The Odyssey, Book IX

Overview
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Polyphemus

Odysseus told Alcinous his story beginning with his name and his home on Ithaca. He then described his journey from Troy: they had sailed first to Ismarus, home of the Cicones, which they plundered, but Odysseus’ men lingered too long and the Cicones summoned their inland neighbours who attacked Odysseus and his men, killing a number of them. Odysseus and the rest escaped. Zeus sent a storm and they rowed to land and sheltered for two days. They set sail again for nine days, still driven by strong winds, and then landed in the land of the Lotus Eaters.

Some of his men ate the lotus fruit which made them forget their journey home so they were forcibly brought back to their ships and Odysseus and his men quickly sailed on, landing next in the land of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants.

A head of a Cyclops, 1st c. AD.

Although their land and a nearby island, inhabited by large numbers of wild goats, are very fertile they do not farm nor do they have craftsmen to build ships nor assemblies to make laws but they live independently in caves. Odysseus and his men beached their ships in the safe harbour of the island where the wild goats lived and they spent the next day hunting these and feasting and drinking the wine taken from the Cicones. They could see the smoke from the fires of the Cyclopes and could hear them talking and their sheep and goats bleating.

On the next day Odysseus and his crew sailed over to the mainland to investigate whether the Cyclopes were friendly or hostile, leaving the crew of his other ships behind. They caught sight of a large cave near the coast where large flocks of sheep and goats were penned at night, some distance away from anyone else. With twelve men and a goatskin of excellent wine given to him by the priest of Apollo at Ismarus, because he had protected his family, Odysseus approached the cave. It was empty as the Cyclopes was tending his sheep in the pastures. Inside they found lambs, kids, cheeses and milking bowls. His men wanted to take the lambs, kids and some cheeses back to their ship and sail away but Odysseus refused, wanting to meet the cave’s owner. They lit a fire, ate some of the cheeses and waited for the owner’s return.

Greek terracotta figurine of Polyphemus reclining and holding a drinking bowl. Late 5th to early 4th c. BC, Boeotia. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Polyphemus returned with firewood, drove the females into the cave to milk and lifted a massive stone to block the entrance. After milking his flocks and letting the young feed from their mothers’ udders he curdled half of the milk he had collected and re-lit the fire. At this point he saw Odysseus and his men cowering in the back of the cave. When Polyphemus asked who they were Odysseus told him they were on their way back from Troy and as suppliants in the name of Zeus they begged for hospitality. Polyphemus said he cared nothing for the gods and tried to find out where their ship was moored. Odysseus, in the hope of outwitting the Cyclops, told him his ship had been wrecked by Poseidon. Polyphemus then seized two of Odysseus’ men, banged their heads on the ground and, tearing them to pieces, ate them, washing his meal down with milk. He then went to sleep.

Odysseus’ first instinct was to kill the Cyclops with his sword but he realised they would be unable to remove the huge rock blocking the entrance. So he did nothing. The next day Polyphemus re-lit the fire, milked the ewes and goats and killed and ate two more of Odysseus’ men. He then drove the flocks out of the cave and left, re-placing the stone in the entrance. Odysseus planned their escape: they cut off part of Polyphemus’ huge staff, sharpened its point, hardened it in the fire and hid it under the flocks’ dung: with this they would blind the Cyclops when he was asleep. After Polyphemus had eaten two more of his men that evening Odysseus persuaded him to drink some of the wine he had brought, which he enjoyed so much he asked for more until he became drunk. When Polyphemus asked his name Odysseus cleverly told him it was Nobody.

The blinding of Polyphemus, a reconstruction from the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, 1st c. AD.

When he was asleep Odysseus heated the pointed stake in the fire and he and his men drove it into the Cyclops’ eye. He awoke, screaming in pain as he pulled it out. Hearing him the other Cyclopes gathered outside the cave asking him what was wrong. When Polyphemus replied that Nobody was trying to kill him they left. Then when he removed the stone to let his flocks leave Odysseus tied the rams, which had also been brought into the cave the previous night, in threes with one of his men tied to the underside of the middle one. Odysseus himself clung to the largest. The blind Polyphemus felt the backs of each animal as they left, not suspecting anyone was underneath them. Odysseus and his surviving men returned to their ship with the flocks.

As they sailed away Odysseus could not refrain from mocking Polyphemus who, in anger, hurled a huge rock at his ship which almost drove them back to shore. Odysseus could not be prevented by his men from shouting to Polyphemus his real name. Polyphemus remembered a prophecy that someone called Odysseus would rob him of his sight. He then prayed to his father, Poseidon, to ensure Odysseus never reached home, or, if he did, to arrive alone, with all his companions dead, and find trouble there. Odysseus sacrificed the huge ram to Zeus but it didn’t prevent the second part of Polyphemus’ prayer being answered. The next morning they continued on their journey.

Polyphemus attempts to crush the boat of the escaping Odysseus, painting by Arnold Bocklin, 1896.

Book VIII Book X