Welcome to the return of Myth of the Week, the world’s most inconsistent running weekly series of articles. In the last instalment I looked at…hold on, it’s been too long. I’ve no idea what it was. Let me check…Oh, Narcissus and Echo. That was a good one. (I actually did have to check.)
This time we will be looking at the character of Polyphemus the Cyclops. That isn’t Cyclops as in the kick-ass fella from X-Men who shoots lasers from his eyes. The Cyclopes were a race of giants with only one eye and the reason Polyphemus is so special is that he is the Cyclops that features in the Odyssey and was the son of the God of the Sea, Poseidon and his mother was Thoosa.
The Odyssey, for some context, was the second great epic written by Homer c.700 B.C. It documents the ten-year journey home of Odysseus from the Trojan War. Yes, ten years it took this bloke to get home though to be fair seven of those were spent on the island Ogygia, where he was kept by the nymph Calypso. Also ten years is the length of time the Trojan War lasted.
Odysseus is one of the craftiest characters in mythology. It was, in the broad myth of the Trojan War, his idea to create the Trojan Horse that would eventually breach the walls of Troy, with the Trojans believing it was a sign of peace, and claim victory for the Achaeans.
So, back to Polyphemus. In Homer he was portrayed as a rather vicious character who was also a shepherd. He ate a number of men that Odysseus sailed with. He basically trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave and they couldn’t make it out because there was a big, heavy boulder in front of the entrance. In order for them to escape, this is what the resourceful Odysseus did. Firstly, he got him blind drunk (snigger…you’ll get it in a moment) by giving him copious amounts of wine. Once Polyphemus keeled over in a drunken stupor, Odysseus took an olive branch and jammed it straight into Polyphemus’ one good eye, thus blinding him. (Blind drunk…get it? I know, it sucked but it’s all I had to make this someway entertaining.)
There is a certain element of comedy to this as prior to blinding him, Odysseus gives his name as being Nobody and in return for the gift of wine Odysseus promises he will eat Nobody last. As you can imagine this leads to many quirky statements of “it’s Nobody’s treachery” that is hurting him etc. which makes it sound like the lad has actually just gone a little mad. Comedy in Ancient Times eh…
As an aside if you ever read Aristophanes, the Greek Comedic Playwright of the late 5th and early 4th centuries B.C. then you’ll know that it’s absolutely filthy. Jimmy Carr eat your heart out. Let me hit you with some knowledge real quick; the term “Cloud Cuckoo Land” actually originates from Aristophanes’ Birds and its Greek name sounds way better. Nephelokokkygia. How cool is that? Don’t actually answer, I prefer the allusion of interest.
Back to the Odyssey and here’s another fun translation. The Greek for “No one” is me tis which is where the name Nobody comes from. However, if you run them together as metis it becomes “wily scheme or resourcefulness”. Thus the pun here is that no one/resourcefulness beat Polyphemus.
So, with Polyphemus blinded, Odysseus comes up with another plan. Polyphemus has to let his sheep out of his cave at some point so in order to make an escape without being caught, they tie themselves to the underbellies of the sheep, knowing that Polyphemus will check their backs. And that’s how they escape. It is parodied in Aristophanes’ Wasps. So, if you’re ever walking by a field and you see a man hanging off the underside of a sheep, maybe go up to him and say, “I know what you’re doing! You’re recreating Odysseus’ escape from Polyphemus’ cave”. Or call the guards.
When leaving, Odysseus displayed hubris which means excessive pride or arrogance. He calls Polyphemus a brute and mocks him by saying the gods have acted against him for his eating of his guests. (Zeus was the god of hospitality and hosts and all that). Polyphemus then tosses a bunch of rocks into the ocean after Odysseus’ ship. They miss but the Cyclops prays to Poseidon to punish Odysseus (but that’s for another day).
The final point worth noting about the myth is that a soothsayer called Telemus once told Polyphemus that a man named Odysseus would rob him of his eye. Polyphemus seems to have accepted this but said that he expected a “big handsome man of tremendous strength” instead of the aging Odysseus.
That’s Polyphemus in the Odyssey finished with. Now onto Polyphemus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was written in 8 A.D. Ovid’s presentation of him is of, again, a pastoral figure but this time he makes him more comedic than savage as he mixes him in with the heroic ethos. I’ve mentioned the heroic ethos before in other posts but no pressure to remember. I’ll fill you in again. The aspect of it that is relevant to this post follows the belief that bigger is better. The more warriors you kill, the better you are. The more treasure you receive, the better and so on and so forth.
In Ovid, Polyphemus loves a nymph called Galatea. Unfortunately for big ol’ Polyphemus, Galatea has her eyes on a lad named Acis. So at first Polyphemus tries to woo her. He describes how everything he has is so grand and big and on an epic scale. He says he has a vast amount of sheep, he will give her expensive gifts and even presents her with a pair of shaggy bear cubs as pets. That’s grand for him because he’s massive but Galatea is obviously human size and the bears are terrifying. Also when mammy comes around looking for them she will be in a whole heap of trouble.
He goes on to describe how all the ugly faults he has are actually saying that Jove himself does not have a bigger belly than he and that the prickly bristles of hair that cover his body are something to be proud of. He likens it to a tree being ugly without its leaves or a horse being ugly without its mane. He had a lot of self-confidence, I’ll give him that.
Amazingly, Galatea doesn’t quite go for the one-eyed tower of terrifying ugly and stays with Acis. Here, Polyphemus changes into the savage beast we get in the Odyssey, claims his strength matches his side and pursues Acis. And then he chucks a rock at him and smothers him to bits. Cheerful, right? But Acis then gets turned into a river god and everyone’s happy. (Not really, they both lose out on Galatea and Polyphemus comes out of it with a pretty damaged rep.)
I’ll finish on the same note I finished with the Odyssey’s version of Polyphemus, discussing the soothsayer. Ovid again mentions it but this time Polyphemus is more romantic about the whole thing, thinking that Telemus means he will fall in love. He calls the prophet stupid and says that his eye has already been taken, meaning of course by the sea-nymph Galatea.
So that’s that. Interesting, boring. I don’t know. You tell me. The only thing I’m certain of is that I meant to write this about nine months ago and now I finally completed it. If you have any questions about this myth/about another myth/would like me to write about another myth/would like me to stop clogging up the internet and shut down this website, then do give me a shout on either this thing…there should be a comment box below or on Twitter or Facebook.
I’ve no idea what myth to write on next. I will try to keep them shorter in future but maybe I’ll write on Scylla and Charybdis. Or I might do Oedipus. Or Pygmalion. There are a lot of myths out there.