berries, like the Homeric moly, still ‘make evil charms of none avail;’

Rowan, ash, and red threed
Keep the devils from their speed,

says the Scotch rhyme. Any fanciful resemblance of leaf or flower or root to a portion of the human body, any analogy based on colour, will give a plant reputation for magical virtues. This habit of mind survives from the savage condition. The Hottentots are great herbalists. Like the Greeks, like the Germans, they expect supernatural aid from plants and roots. Mr. Hahn, in his ‘Tsui Goam, the Supreme Being of the Khoi Khoi’ (p. 82), gives the following examples:—


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