A recent reread of Homer‘s The Odyssey has me pondering the Cyclops Polyphémus. I believe that this is my fourth reading of this epic poem. This time around, I seem to have developed a mini-fascination with the one-eyed giant.
After Odysseus and members of his crew enter Polyphémus’s cave hoping for a warm welcome, the Cyclops imprisons the crew and begins to brutally murder and devour them one by one. Obviously, this monster is not a very sympathetic character. He embodies maliciousness. However, on closer examination, the depiction of his behavior raises some interesting questions. When we examine Polyphémus’s murderous actions, as opposed to the actions of the work’s hero, Odysseus, I think that some surprises are in store.
We are often told not to attempt to apply modern morality to these ancient works. Many of the tenets of our present day belief systems did not apply when they were written. This is fair enough, but I think that it will be helpful if we do a quick examination of the work based upon our modern values in order to determine what is not meant to be pernicious in terms of the Cyclops’s action.
Odysseus and his crew are the sackers of cities. When they overran Troy, as well as other places mentioned in the poem, they murdered defenseless citizens, raped and kidnapped the women, who along with the children were subjected to a life of slavery. Odysseus, based upon modern standards, is guilty of crimes against humanity and perhaps genocide.
When the crew encounters Polyphémus, he begins to bash them against the walls of the cave, and then he proceeds to gruesomely eat their lifeless, raw flesh. This is really ugly behavior, to say the least. However, in comparison to what the protagonists of the poem have done, it seems no worse, and perhaps not even as bad. In fact, again based our twenty-first century concepts of justice, one might say that Odysseus and his men received their just desserts.
So can we say that Polyphémus has done anything wrong based on the moral framework of the epic? The Cyclops is clearly meant to be a malevolent character, but perhaps not for the reasons that we think. Our first clue that there is something very wrong with the Cyclopes in general is presented at following juncture, when the society of the one eyed giants is described as,
"a violent race without any laws, who neither plant crops nor plow but leave their whole livelihood to the care of the gods. These creatures don’t come together in public assemblies and aren’t governed by statutes, but they all live in caves high up near the mountaintops, and each one is a law to himself and rules his children and wives and doesn’t care about any neighbor or kinsman."
I know only a moderate amount about Greek culture and ethics, but it seems that the Cyclopes are being criticized here for not living as a civilized community. Public assemblies and statutes were a big part of life in the Greek City states. The Cyclopes have none, and they do not care about each other or their community.
Before Odysseus encounters the giant, he wonders what the entire race might be like,
"are they savage and violent, or are they good law-abiding people who fear the gods and show proper kindness to strangers?"
The kindness to strangers seems key to me. I think that within the morality of the play, hospitality to visitors and strangers is an essential part of moral behavior. Hospitality is a trait that the law abiding and the reverent exhibit. Odysseus and his men enter Polyphémus’s cave, begin to eat his food and wait around for him as if they expect to be welcomed as guests. When the Cyclops arrives, he shows his true colors by brutally murdering and eating them.
Throughout other parts of the work, virtuous people show kindness and generosity to strangers. In one of many examples, when Eumaeus the swineherd believes that Odysseus is just a forlorn and destitute traveler, he explains why he took the disguised hero in and exhibited kindness, he states,
“It wouldn’t be right for me to treat any stranger, even one worse-off than you are, with disrespect, since strangers and beggars come under Zeus’s protection”
So, in the odd and ancient moral framework, it is acceptable to sack a city and to murder and rape its inhabitants. However, it is essential that one treats visitors with respect and kindness. Only the lawless who live without strong community do not provide such hospitality. This, of course, seems bizarre to me. It illustrates how the concept of morality has changed so much down the millennia.
Despite Polyphémus’s actions, another question arises; is the Cyclops a complete monster with no redeeming qualities? He may indeed be a monster, but I suspect that there may be a little humanity in him.
At one point Odysseus and his remaining men escape the cave by tying themselves to the Cyclops’s sheep who are leaving the cave for their morning grazing. Odysseus is tied to the last ram in the line. The blinded Polyphemus is surprised that his strongest ram, unbeknownst to him, weighed down by Odysseus clinging to him, is lagging behind the pack. He remarks
"‘Dear ram, why is it that you are the last to go out of the cave? Never before today have I seen you lagging behind the others, but always you are the first one to stride out and graze on the lush grass of the meadows, the first one to reach the stream,
and the first one who wants to return to the fold at evening. But now you are last of all. You must be grieving for your master’s eye, which a coward attacked and blinded… If only you were endowed with reason as I am and were able to speak, you could tell me where he is hiding."
Is Polyphemus showing affection to this ram? I think so. He expresses his belief that the ram is feeling empathy towards him. This seems to be an indication of reciprocated feelings. The balance of the words, where something of an admiration for the ram’s usual boldness as well as the Cyclops’s wish that the creature were endowed with reason, seems to support this conclusion.
As I hoped to illustrate above, Polyphemus and his society are a little more complicated and little more meaningful than meets the eye. The Cyclops seems to be a key that unlocks a door into some of the ethics and morality contained in this epic.
A note on the Stephen Mitchell Translation that I read. I had previously read the Richard Laittimore and Robert Fagles translations. My first reading was in high school and I do not remember who the translator was. I found Mitchell’s translation to be excellent. It was accessible and lacked what seemed awkwardness that seemed to characterize other translations. This translation also flowed very well. While easier to comprehend it still retains the grandness inherent in the work.