Jonathan Braun CI 100A
Possible Purpose of the Egyptian Tangent
(Odyssey) P. 131 [252—61]
So cunning the drugs that Zeus’s daughter plied,
potent gifts from Polydamna the wife of Thon,
a woman of Egypt, land where the teeming soil
bears the richest yield of herbs in all the world;
many health itself when mixed in the wine,
and many deadly poison.
Every man is a healer there, more skilled
than any other men on earth—Egyptians born
of the healing god himself.
Why did Homer choose to dedicate a tangent about Egyptian medicine (and at times bring up Egypt’s neighbor Ethiopia)? Both are far off lands that have little or no significance to the rest of the story. He obviously found this information significant and interesting enough to include. I think he wanted to create an impression of their cultures for the listeners of The Odyssey. Just as TV gives modern society perceptions about other cultures, this passage seems to be an ancient example of this same process. Homer’s tone in this passage comes across as lively, praiseworthy (skilled), and even almost advertised (…land where the teeming soil bears the richest yield of herbs in all the world), all common ways of capturing people’s attention to better instill a message, in this case, favoring the Egyptians.
But why would Homer want to create a kind of impression like this? One possibility is that he wanted the Greek people to respect the Egyptians for their skills in medicine. Another is that he learned about Egyptian medicine and took enough liking to it to include it in this poem—more for his own pleasure. A third, but unlikely possibility is that he made the information up (unlikely, in my opinion, because Homer was obviously educated and probably had learned this about the Egyptians in his schooling).
The reason I wrote about this passage is because when I read it, something in me sparked and I felt that the information seemed not at all necessary and almost forced-in by Homer. It can be assumed that he did it for a reason (unless of course, he was having a dashing time on some herbs himself and simply felt a psychedelic calling to talk herbs from a far off land). I have a strange feeling that Homer supported the use of such drugs (in the instance in this book, psychological drugs—to “make us all forget our pains”(p. 131)—not simply medicinal drugs).