The Odyssey
Circe : Illustration from Tanglewood Tales

'Moly' is the herb Hermes gives to Odysseus to protect him from the enchantment of Circe, who has already turned twelve of his crewmen into swine (Book 10 of The Odyssey). Commentators on the Odyssey have expended energy on trying to identify the herb 'moly': this essay expands on one man's idea of what 'moly' actually represents (its reality, rather than its appearance, or, to give the thing a Platonic gloss, its Idea). At the same time, we might check the ubiquitous impulse to go look for it in the 'real' world, and instead begin philosophy by asking what is the 'real' world.

Moly is a mythical herb that protects man from the Nymph.


When Odysseus was walking swiftly, with rage in his heart, through the island of Circe, to find out what had befallen his companions, he would have assuredly gone to his doom in the great stone house of the witch, the smoke of which went up among the thickets, if Hermes had not met him.

The God came in the likeness of a beautiful youth with the first down of manhood upon his lips. He chid the much-enduring one for his rash haste, and gave him what we should call not very good advice; but he also gave him something which was worth more than any good advice, a charm which should prevail against the spells of the Nymph, which he might carry in his bosom and be unscathed.

It was an ugly enough herb, a prickly plant which sprawled low in the shadow of the trees. Its root was black, and it had a milk- white flower; the Gods called it Moly, and no mortal strength could avail to pull it from the soil; but as Odysseus says, telling the story, "There is nothing which the Gods cannot do"; and it came up easily enough at the touch of the beardless youth. We know how the spell worked, how Odysseus rescued his companions, and how Circe told him the way to the regions of the dead; but even so he did not wholly escape from her evil enchantment!


No one knows what the herb Moly really was; some say it was the mandrake, that plant of darkness, which was thought to bear a dreadful resemblance, in its pale swollen stalk and outstretched arms, to a tortured human form, and to utter moans as it was dragged from the soil; but later on it was used as the name for a kind of garlic, employed as a flavouring for highly-spiced salads. The Greeks were not, it seems, very scientific botanists, so far as nomenclature went, and applied any name that was handy to any plant that struck their fancy. They believed, no doubt, that things had secret and intimate names of their own, which were known perhaps to the Gods, but that men must just call them what they could.

It would be best perhaps to leave the old allegory to speak for itself, because poetical thoughts are often mishandled, and suffer base transformation at the hands of interpreters; but for all that, it is a pretty trade to expound things seen in dreams and visions, or obscurely detected out of the corner of the eye in magical places; while the best of really poetical things is that they have a hundred mystical interpretations, none of which is perhaps the right one; because the poet sees things in a flash, and describes his visions, without knowing what they mean, or indeed if they have any meaning at all.

A place like a university, where one alights for an adventure, in the course of a long voyage, is in many ways like the island of Circe. There is the great stone mansion with its shining doors and guarded cloisters. It is a place of many enchantments and various delights. There are mysterious people going to and fro, whose business it is hard to discern: there are plenty of bowls and dishes, and water pleasantly warmed for the bath. Circe herself had a private life of her own, and much curious information: she was not for ever turning people into pigs; and indeed why she did it at all is not easy to discover! It amused her, and she felt more secure, perhaps, when her visitors were safely housed, grunting and splashing about together. One must not press an allegory too closely, but in any place where human beings consort, there is always some turning of men into pigs, even if they afterwards resume their shape again, and shed tears of relief at the change.


My purpose here is to speculate a little upon what the herb Moly can be, how it can be found and used. Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, is always ready to pull it up for anyone who really requires it. And just because "the isle," as Shakespeare says, "is full of noises--sounds and sweet airs," it is a matter of concern to know which of them "give delight and hurt not," and which of them lead only to manger and sty. My discourse is not planned in a spirit of heavy rectitude, or from any desire to shower good advice about, as from a pepper-pot. Indeed, I believe that there are many things in the correct conventional code which are very futile and grotesque; some which are directly hurtful; and further, that there are many things quite outside the code which are both fine and beautiful; because the danger of all civilised societies is that the members of it take the prevailing code for granted; do not trouble to think what it means, accept it as the way of life, and walk contentedly enough, like the beetle in the bone, which, as we know, can neither turn nor miss its way.

