Saturday, March 14, 2015

Homer‘s The Odyssey: Polyphémus - More Then Meets the Eye

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.


Lisa Hill said...

I haven't read the Mitchell translation but I much preferred the Fagles to the old EV Rieu translation in Penguin Classics. I'll get hold a copy of the Mitchell for my next re-read, I love this book, and The Iliad too.
When I was teaching I used to read a children's edition by Gillian Cross to my year 5&6 students, and we used to have some excellent discussions about this difference between ancient and modern morality. (I did the same thing with Michael Morpurgo's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: are the seven Knightly Virtues still relevant today?)
The other thing that's relevant about Cyclops is that Odysseus's treatment of him is punished severely by Poseidon, the father of Cyclops. It is vengeance writ large. To blind a man and made him dependant, in a society that does not care for its fellows, is a wickedness. My classes used to have productive discussions about the difference between punishment and vengeance, and what's an appropriate penalty. Like all teachers, I used to love the moment when the class mood shifted from simple black-and-white perceptions to an understanding of the complexity of crime and punishment, and their recognition that 'an eye for an eye' is self-defeating in the end.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lisa - Thank you so much for stopping by.

It is amazing how these ancient works bring up issues of both how morality and ethics have evolved over the years as well as how they are relevant today.

It is also so interesting how different translators effect our perception of these works.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Perhaps Homer did have retribution in mind for Odysseus and his crew. This seems obvious to me after reading your commentary on Odysseus' behaviour and of that of his men.
Would Polyphémus have reacted the same if they just made themselves known to him before entering the cave? While I do agree with you that guests should be treated kindly, finding someone in your house treating themselves may not inspire the most welcoming thoughts.

Tea said...

Recently finished The Penelopiad by Martha Atwood. Loved it. So I'm in the mood for this one.

JacquiWine said...

Great post, Brian. I really do need to read The Odyssey (and The Iliad) one day. The closest I've got to it was The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, a book I had to read for book group. Have you read it? I think I'm in the minority here, but I didn't click with the style - it was a bit breathless for my tastes (more suited to a YA audience, perhaps?). I suspect I'd enjoy Homer a lot more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Indeed Odysseus, as he often does acted arrogantly and that led to him getting into trouble. Some of his crew even advised him to stay away from the Cyclops and he disregarded their advice. This is indicative as to just how complex the characters and their motivations are in this work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Leola - Thanks so much for stopping by.

The I really want to read Penelopiad and I might sneak a reading in soon.

I really have liked the other works that I have read by Margaret Atwood.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I have not read The Song of Achilles but it looks worth the read.

Both the Odyssey and the Iliad are so important in terms of art, our culture. With that I like the Odyssey a lot better.

The Iliad, for all its importance and value is at it's heart a terribly brutal story of war, grotesque killing and rape. I find it a little hard to take based upon my modern sensibilities.

James said...

Excellent commentary on Polyphemus and the source of his behavior. I agree that his isolation from society is important. One may contrast his treatment by Polyphemus with the way King Alcinous of the Phaeacians treated him as a guest.
I've read both the Lattimore and Fagles translations and recently began to read the translation by Stanley Lombardo.
A book that might interest you is Alberto Manguel's biography of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. It contains fascinating background commentary and chapters on authors like Virgil and Dante who were influenced by Homer.

Suko said...

"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."

Very well said, Brian Joseph. It may be hard for our modern sensibilities to understand, but this suggests that even the Cyclops had some sort of a code of ethics. A most interesting and thought-provoking post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi james - Thanks for the good word.

I was definitely thinking of King Alcinous when I mentioned that there were numerous examples of virtuous people showing hospitality.

I am curious about your thoughts concerning the Lombardo translation when you are finished.

Alberto Manguel's book looks very good. I am always torn as to whether I should devote reading time to the great works them selves or to analysis and commentary on the works.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks.

I think that Homer was a poet who infused humanity even in his villains.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Brian, It's nice to read your blog after being busy with life. I just read The Odyssey for the very first time. I read the Alexander Pope translation which I think hindered me a bit. So thank you for advice on the translation. The theme of hospitality really is a major theme of the work. Several times Odysseus is received by kings even though they don't know who he is until halfway through the visit. Cyclops really stands as the non-hospitable character here. I enjoyed your analysis.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Another book on our shelves that Mr T is forever encouraging me to read. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I often struggle with modern our morality differing from that of previous generations.

Trying desperately to put into words and despite several attempts (all deleted) failing miserably, I hope to be back with a more coherent comment later.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word and for stopping by Heidi.

It is amazing how important a translation is. I showed this version to my wife, who usually is not partial to epic poetry and she agreed how accessible it was. In my opinion Mitchel accomplishes this without dumbing it down.

