My recent article about how Odysseus is a terrible person (within the fictional world of Greek myth and epic poetry) has received a great response. Some people agreed that his actions were often deplorable, while others tried to defend him, even though within the context of the epic world his treatment of e.g. Palamedes is still awful.
One well-meaning soul on Facebook commented that he disagreed with my assessment, adding that “Odysseus was a great king”. But my recent exposé on the misdeeds of Odysseus didn’t touch upon his kingship at all. We also, in my opinion, don’t really know enough about his (fictional) rule to evaluate it properly. But lest we forget, he was away from Ithaca for twenty years (and left soon after his return). Does being an absent king make him great?
Today, I discuss a crucial episode in the story of Odysseus. It is his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus that ultimately doomed him to wander the seas for a decade and would lead to the death of every single man who had followed him to Troy.
An amphora from Eleusis
The picture that serves as this article’s featured image is a detail from the neck of a Proto-Attic amphora, found at Eleusis (near Athens). The amphora dates to ca. 660 BC and it features early Greek art that clearly show scenes familiar from Greek mythology:
The scene on the shoulder depicts a lion confronting a boar. The belly of the amphora depicts another scene from mythology: a decapitated Gorgon (Medusa) sort of floats behind her two sisters, who are pursuing a male figure (undoubtedly Perseus): a female figure, no doubt Athena, occupies the space between the Gorgons and Perseus.
But it’s the scene on the neck that interests us here. It depicts the blinding of the cyclops Polyphemus. This episode is known today from Homer’s Odyssey, even though the painter may well have been familiar with a version of the tale as told by local bards.
In this scene, three men are shown driving a stake into the eye of a sleeping giant. Two of the men have bodies that are painted black. But the foremost of the three has a white body. In art, such distinctions in colour can be used to indicate that a particular figure is somehow distinct from the others. In this particular case, we have almost certainly to identify this man as Odysseus himself.
Deceiving the cyclops
As the story goes, Odysseus and his men had recently set out from Troy. They arrived at an island where they wanted to look for provisions. There, they happend across a cave that someone had made into his home. Hungry and thirsty, Odysseus’ men helped themselves to food and drink. They want also wanted to leave immediately, but Odysseus insisted that they patiently wait for the owner to return.
When the occupant of the cave returned, he was revealed to be a cyclops, an uncivilized giant with a single eye. He sealed the cave entrance with a giant boulder, trapping Odysseus and his men inside. In violation with every custom regarding the proper treatment of guests, he then ate some of Odysseus’ men alive.
Killing the cyclops outright was impossible: the Greeks needed Polyphemus to roll away the boulder blocking the exit. Clever as always, Odysseus hatched a plan to escape. The Greeks gave Polyphemus undiluted wine to drink, causing the giant to become drowsy. When asked for his name, Odysseus told the giant that he was called Nobody. Eventually, the cyclops fell asleep. The Greeks then proceeded to sharpen a large stake, which they drove into the cyclops’ single eye, blinding him. The giant awakened with a shriek and called for help from his brothers, who lived on nearby islands, saying that he was hurt by “Nobody”. Naturally, he got no response.
Fortunately, the giant went out daily to graze his sheep, which he kept in the cave during the night. When he again wanted to let them out, he knelt near the cave entrance to ensure that the Greeks didn’t escape. But Odysseus and his men had tied themselves to the bellies of the sheep, so that when the cyclops touched the animals passing through the exit of the cave he only felt their woolly backs.
Having made it back safely to their ships, Odysseus couldn’t help but show off how clever he had been. He yelled out to Polyphemus that his real name was Odysseus. Polyphemus hurled a giant rock towards the Greeks in reply that only barely missed Odysseus’ ship.
The giant called upon his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to avenge him. It is this moment that doomed Odysseus to wander the seas for another decade. It is this moment, too, that would doom all of his men: each and every single one of the warriors who had accompanied their king to Troy were now destined to die.
Doomed by arrogance
While this episode shows off how cunning Odysseus could be, it also shows he was arrogant, and his arrogance doomed not only himself, but also his men. If Odysseus had been wise instead of merely cunning, he would not have teased the giant, but instead would have quietly made his escape.
Of course, if he had kept his mouth shut, we would never have been able to enjoy reading the Odyssey. And we would have been all the poorer for it.