is not the only real-world element found in The Odyssey
. In 1951, during the Cold War, pharmacologist Mikhail Mashkovsky at the Russian Academy of Science discovered that villagers in the Ural Mountains used what could be the protective plant Hermes gave Odysseus. The villagers were rubbing ground-up snowdrop flowers into their skin as a pain reliever and using the snowdrop plant as a medicine to help children afflicted with polio to fight off the paralysis that was so often caused by the dreaded disease.
Fascinated by this, Mashkovsky and colleague Rita Kruglikova-Lvova explored the effects of a compound extracted from snowdrops on the muscles of frogs, rabbits and guinea pigs, and the brains of rats. This experimentation led the researchers to conclude in the late 1950s that the compound could protect specific neurotransmitters from being damaged by diseases and toxins.
The snowdrop compound galantamine was soon registered as Nivalin in Bulgaria in 1959, and from there it began its slow journey into the West. Today, the drug is proving more valuable than ever in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease.
First described in 1907 by the German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, the disease is vicious and progressively destroys memory and cognitive function. In the late 1970s, a team of researchers found that people who died of Alzheimer’s commonly had brains deficient in acetylcholine, the same neurotransmitter that Datura blocks.
This discovery paired well with reports that the most common brain deficit found in Alzheimer’s patients was cholinergic in nature and led several research groups to argue that the disease arose from an inability to transmit signals across cholinergic synapses. Galantamine’s ability to protect acetylcholine seemed perfect for staving off the effects of Alzheimer’s, and it is now widely used for this purpose.
Could this be Homer’s moly? In 1981, as the drug’s origins started to become better known, neurologists Andreas Plaitakis at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Roger Duvoisin at Rutgers Medical School in New Jersey proposed at the Twelfth World Congress of Neurology that snowdrop might have been the plant that Hermes handed to Odysseus.
To support their argument, they pointed out that the plant was commonly found in Greece, that it grows in forest glens like the one visited by Hermes, and that it is an effective antidote to Datura. They also noted that its petals were milky white and that it had a darkly pigmented root just as the moly described in The Odyssey. Moreover, galantamine is not like many other anti-cholinesterases that break apart and become useless in the body rather quickly. Galantamine endures, producing a lasting protection that prevents acetylcholine from being blocked, which would have made it perfect for the situation Odysseus found himself in.
Did the Greeks really know that snowdrop could stave off neurotransmitter-attacking poisons and diseases? I suspect they did. There isn’t a lot of direct evidence, but Theophrastus, a Greek writer from the fourth century B.C., writes in his text Historia plantarum that moly “is used as an antidote against poisons.” This knowledge must have been woven into stories long ago and transformed from history into legend and from legend into myth in most parts of the world. What is wonderful is that the myth lives on.
For example, it makes a cameo in the 2007 film Stardust. The evil witch in the tale tries, and fails, to harm the hero, Tristan, with her dark magic. The reason for her failure? He was wearing a milky-white flower on his coat. The species looked familiar, so I pulled up the script, and sure enough, there was its name:
Girl: You shouldn’t buy the bluebells. Buy this one instead. Snowdrop. It’ll bring you luck.
If snowdrop was Homer’s moly, over the ages it was almost forgotten. For the sake of those suffering from Alzheimer’s, I’m glad Mashkovsky found its powers before they were completely lost to the ravages of time.
Does this mean that Odysseus and Circe were real? In the literal sense, I doubt it. However, a talented female poisoner who used her knowledge to lead natives to worship her as a demigod might have been living on an island. At some point in history, someone might also have learned that consuming snowdrop provided protection against certain diseases and poisons. A local hero might have known a thing or two about herbalism, stood up to a cruel poison-wielding witch, proved that he was resistant to her magic, and come to be known as the great-grandson of Hermes . . . and wouldn’t that be cool?