It also also so interesting just how much the Greeks emphasized hospitality.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It is not a popular opinion. But I think that the morals of humans are slowly but surely improving. We are getting more empathetic and have a stronger and more logical sense of justice and fairness.

I think that the "Good old days" were in many cases - not so good.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian
Do you think that the Cyclopes could be suffering from a sense of Anomie, this in societies or individuals is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. In psychological usage it relates to the state of mind of a person who has no standards, or sense of continuity or obligation & that has rejected all social bonds. On a serious note agree with James's recommendation on the Manguel book, it's an interesting & enlightening read

HKatz said...

Interesting thoughts here about what's meant as proper kindness to strangers… hospitality in one's home vs. ransacking and pillaging.

The Greek gods themselves could be rather vicious. What is a morality structured on not offending them? Being kind to strangers in case one of them is a vicious god at your door or protected by one? Are you good or properly fearful?

Also, the post reminded me of this recent cartoon (the issues you raise about Cyclops vs. Greek morality are more complicated and I don't subscribe to moral relativism either, but the cartoon is funny):

JaneGS said...

As always, an interesting, thoughtful post. I've only read The Odyssey once but have heard the stories many times, so they still feel very familiar.

I actually don't have a problem applying modern morality and sensitivity to ancient stories. I do believe that there are archetypal stories that transcend time and place and speak, there are timeless stories from which we can understand the human condition, and we don't learn from these stories unless we think of them in the context of now.

I admire Odysseus, but I don't like him. I do think that the Cyclops has his own story, and your quote at the end does humanize him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I do remember your post on Anomie!

I actually think that can be a serious question. Indeed the Cyclopes is likely suffering from Anomie.

I will likely be giving the Manguel book a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - That is a great cartoon, it reflects my worldview in many ways. Since Jane also commented on the morality and a subject similar to meal relativism I am going to comment on it in a seperate comment below.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - thanks for the good word.

This story is indeed so ingrained in our culture that it seems like everyone knows it whether they have read the text or not.

I want to address the morality issue in a seperate comment. Please see below.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila and Jane - i have often said that I am not a moral relativist. But your comments have made me think a bit.

I am not a moral relativist on current day matters that might effect real living people. So if something that is being done now or in the recent past, we need to judge it based upon our morals and act upon them when appropriate.

On the other hand I think a little moral relativism might be necessary when reading ancient works of literature. (Where such ethical malfeasance does not really hurt anyone).

Otherwise reading things like this might be impossible. I understand not liking Odysseus.But frankly, if we judge him by today's standards he is a monster. He is a party to genocide. He has murdered helpless people, he has raped and he has enslaved people. I think that reading this work with too much emphasis on that reality would destroy its meaning.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. Very interesting post. I have recently got a nice hard back of the Odyssey but I want to read the Iliad first. My translation is by Samuel Butler. Don't know how great it is or not.

I have to respectfully disagree with your comments about morals. I don't believe a cultural norm determines right or wrong. After all, the Ten Commandments were in existence before the Greek myths were created so knowledge of good and evil has always been around.

And the Bible says "The truth is written on the minds and hearts of all men." Romans 2:15. And Romans 1:20 "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

As far as humanity suffering more or less, being better or worse now, I think it depends on which part of the world we're talking about. Different civilizations seem to have different golden periods. Right now, many nations in Africa and Asia would probably not appreciate how their plight has improved.

I personally believe the moral development in countries coming from a Christian background has improved. Our basic concept of human rights, regardless of individual beliefs are based on Biblical precepts.

It's a fascinating topic. Why were the Greeks so merciless? How did they come to develop their mores? Were they great believers in fate? Where did the concept of cyclops monsters or any of their stories originate?

Your review has sparked much for food for thought. Thanks!

seraillon said...

Not to offer hospitality to guests is rather a cardinal sin in the world of Homer (heck, in the world of Greece today even).

I'm reminded too of the code of honor in Ariosto's Orlando furioso, so strong that knights may engage in violent battle for hours and hours, but then take a break when offered food and a fire, and sit around eating, drinking and exchanging stories before resuming the fight in the morning.

Have you tried the Fitzgerald translation?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - What an insightful and weighty comment.

I do think that the ancient people's operated based on a morality, The Ten Commandments are indeed a good example. However I think that they have changes and improved. I agree that religion was a component in the improvement as well in the development of modern morality , as was the growth of reasoned and enlightened thought.

The Greeks were merciless but I think that just about every society in that time period was merciless in our eyes.

In regards to things not having improved in certain regions and cultures. Steven Pinker makes a very convincing argument that they have. If we really look at the atrocities that ISIS or the North Korean regime are perpetuating, such monstrosities were ten times more common in the world fifty years ago and a hundred times more common 150 fifty years ago.