To fall feebly into the conventions of a place takes away all the joyful spirit of adventure; but the little island set in the ocean, with its loud sea-beaches, its upstanding promontories, its wooded glades, its open spaces, and above all the great house standing among its lawns, is a place of adventure above everything, with unknown forces at work, untamed emotions, swift currents of thought, many choices, strange delights; and then there is the shadowy sea beyond, with all its crested billows rolling in, and other islands looming out beyond the breakers, at which the ship may touch, before it finds its way to the regions of death and silence.

I myself had my own time of adventure, took ship again, and voyaged far; and now that I have come back again to the little island with all its thickets, I wish to retrace in thought, if I can, some of the adventures which befell me, and what they brought me, and to speak too of adventures which I missed, either out of diffidence or folly. I am not at all sure whether Hermes, whom I certainly encountered, ever gave me a plant of Moly, or, if I did indeed receive it, what use I made of it. But I knew others who certainly had the herb at their hearts, and as certainly others who had not; and I will try and tell what he thinks it is, and how it may be found. It is deeply planted, no doubt; its root is as black as death, and its flower as pure as the light; while the leaves are prickly and clinging; it is not a plant for trim gardens, nor to be grown in rows in the furrow; it is hard to come by, and harder still to extract; but having once attained it, the man who bears it knows that there are certain things he cannot do again, and certain spells which henceforth have no power over him; and though it does not deliver him from all dangers, he will not at all events be penned with the regretful swine, that had lost all human attributes except the power of shedding tears.


Now I shall drop all allegories for the present, because it is confusing both to writers and readers to be always speaking of two things in terms of each other. And I will say first that when I was at college myself as a young man, I seemed to myself to be for ever looking for something which I could not find. It was not always so; there were plenty of contented hours, when one played a game, or sat over the fire afterwards with tea and tobacco, talking about it, or talking about other people--I do not often remember talking about anything else, except on set occasions--or later in the evening some one played a piano not very well, or we sang songs, not very tunefully; or one sat down to work, and got interested, if not in the work itself, at least in doing it well and completely. I am not going to pretend, as elderly men often do with infinite absurdity, that I did no work, and scored off dons and proctors, and broke every rule, and defied God and man, and spent money which I had not got, and lived a generally rake-hell life. There are very few of my friends who did these things, and they have mostly fallen in the race long ago, leaving a poor and rueful memory behind. Nor do I see why it is so glorious to pretend to have done such things, especially if one has not done them! I was a sober citizen enough, with plenty of faults and failings; and this is not a tract to convert the wicked, who indeed are providing plenty of materials to effect their own conversion in ways very various and all very uncomfortable! I should like it rather to be read by well-meaning people, who share perhaps the same experience as myself--the experience, as I have said, of searching for something which I could not find. Sometimes in those days, I will make bold to confess, I read a book, or heard an address or sermon, or talked to some interesting and attractive person, and felt suddenly that I was on the track of it; was it something I wanted, or was it something I had lost? I could not tell! But I knew that if I could find it, I should never be in any doubt again how to act or what to choose. It was not a set of rules I wanted--there were rules enough and to spare, some of them made for us, and many which we made for ourselves. We mapped out every part of life which was left unmapped by the dons, and we knew exactly what was correct and what was not; and oh, how dull much of it was!

But I wanted a motive of some sort, an aim; I wanted to know what I was out for, as we now say. I did not see what the point of much of my work was, or know what my profession was to be; I did not see why I did, for social reasons, so many things which did not interest me, or why I pretended to think them interesting. I would sit, one of half-a-dozen men, the air dim with smoke, telling stories about other people. A-- had had a row with B--, he would not go properly into training; he had lunched before a match off a tumbler of sherry and a cigar; he was too good to be turned out of the team--it was amusing enough, but it certainly was not what I was looking for.

Then one made friends; it dawned upon one suddenly what a charming person C---- was, so original and amusing, so observant; it became a thrilling thing to meet him in the court; one asked him to tea, one talked and told him everything. A week later, one seemed to have got to the end of it; the path came to a stop; there was not much in it after all, and presently he was rather an ass; he looked gloomily at one when one met him, but one was off on another chase; this idealising of people was rather a mistake; the pleasure was in the exploration, and there was very little to explore; it was better to have a comfortable set of friends with no nonsense; and yet that was dull too. That was certainly not the thing one was in search of.

