Here we have an exciting treat in the form of a new blog post all about everyone’s favourite grizzly giant, the Cyclops Polyphemus! This is from Kim, a PhD student in Classics at the Open University and member of the Athena’s Owls team who has worked tirelessly to set up a branch of the project in Liverpool. Kim’s research focuses on the reception of Polyphemus in literature from the Odyssey to Frankenstein, and she’s written this post discussing Odysseus’ treatment of Polyphemus to give some inspiration to budding writers for our latest competition!
The Cyclops, Polyphemus, and his blinding by Odysseus
Just in case you are in need of a little inspiration for your story, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the work I am doing on monsters at the Open University.
Myths about heroes and monsters are usually told from the hero’s point of view – how these brave and powerful men save everyone from the dangerous monster. But how dangerous are they really? Often the monsters are not being a threat to humans but are busily getting on with their lives when the heroes come to seek them out. For example, Medusa may have been able to turn people into stone if she looked at them, but she lived at the far ends of the earth and it took Perseus a very long time to find her in order to cut off her head. The Cyclops Polyphemus lived all alone in a cave by the sea tending his sheep and goats when Odysseus and his men arrived in his land, entered his home and blinded him with a red-hot stake.
It is the myths about Polyphemus that form the basis of my work, but I will be considering the stories from the perspective of the monster rather than the hero. I begin with his blinding by Odysseus as told in the epic poem, the Odyssey, by Homer.
The war with Troy had ended and Odysseus and his companions were sailing home. On their way they stopped off at a beautiful, deserted island where they found as much food and water as they could wish for. But Odysseus saw smoke coming from the nearby mainland and finding out who lived there and whether they would give him fine gifts was more important to him than carrying on with his journey home. So, with a few of his men he went to find out. They came across a large cave by the sea and went in uninvited. The place was full of pails of milk, wonderful cheeses and lambs and kids well looked after in various pens. The companions wanted to steal everything and get back to their ship as quickly as possible, but Odysseus was greedy and wanted to wait to meet the owner of the cave in case he would give him even more things! So, they stayed and ate some cheese and possibly killed and roasted a lamb or two.
The owner of the cave was a shepherd, a one-eyed giant Cyclops, named Polyphemus. He never killed his sheep or goats for food but just drank their milk and ate the cheese that he made from it. He lived all alone and so to him his flocks were his friends and companions, especially the biggest ram whom he loved above all the rest. When he returned and found Odysseus and his men in his home, he was very angry, so angry that he picked up two of Odysseus’ companions and ate them. He ate two more the next morning before blocking up the entrance to the cave with a heavy rock, trapping Odysseus and his men inside, then went out up the mountain for the day with his flock. He then ate another two when he returned in the evening. So, Odysseus got him very drunk on strong wine and after Polyphemus fell asleep, Odysseus and his men drove a red-hot stake into his only eye and blinded him. The next morning Polyphemus, blind and in pain, opened up the cave again to let out his flocks, feeling each one to make sure none of the men were amongst them. But Odysseus and his companions managed to escape by clinging to the underside of the sheep and, when they were safely outside, they herded the flocks onto their ship and sailed away back to the deserted island. There they killed all of Polyphemus’ sheep and goats, including his favourite ram, and ate them.
The poem also tells us that when Odysseus eventually arrived home, he found a lot of uninvited strangers in his house eating his food and drinking his wine and so in revenge he killed them all with the help of the goddess Athena.
Polyphemus killed and ate six of Odysseus’ companions but Odyssseus and the rest of his men killed and ate all of Polyphemus’ companions, and Odysseus also killed 148 men when he returned home to find them doing exactly what he had done in Polyphemus’ home!
So, what is the difference between Polyphemus and Odysseus? Why is Polyphemus the monster and Odysseus the hero? Why is Odysseus’ killing justified but that of Polyphemus, is considered monstrous? Is it just that Odysseus is a man, a hero, and Polyphemus is a Cyclops – a monster, ugly and different?
I hope this little example of my work helps you to come up with your own story! Good luck!