The Polyphemus story is perhaps the most popular of Odysseus’ travels. The savage monster and our hero’s cunning escape plan make for an excellent story of brains triumphing over brawn. However, at the same time we are invited to sympathise with the monster, and to censure Odysseus for his violence and arrogance. It is a very rich story, but by the end the reader is left perhaps a bit unfulfilled: while we applaud Odysseus’ wit, we cannot help but feel a bit disappointed by his arrogant boasts, and it is difficult not to feel sorry for the monster he leaves blind and isolated.
While it is tempting to pity the Cyclops, it is important not to forgot that he is 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 rules about behaviour between host and guest (xenia) were very important, they were considered sacred to the gods. For the cyclops to eat his guests in his own house is the ultimate sacrilege, an affront to the rules of society. The same applies to the fact 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 makes eating Odysseus’ men not far off cannibalism. Likewise cooking is a sign of civilisation, it requires the use of tools and skill. The cyclops is primitive and savage; the antithesis to civilised Greek society.
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 is great. He calls out to the neighbouring Cyclops, but they are unhelpful, and laugh when they hear that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. However we mostly feel sorry for the Cyclops when he is letting his flock out of his cave, stroking their backs to make sure that the Greeks are not escaping with them and unaware that they are hiding under their bellies. 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’: it is the poet’s great vision, so that for all of his characters we see the good and the bad, we are shown both sides to every story. Thus we are made to take another look, even at the monstrous Cyclops.
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 the description of Elysium, that’s roughly the Greek equivalent of heaven, or that of the Golden Age of man in the Greek epic Works and Days. It is paradisal, blessed by the gods, with no laws and no hard work for the land is abundant and provides the Cyclops with all they need. Enter humans. Odysseus and his men trick the primitive Cyclops with their superior cunning and skills. They strip the land of its abundance, leaving the Cyclops forever blinded and without his flock that provided him with milk and food, as well as company in his isolation.
The Cyclops is the representative of an old world order, one that is made obsolete by the technologies and advancements of man. It is not a perfect world, its lack of civilisation makes it barbarous to us, but it is peaceful while humans do not interfere. It represents however a lifestyle that is extremely vulnerable to the likes of Odysseus, its primitiveness making it easy for the hero to plunder. It 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).