What was it, then? One saw it like a cloud-shadow racing over the hill, like a bird upon the wing. The perfect friend could not help one, for his perfections waned and faded. Yet there was certainly something there, singing like a bird in the wood; only when one reached the tree the bird was gone, and another song was in the air. It seemed, then, at first sight as if one was in search of an emotion of some kind, and not only a solitary emotion, like that which touched the spirit at the sudden falling of the ripe rose- petals from their stem, or at the sight of the far-off plain, with all its woods and waters framed between the outrunning hills, or at the sound of organ-music stealing out of the soaring climbing woodwork with all its golden pipes, on setting foot in the dim and fragrant church; they were all sweet enough, but the mind turned to some kindred soul at hand with whom it could all be shared; and the recognition of some other presence, visibly beckoning through gesture and form and smiling wide-opened eyes, that seemed the best that could be attained, that nearness and rapture of welcome; and then the moment passed, and that too ebbed away.

It was something more than that! because in bleak solitary pondering moments, there stood up, like a massive buttressed crag, a duty, not born of whispered secrets or of relations, however delicate and awestruck, with other hearts, but a stern uncompromising thing, that seemed a relation with something quite apart from man, a Power swift and vehement and often terrible, to whom one owed an unmistakable fealty in thought and act. Righteousness! That old-fashioned thing on which the Jews, one was taught, set much store, which one had misconceived as something born of piety and ceremony, and which now revealed itself as a force uncompromisingly there, which it was impossible to overlook or to disobey; if one did disobey it, something hurt and wounded cried out faintly in the soul; and so it dawned upon one that this was a force, not only not developed out of piety and worship, but of which all piety and worship were but the frail vesture, which half veiled and half hampered the massive stride and stroke.

It did not attract or woo; it rather demanded and frightened; but it became clear enough that any inner peace was impossible without it; and little by little one learned to recognise that there was no trace of it in many conventional customs and precepts; those could be slighted and disregarded; but there were still things which the spirit did truly recognise as vices and sins, abominable and defiling, with which no trafficking was possible.

This, then, was clear; that if one was to find the peace one desired--it was that, it was an untroubled peace, a journey taken with a sense of aim and liberty that one hoped to make--then these were two certain elements; a concurrence with a few great and irresistible prohibitions and positive laws of conduct, though these were far fewer than one had supposed; and next to that, a sense of brotherhood and fellowship with those who seemed to be making their way harmoniously and finely towards the same goal as oneself. To understand and love these spirits, to be understood and loved by them, that was a vital necessity.

But this must be added; that the sense of duty of which I speak, which rose sturdily and fiercely above the shifting forms of life, like a peak above the forest, did not appear at once either desirable or even beautiful. It blocked the view and the way; it forbade one to stray or loiter; but the obedience one reluctantly gave to it came simply from a realisation of its strength and of its presence. It stood for an order of some kind, which interfered at many points with one's hopes and desires, but with which one was compelled to make terms, because it could and did strike, pitilessly and even vindictively, if one neglected and transgressed its monitions; and thus the quest became an attempt to find what stood behind it, and to discover if there was any Personality behind it, with which one could link oneself, so as to be conscious of its intentions or its goodwill. Was it a Power that could love and be loved? Or was it only mechanical and soulless, a condition of life, which one might dread and even abhor, but which could not be trifled with?

Because that seemed the secret of all the happiness of life--the meeting, with a sense of intimate security, something warm and breathing, that had need of me as I of it, that could smile and clasp, foster and pity, admire and adore, and in the embrace of which one could feel one's hope and joy grow and stir by contact and trust. That was what one found in the hearts about one's path; and the wonder was, did some similar chance of embracing, clasping, trusting, and loving that vaster Power await one in the dim spaces beyond the fields and homes of earth?

I guessed that it was so, but saw, as in a faint vision, that many harsh events, sorry mischances, blows and wounds and miseries, hated and dreaded and endured, lay between me and that larger Heart. But I perceived at last, with terror and mistrust, that the adventure did indeed lie there; that I should often be disdained and repulsed, untended and unheeded, bitterly disillusioned, shaken out of ease and complacency, but assuredly folded to that greater Heart at last.


