Polyphemus the Cyclops

The story of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, appears in the ninth book of Homer’s epic poem, the “Odyssey.” 

After the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his men set sail for home, the island of Ithaca. The journey is fraught with danger and adventure, and at one point, they find themselves on the island of the Cyclops, a race of one-eyed giants who are notorious for their lack of hospitality towards strangers.

Odysseus and twelve of his men decide to explore the island and end up in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who is the son of the sea god Poseidon. In the cave, they find an abundance of cheese, milk, and lambs – signs of a well-off shepherd. Unable to resist the temptation, they start eating the cheese.

Polyphemus returns to the cave in the evening, herding his sheep inside before he seals the entrance with a gigantic rock that no human could possibly move. It is at this point that Odysseus and his men realize the magnitude of the danger they’re in. Polyphemus, seeing the strangers in his home, asks who they are. Odysseus cleverly tells him that their ship was wrecked and they are survivors, making no mention of their ship hidden in a nearby cove.

Rather than offering them hospitality, as was the custom, Polyphemus cruelly grabs two of Odysseus’ men, kills them, and eats them whole. He then falls asleep, leaving Odysseus and his men terrified and trapped.

Realizing brute force won’t prevail against the mighty Cyclops, Odysseus comes up with a plan. He and his men fashion a sharp point on a large wooden pole. The next morning, Polyphemus kills and eats two more men for his meal. Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong, unwatered wine which he had brought from his ship. Delighted with the drink, Polyphemus asks for Odysseus’ name, promising him a guest-gift if more wine is given. Odysseus tells him his name is “Nobody” (or “No-man” in some translations).

When Polyphemus falls into a drunken stupor, Odysseus and his men drive the sharpened pole into his single eye, blinding him. Polyphemus screams in pain and the other Cyclopes on the island come to see what’s wrong. When they ask who is hurting him, Polyphemus replies, “Nobody is hurting me!” The other Cyclopes, thinking he has gone mad or is being punished by a god, leave him alone.

The next morning, Polyphemus, though blind, removes the stone to let his sheep out to graze. However, he feels the back of each sheep to ensure the men are not riding out on them. Odysseus, ever cunning, has tied his men underneath the sheep and himself clung onto the wool of the last sheep to leave.

Thus, they escape the cave and rush back to their ship. As they are sailing away, Odysseus, in a moment of hubris, shouts back at Polyphemus, revealing his true identity. Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon, asking him to curse Odysseus with a long and difficult journey home, which indeed comes to pass. The Cyclops’ tale is a key part of Odysseus’ long and arduous journey home, reflecting his cunning as well as his hubris.

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