This Week’s Prompt: 126. Castaways on island eat unknown vegetation and become strangely transformed.
The Resulting Story: Baqi and the Golden Fruit
This weeks prompt points to a very classical inspiration—that of the witch Circe and Odysseus’s crew. While Odysseus was sailing back to Ithaca, his ship came ashore on Circe’s land. She invited the crew to a feast, offering them many dishes. And after partaking, the crew are transformed into pigs while still possessing the souls of men. Now, the prompt refers merely to “vegetation”—unknown vegetation at that. This implies an intended raw food experience, instead of the intentional preparation of the meal. So we’ll be an examining both here, when feasts and food cause a transformation.
The Circe Episode is not the only episode of the Odyssey that comes to mind. There is also the Lotus Eaters, an island where eating lotus’s causes forgetfulness and bliss. This is an island that Odysseus must drag his crew away from, in order to continue going home. This image has become exceptionally common in stories ever since, with places that lure in the trouble with promises of forgetting their cares and responsibilities only to consume them being a particularly common trope.
There are other consumptive plants. Hungry grass, for instance, occurs in parts of Ireland. This grass does not just consume persons—rather, they ensure whoever steps on them becomes hungry for the rest of their lives. These plants would bring about strange transformation, certainly—at least one author has suggested the stories began during times of famine.
Other stories of island plants include the legends of the coco de mer. This nut has an…unusual shape, and a few unusual stories. A particularly common one is that they are actually grown under the sea, on great trees that sometimes rise to catch boats. When the trees catch the boats, a great bird emerges to devour the sailors and ships. This creature was sometimes referred to as a garuda, a terrifying bird that has other mythic roots we discuss here. The trees are so large they even rise above the water with their branches, and the area around these trees pulled at ships as they passed. Sadly, I can’t dig much into this particular form—the only source I could find on it is a newspaper article from 1906.
Of course, strange foods transforming the eater are not limited to witches. We have, for instance, the food that binds the seasons in Greek Mythology. For those unfamiliar, Persephone was wandering out in the fields when Hades erupted from the earth in a chariot and kidnapped her, at the suggestion of his brother Zeus. After this, her mother could not find her—and grew inconsolable, refusing to allow the green of the world to grow. This became unbearable, however, and so Persephone was sent back to the world by her husband—but not before eating six pomegranate seeds, ensuring that she would remain below for six months. And thus the seasonal shift from spring to winter is established.
Now eating the food of the dead or the underworld often has strange effects. We read last time of an undersea land in Donegal Bay where eating the food would trap one among the fae for all time, and it is hardly alone. Off the shores of Bofin there lives a very lovely fae who will kidnap beautiful girls, and if they eat food while held in his castle they are prisoners until the end of time. Another place, illuminated by rainbows and suns, bound its prisoners for seven years—and nearly overcame it’s hero, when a woman flew from Donegal bay to save him.
The dead in the Philippines, the ghouls, also have a tendency to share their food. By this means, they turn others into ghouls—a process of spread cannibalism that we discussed more here. These creatures of course are kept at bay by other foods, and we discussed more of the aswang here.
Moving from the land of the dead, there is of course the eating of food at the beginning of things. The most obvious story—one that lacks a sailor but was transformative—is the Garden of Eden myth. The actual result of the eating of those fruits varies. One of my preferred versions is the change in shape from the first couple—the loss of sharp, horn-like skin and a cloud of glory that covered their forms. Adam shrunk from being as tall as the heavens to merely being three hundred and seventy-five feet. The serpent went from king of animals, upright like humans and capable of finding all manner of wonderous stones, to the lowly and cursed creature we know today, the moon was darkened, and all manner of cosmic changes occurred.
While not exactly the same, there is a story of misfortune on a cosmic scale, brought on by feasting. This comes from Maori stories. Here Maui fished up the first of the islands, having grown tired of living conditions on the open sea. He instructed his brothers to not eat any of the food on the island until he returned—and yet like Odysseus’s crew they proved incapable of listening to basic orders. As a result, the perfect island was distorted—great mountains rising from the ground and land becoming rough. Such is sadly the way of the world.
There are other strange plants to consider. There is the Zaqquam, the devil tree, who’s fruit resembles devil heads. Those that partake in this fruit, often sinners, have their flesh ripped off and their bodily fluids spilled out. Others have their stomachs boil, while others suggest that the tree itself is grown from the seeds of evil deeds.
Further afield there are the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The exact nature of these nymph tended and dragon guarded apples varies—they are attributed as being both the apples that distracted Atlanta and the source of Eris’s apple of discord. These apples were given to Hera, in many legends, as a marriage gift by Gaia herself and planted near where the sunsets.
The apples of course remained there for most of history, stolen supposedly only twice—by Hercules and Perseus. They were deployed in other myths, but where inevitably returned to the island even after the dragon Ladon was slain. I haven’t found other stories that follow the strange island, but they presumably still remain there at the Western edge of the world.
Setting aside the cosmological for a moment, many of these islands not only have strange fruit, but fruit that traps those who consume it. Whether as a metaphor for the dangers of luxury on a journey, distracting from the actual end goal, or as the dangers of losing your connections to your home while travelling long distances—in case we forget, food is what brings people together in many places—the fruit ties those who eat it to where they acquired it.
The fear of becoming someone different in your travels—worse, of a wanderer becoming hostile and strange to those they love—is at first glance a rather conservative fear. However, I think it’s roots are not in xenophobia perse, but in the fear of loss of identity. Certainly, being changed by new experiences, especially travel (as rare as it is in current conditions) is overall for the better. But at the same time, it is becoming something unknown, other, and unfamiliar. It is becoming in away a part of the places you see.
Of course on the other hand there is some simple B-Movie fun in a castaway story where the local fauna or flora in this case are more than they seem. That alone is a horrifying idea, and the idea of being overtake by moss and fungus and other decaying horrific things is enough to write a story on.
What stories have you heard about the food of the sea? The fruit of the sea? Besides seafood, of course, which we have in abundance.
Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.
Westropp, T. J. “A Study of Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland (Continued).” Folklore, vol. 32, no. 2, 1921, pp. 101–123. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1255238. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.