And then there followed a different phase. Up to the very end of the university period, the same uneasiness continued; then quite suddenly the door opened, one slipped into the world, one found one's place. There were instantaneously real things to be done, real money to earn, men and women to live with and work with, to conciliate or to resist. A mist rolled away from my eyes. What a fantastic life it had been hitherto, how sheltered, how remote from actuality! I seemed to have been building up a rococo stucco habitation out of whims and fancies, adding a room here and a row of pinnacles there, all utterly bizarre and grotesque. Vague dreams of poetry and art, nothing penetrated or grasped, a phrase here, a fancy there; one's ideal of culture seemed like Ophelia in Hamlet, a distracted nymph stuck all over with flowers and anxious to explain the sentimental value of each; the friendships themselves-- they had nothing stable about them either; they were not based upon any common aim, any real mutual concern; they were nothing more than the enshrining of a fugitive charm, the tracking of some bright-eyed fawn or wild-haired dryad to its secret haunt, only to find the bird flown and the nest warm. But now there was little time for fancies; there was a real burden to carry, a genuine task to perform; day after day slipped past, like the furrows in a field seen from some speeding car; the contented mind, pleasantly wearied at the end of the busy day, heaved a light-hearted sigh of relief, and turned to some recreation with zest and delight. It was not that the quest had been successful; it seemed rather that there was no quest at all, and that it was the joy of daily work that had been the missing factor . . . the weeks melted into months, the months became years.

Meanwhile the earth and air, as well as the comrades and companions of the pilgrimage, were touched with a different light of beauty. The beauty was there, and in even fuller measure. The sun in the hot summer days poured down upon the fragrant garden, with all its bright flower-beds, its rose-laden alleys, its terraced walks, its green-shaded avenues; the autumn mists lay blue and faint across the far pastures, and the hill climbed smoothly to its green summit; or the spring came back after the winter silence with all its languor of unfolding life, while bush and covert wove their screens of dense-tapestried foliage, to conceal what mysteries of love and delight! and the faces or gestures of those about one took on a new significance, a richer beauty, a larger interest, because one began to guess how experience moulded them, by what aims and hopes they were graven and refined, by what failures they were obliterated and coarsened. But the difference was this, that one was not now for ever trying to make these charms one's own, to establish private understandings or mutual relations. It was enough now to observe them as one could, to interpret them, to enjoy them, and to pass by. The acquisitive sense was gone, and one neither claimed nor grasped; one admired and wondered and went forwards. And this again seemed a wholesome balance of thought, for, as the desire to take diminished, the power, of interpreting and enjoying grew.

But very gradually a slow shadow began to fall, like the shadow of a great hill that reaches far out over the plain. I passed one day an old churchyard deep in the country, and saw the leaning headstones and the grassy barrows of the dead. A shudder passed through me, a far-off chill, at the thought that it must come to THIS after all; that however rich and intricate and delightful life was--and it was all three--the time would come, perhaps with pain and languid suffering, when one must let all the beautiful threads out of one's hands, and compose oneself, with such fortitude as one could muster, for the long sleep. And then one called Reason to one's aid, and bade her expound the mystery, and say that just as no smallest particle of matter could be disintegrated utterly, or subtracted from the sum of things, so, and with infinitely greater certainty, could no pulse or desire or motion of the spirit be brought to nought. True, the soul lived like a bird in a cage, hopping from perch to perch, slumbering at times, moping dolefully, or uttering its song; but it was even more essentially imperishable than the body that obeyed and enfolded and at last failed it. So said Reason; and yet that brought no hope, so dear and familiar had life become,--the well-known house, the accustomed walks, the daily work, the forms of friend and comrade. It was just those things that one wanted; and reason could only say that one must indeed leave them and begone, and she could not look forwards nor forecast anything; she could but bid one note the crag-faces and the monstrous ledges of the abyss into which the spirit was for ever falling, falling. . . .