I think that we pay more attention to atrocious human rights violations these days so the world seems worse. Ironically I think that things are improving because we do pay more attention to these things.

I wish that I knew more about Ancient Greek culture to discuss why they were such believers in fate.

I read good things about the Samuel Butler translations when I was trying to choose a translation. Too bad there is not time to read all the translations and to truly compare!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Indeed hospitality seems to be ingrained as a basic part Greek and other cultures that I wonder if it can be seen an early building block of our morality.

I have not read the Fitzgerald translation. As I mentioned in my reply to Sharon, I wish that I had time to read them all.

Caroline said...

I'm really glad you mentioned which translation you've reda as I've been tempted to read The Odyssey as well.
These thoughts are very interesting. The sacking vs hospitality is certainly questionable. I think it's something that still exists to some extent.
I'd never thought of this like that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - You raise a good point about things still being the same. Folks do have strange moral stances./ They will support all sorts of bad stuff yet get upset over relatively minor moral questions.

I wish that I had read other translations of this more recently so that I could do a fairer comparison. I am guessing that there are some very good translations into French also.

Anonymous said...

Great post and very interesting thoughts about the evolution of morale.

This is a classic I want to read but I want to find the right translation for me. It means that I need to stay away from the ones aimed at students of Ancient Greek and find one closer to literature.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks for the good word.

The really liked the Mitchell translation. I have to think that there are some real quality French translations.

Lindsay said...

I must admit I've only ever read extracts from this work and the Iliad, never the full texts. I do think I ought to try one, probably The Odyssey is the one I would go for. Like Jacqui I have read The Song of Achilles, it sounds as though I maybe enjoyed it more than her though. This is a brilliant post Brian. Thank for sharing it.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting to look at these characters from this angle. These old stories have so much depth to them when we delve in further. It's interesting to think of how the moral aspect of being hospitable to strangers in Homer's time and place has changed today for so many, depending on culture but also on society. wonderful post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Thanks so much.

I would personally begin with the Odyssey myself.

As important and meaningful as the Iliad is, it is essentially the story of a very brutal and inhuman war. The Odyssey also seems so much richer and dare I say fun?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Thank you.

I think that one reason that these works had such a deep impact upon our civilization is that fact that they ere so deep and rich.

The characters were indeed complex.

Maria Behar said...

I must sheepishly confess (no pun intended!) that I have not read this entire work....however, I did read an excerpt in high school.

Your point about the contradictions in ancient morality is an excellent one. It does seem bizarre to treat strangers with kindness if they are one's guests, yet, turn around and sack cities, murdering and raping their inhabitants.

Coincidentally, I've been investigating some Bible criticisms, and was reading about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah just yesterday. In that story, Lot, who is Abraham's nephew, and lives in Sodom, is visited by two strangers who are really angels, although he's not aware of that. Well, hospitality in the ancient Middle East was just as sacred as it was in ancient Greece. In this particular case, it totally offends our modern sensibilities, and you will see why.

When word got around that Lot had guests, a mob gathered outside his home. They pounded on the door, demanding that Lot bring the guests out so that the men in the mob (it was all men) could 'know' them. This is a typical Biblical euphemism for having sex. Lot refused, and the mob became even more insistent and belligerent. So Lot begged them to desist, and promised to give them his VIRGIN DAUGHTERS instead, so that the mob could do with them whatever seemed 'good' to them. (If you look up the passage, Lot actually says that!)

So, in other words, it was preferable for Lot's daughters to be raped by the mob, rather than that the same thing happen to his guests, who were, of course, MALE. Yes, they were angels, but they were MALE angels, as they were in corporeal form.

So your comments about Odysseus and the sacredness of hospitality for the ancient Greeks reminded me of this Bible tale.

If you'd like to read the story for yourself, it's Genesis 19:1-8.

As for the Cyclops, it seems strange that he would feel much more empathy and affection for an animal than for a human. He brutally killed and ate the humans, but did no such thing with the sheep. I wonder if a later writer inserted this passage about the ram into the poem, so as to somehow 'compensate' for the Cyclops's savagery.

Anyway, ancient moral codes definitely baffle the modern imagination! Animals are more valuable than humans, and men are more valuable than women. HORRENDOUS!!

Thanks for the great analysis!!
: )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I have read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, that story as well as many others in the Old Testament are so full of moral contradictions.

As you point out it is full of ghastly things. Women did were especially dehumanized. This seems true in most cultures.

I never thought about how hospitality was also emphasized in the Old Testament, but you are correct, it was. I wonder if hospitality was a kind of an early way post in the development of morality.

Though I skip the savagery part, sometimes I also feel more empathy for animals. I do feel a lot of empathy for people however. I think that this is common with a lot of people.