The Odyssey is full of fabulous creatures. Choose any one of them and indicate how such an image might have come into being. What is its relevance to the story and to the world? What does Odysseus’ interaction with the creature, even if it is a demigod, say about the place of human beings in the world of the ancient Greeks? What powers does the creature have that humans do not possess? How does Odysseus overcome that limitation?
The fabulous creature from The Odyssey I would like to examine is one of the earliest, strangest direct encounters Odysseus has with supernatural obstacles he has to use his cunning and guile to overcome: that is the cyclops, Polyphemus.
Homer may not be the original author of all of Odysseus’s tales; instead, many local, older, oral traditions and stories might have been amalgamated under his pen to form the epic of The Odyssey. The specific “protomyth” of Polyphemus is used as a “textbook case” by Julien d’Huy to “use phylogenetic comparative methods to make inferences about what the first version of a myth was like in the past and how it has changed over time” (d’Huy). He traces the original story back to the Paleothic period. Early humans may have gotten this original idea of a one-eyed monster from dwarf-elephant skulls they found, which were twice as big as human skulls and had a big hole in the middle where the trunk was (Wilson). Since these early Greeks probably had never seen elephants before, they may have interpreted these dwarf elephant skulls as monsters and created the cyclops myth.
Homer uses the flashback device to introduce us to Polyphemus, having Odysseus tell the Phaeacians the tales of his wanderings in Book 9 of The Odyssey. In short, Odysseus and his men shelter in Polyphemus’s cave after stumbling across his island, but get trapped in there when the cyclops rolls a giant stone in front of the only way in or out. Polyphemus eats a few of Odysseus’s men, forcing the trickster hero to come up with a way to escape. Luckily, Odysseus brought his good wine with him into the cave. He gets the cyclops drunk and blinds him with a sharpened stick. Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody”, so when Polyphemus yells for his cyclopean brothers’ to help him after “nobody” blinded him, they think he is crazy and needs to pray. Odysseus and his men then strap themselves beneath sheep and sneak out in the morning when the blinded Polyphemus lets them out to graze. As he and his men are sailing away and the giant is blindly hurling stones at their ship, Odysseus shouts out his true name, which leads Polyphemus’s father, Poseidon, god of the seas, to seek vengeance and cast Odysseus astray for 20 years.
While seen as boisterous nowadays, Odysseus revealing his true name to Polyphemus was par the course for the time. The ancient Greeks felt the way to achieve immortality was by having notoriety. This was a big theme throughout Homer’s earlier work, The Iliad. So, Odysseus did achieve what he wanted, becoming renowned throughout the world—both fictionally in The Odyssey and historically in the real-world, in that we are still telling his story today. Unfortunately for him, this original boast of his victory over the cyclops had disastrous effects and caused him to have a 20 year delay in his journey home, not to mention the loss of the rest of his men to Poseidon’s fury.
d’Huy, Julien. “ A Phylogenetic Reconstruction of a Prehistoric Tale.” New Comparative Mythology. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Homer. The Odyssey. Poetry in Translation. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Wilson, Andrew. “Meet the Original Cyclops.” The Classics Pages. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.