Alas! it was there all the time, the sleepless desire to know and to be assured; I had found nothing, learned nothing; it was all still to seek. I had but just drugged the hunger into repose, beguiled it, hidden it away under habits and work and activities. It was something firmer than work, something even more beautiful than beauty, more satisfying than love that I wanted; and most certainly it was not repose. I had grown to loathe the thought of that, and to shrink back in horror from the dumb slumber of sense and thought. It was energy, life, activity, motion, that I desired; to see and touch and taste all things, not only things sweet and delightful, but every passionate impulse, every fiery sorrow that thrilled and shook the spirit, every design that claimed the loyalty of mankind. I grudged, it seemed, even the slumber that divided day from day; I wanted to be up and doing, struggling, working, loving, hating, resisting, protesting. And even strife and combat seemed a waste of precious time; there was so much to do, to establish, to set right, to cleanse, to invigorate, great designs to be planned and executed, great glories to unfold. Yet sooner or later I was condemned to drop the tools from my willing hand, to stand and survey the unfinished work, and to grieve that I might no longer take my share.


It was even thus that the vision came to me, in a dream of the night. I had been reading the story of the isle of Circe, and the thunderous curve of the rolling verse had come marching into the mind as the breakers march into the bay. I dropped the book at last, and slept.

Yes, I was in the wood itself; I could see little save undergrowth and great tree-trunks; here and there a glimpse of sky among the towering foliage. The thicket was less dense to the left, I thought, and in a moment I came out upon an open space, and saw a young man in the garb of a shepherd, a looped blue tunic, with a hat tossed back upon the shoulders and held there by a cord. He had leaned a metal stave against a tree, the top of it adorned by a device of crossed wings. He was stooping down and disengaging something from the earth, so that when I drew near, he had taken it up and was gazing curiously at it. It was the herb itself! I saw the prickly flat leaves, the black root, and the little stars of milk-white bloom. He looked up at me with a smile as though he had expected me, which showed his small white teeth and the shapely curl of his lips; while his dark hair fell in a cluster over his brow.

"There!" he said, "take it! It is what you are in need of!"

"Yes," I said, "I want peace, sure enough!" He looked at me for a moment, and then let the herb drop upon the ground.

"Ah no!" he said lightly, "it will not bring you that; it does not give peace, the herb of patience!"

"Well, I will take it," I said, stooping down; but he planted his foot upon it. "See," he said, "it has already rooted itself!" And then I saw that the black root had pierced the ground, and that the fibres were insinuating themselves into the soil. I clutched at it, but it was firm.

"You do not want it, after all," he said. "You want heartsease, I suppose? That is a different flower--it grows upon men's graves."

"No," I cried out petulantly, like a child. "I do not want heartsease! That is for those who are tired, and I am not tired!"

He smiled at me and stooped again, raised the plant and gave it to me. It had a fresh sharp fragrance of the woodland and blowing winds, but the thorns pricked my hands. . . .

The dream was gone, and I awoke; lying there, trying to recover the thing which I had seen, I heard the first faint piping of the birds begin in the ivy round my windows, as they woke drowsily and contentedly to life and work. The truth flashed upon me, in one of those sudden lightning-blazes that seem to obliterate even thought.

"Yes," I cried to myself, "that is the secret! It is that life does not end; it goes on. To find what I am in search of, to understand, to interpret, to see clearly, to sum it up, that would be an end, a soft closing of the book, the shutting of the door--and that is just what I do not want. I want to live, and endure, and suffer, and experience, and love, and NOT to understand. It is life continuous, unfolding, expanding, developing, with new delights, new sorrows, new pains, new losses, that I need: and whether we know that we need it, or think we need something else, it is all the same; for we cannot escape from life, however reluctant or sick or crushed or despairing we may be. It waits for us until we have done groaning and bleeding, and we must rise up again and live. Even if we die, even if we seek death for ourselves, it is useless. The eye may close, the tide of unconsciousness may flow in, the huddled limbs may tumble prone; a moment, and then life begins again; we have but flown like the bird from one tree to another. There is no end and no release; it is our destiny to live; the darkness is all about us, but we are the light, enlacing it with struggling beams, piercing it with fiery spears. The darkness cannot quench it, and wherever the light goes, there it is light. The herb Moly is but the patience to endure, whether we like it or no. It delivers us, not from ourselves, not from our pains or our delights, but only from our fears. They are the only unreal things, because we are of the indomitable essence of light and movement, and we cannot be overcome nor extinguished--we can but suffer, we cannot die; we leap across the nether night; we pass resistless on our way from star to star."

Arthur Christopher Benson (1915)







The Odyssey :
translator's note
Book 1
Book 2
Book 3  
Book 4
Book 5  
Book 6
Book 7

Book 8
Book 9
Book 10