The Polyphemus story is perhaps the most well-known of Odysseus’ adventures. The savage monster and our hero’s cunning escape make for an excellent story of brains triumphing over brawn. However, at the same time we are invited by the text to sympathise with the monster, and to censure Odysseus for his violence. The primitive Cyclops is helpless against man’s cunning, and Polyphemus’ whole world is left in ruins by Odysseus’ tricks.
The Cyclops is portrayed as a truly savage and cruel monster. The below passage emphasises this in its graphic description of Polyphemus devouring two of Odysseus’ men.
Devoid of pity, he was silent in response, but leaping up laid hands on my crew. Two he seized and dashed to the ground like whelps, and their brains ran out and stained the earth. He tore them limb from limb for his supper, eating the flesh and entrails, bone and marrow, like a mountain lion, leaving nothing. Helplessly we watched these cruel acts, raising our hands to heaven and weeping.
In Greece the relationship between host and guest (xenia) was sacred, so for the Cyclops to eat his guests in his own house is the ultimate sacrilege. It is also revealing that he is eating humans, and even that he is eating them raw. While Polyphemus himself is not exactly human, he comes pretty close in some respects, and this means eating Odysseus’ men is not far off cannibalism – the true mark of a savage. Likewise cooking is a sign of civilisation, requiring the use of tools and skill, and so by eating them raw the Cyclops betrays his primitiveness.
However, we do feel sympathy for the monster. Odysseus fashions a stake and blinds Polyphemus while he sleeps. The description of the wound is gruesome, and Polyphemus’ pain and anguish are great. He calls out to the neighbouring Cyclopes, but they only laugh mockingly when they hear that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. However, we mostly feel sorry for the Polyphemus when he lets his flock out of his cave, unaware that the Greeks are tethered under the sheep’s bellies to escape with them. Last of all comes a great ram which Odysseus is clinging onto underneath. Polyphemus tearfully addresses the ram, displaying a depth of feeling and attachment that is uncomfortably human. Scholars call this effect the ‘Homeric eye’. This is the poet’s great vision; for all of his characters we see the good and the bad, that there are two sides to every story.
And as he felt its back, mighty Polyphemus spoke to him:
“My fine ram, why leave the cave like this last of the flock? You have never lagged behind before, always the first to step out proudly and graze on the tender grass shoots, always first to reach the flowing river, and first to show your wish to return at evening to the fold. Today you are last of all. You must surely be grieving over your master’s eye, blinded by an evil man and his wicked friends, when my wits were fuddled with wine: Nobody, I say, has not yet escaped death. If you only had senses like me, and the power of speech to tell me where he hides himself from my anger, then I’d strike him down, his brains would be sprinkled all over the floor of the cave, and my heart would be eased of the pain that nothing, Nobody, has brought me.”
There is a pathetic irony in Polyphemus’ belief that the ram grieves for him, when in fact it lags behind because it is weighed down by Odysseus. The men then steal Polyphemus’ beloved flock and take them to their ships, sailing to freedom.
The scholar Hernandez, amongst others, has noted that the description of the land of the Cyclops recalls Elysium, that’s roughly the Greek equivalent of heaven, or the Golden Age of man in the Greek epic Works and Days. It is a paradise, blessed by the gods, where the land is abundant and provides the Cyclopes with all they need. Enter humans. Odysseus and his men trick the primitive Polyphemus with their superior cunning and skills, leaving him blinded and robbed of his precious flock.
The Cyclops represents an old world order, one that is made obsolete by technology. It is not insignificant that Odysseus and his men craft the stake that blinds the Cyclops themselves, using man’s cunning to build tools that will ultimately defeat this savage beast. The land of Cyclopes is far from perfect, and its lack of civilisation makes it seem barbarous to us, but it is peaceful before humans interfere. It represents a lifestyle that is extremely vulnerable to the likes of Odysseus, an easy place for the hero to plunder. This is, I think, a message that still resonates strongly with a modern audience.
Newton, R. “Poor Polyphemus: Emotional Ambivalence in Odyssey 9 and 17” in The Classical World, Vol. 76 (1983).
Hernandez, P.R. “Back in the Cave of the Cyclops” in The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 121 (2000).
Translation by A.S. Kline (2004).