The Island of the Cyclops

From Gerald R. Lucas


Odysseus begins book nine of the Odyssey by venerating King Alkinoos’ rhapsode, emphasizing, in a very rhetorical way, the foundation of human community. At the center of Phaeacia stands the hall of the King in which the people gather to dine in the community of others and listen to the tales of the poet: “Here is the flower of life, it seems to me!”[2] Indeed, Odysseus himself has now become the rhapsode,[3] and will remain so for the epic’s next four books, the center of Odysseus’ journey is his own account of what befell him after leaving Troy. He begins by first introducing himself, which will later spell doom for the Phaeacians. The irony of his honesty cannot be overlooked. Trouble follows honesty.

Odysseus Taunts Polyphemus by J. M. W. Turner, 1829.

This is the first of two times that Odysseus tells his real name in book nine, yet it is the second in chronology. The lesson that Odysseus should have learned from the first quarter of his journey that he is about to relate is one of prudence. One could argue that he did indeed learn prudence, since it took him the duration of books five through eight to get to an introduction; however, he might also be aware that trouble follows Odysseus’ honesty.

Odysseus longs for home, and laments the fact that he was detained by his experiences for so long. He and his crew first attempt to plunder the Kikones, who fight back and claim the lives of many of Odysseus’ men. This fact, however, was due to the men being “mutinous fools” and not listening to Odysseus’ call to leave quickly. This theme runs throughout these four books, and eventually spell the end of Odysseus’ whole crew. More on Odysseus’ failing his crew later.

After weathering storms sent by Zeus, the crew lands where the Lotos Eaters “live upon that flower.” Perhaps one of the most famous passages of the epic, the lotos represents distraction from duty — the temptation of a lax life. The three crewmen Odysseus takes with him to explore, predictably, fall in quickly with the opium smokers and forget their duty to their lives and home. Perhaps the most subtly dangerous adventure Odysseus has in the epic: losing sight of one’s goals — one’s hope — might be the ultimate transgression in the Odyssey. Indeed, here is where the knowledge of the poet is not heard, for the community has broken down into the individual sphere of forgetfulness. In any obsession, duty to one’s community is lost in favor of the prize. Odysseus will soon find what his lotos is.

Soon after escaping the Lotos Eaters, Odysseus and his crew encounter the Cyclops: “giants, louts, without a law to bless them . . . they neither plow / no sow by hand . . . they have no muster and no meeting, / no consultation or old tribal ways, / but each one dwells in his own mountain cave / dealing out rough justice to wife and child, / indifferent to what others do.”[4] In Cyclops Land there is no community, only the individual living separate from the others, like members of the Minnesota Militia hunkered down in caves waiting to defend themselves with violent force against any intruder who happens to be stupid enough to venture into their land without his NRA card. The cyclops are even distrustful of each other, only interested in isolation, not in venturing out to meet others or even to tell stories. Based on its concentration on hospitality and community, the Odyssey seems to count the cyclops as a representation of barbaric, pre-communal beings that are not as sophisticated as humans.

Odysseus und Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin, 1896.

Now Odysseus and crew do not actually moor on Cyclops island, but one very near to it. This land gave them plenty, but they “gazed, too, at Cyclops Land, so near, / we saw their smoke, heard bleating from their flocks.”[5] The urge to check it out proves too irresistible for Odysseus, who goes with his own ship and men to see if the inhabitants are “wild savages, and lawless, / or hospitable and god fearing men.”[6] One might question Odysseus’ motivation here other than simple curiosity: to meet others — to see things he has never seen even though he risks the life of his crew. His decision to take only one ship proves prudent, but should Odysseus risk the lives of his men in order to fulfill his curiosity?

Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus proves the former’s cunning in the face of such a huge brute. Here, the master tactician is at his best: his forethought to bring the potent wine, his giving “Nobody” as his name, and his restraint from killing the beast while he slept. No, Odysseus keeps his head despite the horror of the situation — except until the very end when it seems that pride gets the better of him and he tells the blinded Polyphemus his real name after Odysseus did his best to “hurt him worst.”[7] While the crew attempts to restrain Odysseus — the only time they seem more prudent — Odysseus cannot control his pleasure at having defeated the cyclops. Yet, the height of Odysseus’ pleasure precipitates his ten-year wandering for blinding the son of Poseidon.

Odysseus and his crew pay for the former’s imprudence. Yet, we have to ask ourselves, does Odysseus ever learn this valuable lesson — one that he will need if he is to ever get home safely.

Notes

  1. VIII.512–514
  2. IX.11
  3. or at least the aoidos
  4. IX.113–124
  5. IX.177–178
  6. IX.188–189
  7. IX.343