Odysseus’s adventures with the Cyclops Polyphemus reveal much about the character of Odysseus and the complexities facing a hero leaving the Trojan War for home.
Coming ashore at an island close to the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus notes that it would be a good land for agriculture, a good harbor for ships, plenty of hunting; but the Cyclopes have no ships and can’t take advantage of all this. This is our first suspicion that there’s something uncivilized about these Cyclopes. Odysseus insists on crossing over and visiting the inhabitants, whose fires he can see. He wants to know who’s there in the land of the Cyclopes. He and his men find an unattended cave, filled with cheese, milk, lambs, milking implements, everything in perfect order, a shepherd’s dwelling. They take the cheese, they fill up, and against the advice of his men, Odysseus has them wait: wait for the return of the inhabitant. Odysseus is hoping to receive from this inhabitant, whoever he might be, a guest gift, the proper token of hospitality.
What a mistake.
This is a transcript from the video series Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
Cyclopean Ideas of Hospitality
The inhabitant turns out to be a massive Cyclops; his name is Polyphemus, a son of the sea god Poseidon. As a Cyclops, he has one round eye in the middle of his forehead. He enters the cave with his flocks, closes the entrance of the cave with a huge stone so large, the poet tell us, that 22 wagons couldn’t budge it. Polyphemus, as soon as he notices Odysseus and his men, asks who they are; bad manners. Odysseus tells him they’re on their way home from Troy—no names—and reminds Polyphemus about proper hospitality. We’re travelers; don’t you owe us a gift? And then he tells his first useful lie, Odysseus telling the Cyclops that their ship is nowhere to be found, it was destroyed on the rocks.
Polyphemus scoffs at this idea of hospitality, snatches up several of Odysseus’s men, smashes their heads on the rocks, rips them limb from limb, and eats them—not very hospitable.
Polyphemus scoffs at this idea of hospitality, snatches up several of Odysseus’s men, smashes their heads on the rocks, rips them limb from limb, and eats them—not very hospitable. This is a tight spot, and only through considerable trickery does Odysseus get most of his men out. As the Cyclops sleeps, Odysseus thinks seriously about killing the monster, even feeling for the place in his chest where he might stab him. But we all see the problem there: That would leave them trapped in the cave. So he and his men prepare a sharp stake, rolling an olive log in the fire to sharpen it. The next evening, as the Cyclops eats several more men, Odysseus offers him some of the powerful wine he’s brought with him, a gift for the Cyclops, in the true spirit of xenia. This is indeed powerful wine. It’s meant to be mixed with water: 20 parts water to one part wine. But Polyphemus, uncivilized as he is, drinks it down unmixed, quickly gets drunk, asking for more. Only now does Odysseus introduce himself by name, telling the Cyclops that his name is Nobody. We’ll see why soon.
Learn more about how Odysseus’s story into a metaphor for the human experience
Blinding the Cyclops
As the Cyclops is passing out drunk, he promises a guest gift in return for the wine. Since Odysseus, or Nobody, gave him the wine, he’ll eat Nobody last—that’s the guest gift. Spitting up gobbets of human flesh along with the wine, the Cyclops falls asleep, and Odysseus and his men go to work, driving the stake into Polyphemus’s eye. Here is how Odysseus tells the story to the Phaeacians:
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard—
I drove my weight on it from above and bored it home
as a shipwright bores his beam with a shipwright’s drill
that men below, whipping the strap back and forth, whirl
and the drill keeps drifting faster, never stopping—
So we seized our stake with its fiery tip
and bored it, round and round in the giant’s eye
till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft
and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core
and the broiling eyeball burst—its crackling roots blazed and hissed—
as a blacksmith plunges a glowing axe or adze
in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam
and its temper hardens—that’s the iron’s strength—
so the eye of the Cyclops sizzled round that stake!
A vivid passage: We feel we’re there with them. The Cyclops cries out in pain, and his friends—fellow Cyclopes—ask what’s bothering him. “Nobody,” he says, “Nobody is killing me!” His friends let it go at that. The final trick for Odysseus is the escape from the cave. The blinded Polyphemus feels all over the cave for these men, doesn’t find them; they’re still trapped inside. Odysseus comes up with one more clever scheme to get them out. He and his men cling to the undersides of the sheep and rams; as Polyphemus sends them out to pasture, he feels over the top and misses them on the underside. Odysseus has shown tremendous resourcefulness, and not a little restraint, in getting free. Another Homeric hero might have gone ahead and killed the Cyclops, entombing them all within the cave; another might have failed to consider the other Cyclopes coming to his aid. A lot of forethought, a lot of cleverness.
But the adventure doesn’t end here.
Learn More: Homer—Odyssey
Odysseus Makes a Terrible Mistake
Back on his ship, making his way to safety, Odysseus can’t help calling out to the Cyclops. He yells once, taunting him, and the Cyclops hurls a huge chunk of a mountain out at the ship. He misses, throwing it beyond the ship and driving it back to the shore. Odysseus is getting ready to shout at the Cyclops again, and his men say, “Please, stop! No more.” But against his crew’s advice, Odysseus taunts the Cyclops again, now telling who it was that got the better of him:
“If anyone asks who got the better of you,” says Odysseus, “who shamed you, tell them it was Odysseus, son of Laertes, from Ithaca.”
“If anyone asks who got the better of you,” says Odysseus, “who shamed you, tell them it was Odysseus, son of Laertes, from Ithaca.” The Cyclops picks up another chunk of mountain, hurls it at them, this time missing short, driving the ship farther out to sea and to safety. But Odysseus has given the Cyclops enough information to call down upon him and his men a curse, and that is exactly what he does. He asks his father Poseidon to destroy Odysseus and his ships, or at least make sure that Odysseus, if he makes it home, gets there all alone and finds trouble awaiting him there.
Thus, in this final taunting of the Cyclops, we see that Odysseus is unable to distance himself completely from the values dear to the Iliadic heroes; he feels the need to identify himself to the Cyclops, so others will know of his skill and cunning. He can’t let the act remain anonymous. And he pays a price for that.
Common Questions About Odysseus and the Cyclops
In his wisdom, Odysseus realizes they’ll be forever locked in the cave if he simply kills the Cyclops. So he blinds it, rendering it disabled but capable of letting them out.
Many reasons point to the savagery of the Cyclopes: their unused land perfect for agriculture, the lack of an introduction and demanding names of the men, the lack of ships perfect for fishing the harbor, and finally the Cyclopes‘ refusal of a gift from their stash of plentiful cheese and lambs.
Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is Nobody as he knows that when he attacks, the Cyclops will cry out and be asked by other Cyclopes if it needs help. Of course the Cyclops replies that “nobody” is bothering or killing it.