Book 9 Essays

By Thomas Van Nortwick


At the request of king Alcinous, Odysseus declares his name and country.

As Book 9 opens, we find Odysseus poised on the boundary between the fairytale kingdom of the Phaeacians and the grittier realities of Ithaka. We have seen the chaos in the royal palace at Ithaka and Telemachus’ visits to Pylos and Sparta. The hero himself has been released by the gods from Calypso’s island and survived the harassment of Poseidon, washing up on the shore of Scheria, naked and exhausted. Now he will tell the Phaeacians about his struggle to survive after leaving Troy.

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In the chronology of the story, the adventures he recounts have already happened, but we encounter them here for the first time in the poem. Thus, we see the monster Polyphemus against the background of Proteus, Circe in the shadow of Calypso. Likewise, the longer episodes in Books 9–12, the Cyclops, Circe, Hades, and—as a shorter coda—the Cattle of the Sun, repeat and enrich motifs and narrative patterns established in the first eight books of the poem. In each case, the poet draws on older mythic and/or folktale story patterns to explore the effects of Odysseus’s arrival in an exotic and threatening milieu. In particular, we see the playing out of a narrative pattern that begins with the Calypso episode: a male traveler’s penetration of a feminized milieu, leading to the release of Odysseus from potential oblivion. Since anonymity is akin to death in the heroic perspective, this release, signaled when Odysseus names himself or is named for the first time, is also a rebirth, one in a continuing series that culminates in Penelope’s recognition of her long-lost husband in Book 23. At the same time, we will see that along the way namelessness can be an advantage for the stranger in certain situations. This paradox is the key to understanding the poem’s layered representation of human experience, articulated through a complex interaction between anonymity and mortality.

Because the adventures in Books 9–12 take us out of ordinary human experience into a fantastic world of fairytale creatures, they have an immediate appeal to our imagination. But the various models for social organization that Odysseus and his crew encounter in these intriguing, non-human venues also offer the opportunity for deeper reflection on the human societies in Ithaka and elsewhere. The heroic return story orchestrated by Athena, with its rigid hierarchies and laser-like focus on restoring Odysseus to his rightful place in the royal palace and the royal bed, plays out against the background of a much wider world, expansive in its understanding of how humans live together and cope with what the gods put in their path.

One issue that will persist throughout Odysseus’s recounting of his adventures is the extent to which we trust him as a reliable narrator. At times, we can see that he may be shaping his narrative so as to burnish his own reputation as a heroic leader, citing the crew’s disastrous lack of self-control. In other situations, he is frank in admitting that it would have been better for him to make another choice. This distinction is mostly a matter of how Odysseus presents and interprets events after the fact. The poet offers little if any independent corroboration in his own voice for what actually happened in between Scheria and Ithaka, beyond what we hear from the hero himself. In the discussions that follow here, we will treat what Odysseus reports as reliable and assume that for the most part, his responses to the events are consistent with the poet’s own perspective on the material. In other words, Odysseus’s role as an embedded narrator within the larger story does not usually add another layer of complexity to our understanding of the poet’s representation of the world and with some exceptions, we will consider his voice to be interchangeable that of the poet’s.

At the end of Book 8, Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, notices the stranger’s weeping during stories about Troy by the bard Demodocus and shuts down the performance. The host-guest relationship is an important measure of civilized behavior in the poem and has been on display since the poem’s opening scenes, where the suitors show themselves to be terrible guests and Telemachus does his best to receive the disguised Athena. After Nausicaa’s primly proper treatment of the briny stranger on the beach at Scheria, Alcinous gets off to a shaky start as host, slow to attend to Odysseus as he sits huddled in the ashes by the royal hearth, exuberantly offering his daughter to a total stranger. The young men of the island also overstep, aggressively pressing the stranger to participate in competitive games. The king recovers, with some guidance from the queen, and after the social niceties have been observed on both sides, he returns to his questions: Where did the stranger come from? How did he arrive?

Book 9 opens with Odysseus’s response. He begins by polishing his own credentials as a good guest, waxing eloquent about the joys of a good meal accompanied by a godlike singer, lest his host think that his weeping indicated a criticism of the hospitality. Weeping often precedes recognition in the Odyssey, so we are primed for the next moment, when Odysseus reveals his name:

εἴμ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς Λαερτιάδης, ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν
ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, καί μευ κλέος οὐρανὸν ἵκει.

I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to all
for my tricks, and my fame reaches the heavens.

Odyssey 9.19–20

The cycle that began with Odysseus struggling ashore on Scheria is now complete. The nameless stranger has worked his way into the good opinion of the locals, charming the princess, humbly abasing himself before the royal couple. With some reluctance, he has allowed the Phaeacians to see his latent strength when throwing the discus, but without appearing to be a threat of any kind. Still just some beat-up sailor—albeit one with some impressive muscles—looking for help. When he is confident that he has won the trust of the royal family, he takes the final step and reveals his identity. He is reborn as Odysseus and soon, he hopes, he will be released from the isolated island of the Phaeacians, on his way back to begin the entire cycle over again on Ithaka.

The division of each of the Homeric epics into twenty-four books apparently came some centuries after the first versions of the poems were composed. The reasons for the divisions we now have between books do not seem to reflect any consistent pattern. Sometimes the setting and rising of the sun provides a natural break, but in other cases, two books span a single scene. The break between Books Eight and Nine falls into the latter category. Though we cannot know at this point what the original poet’s intentions were, the present arrangement does have the effect of beginning Odysseus’s stories at a high point, adding to his authority as narrator. In Books 9–12, Odysseus makes his case for why he deserves a ride home from his hosts, even though, as we have heard from Alcinous in Book 8, the mission will involve risk for the Phaeacian sailors. He begins from a position of strength, bolstered by his kleos (fame, renown, glory).

Now comes a description of his homeland, surrounded by other islands:

αὐτὴ δὲ χθαμαλὴ πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται
πρὸς ζόφον, αἱ δέ τ᾽ ἄνευθε πρὸς ἠῶ τ᾽ ἠέλιόν τε,
τρηχεῖ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ ἀγαθὴ κουροτρόφος;

Ithaka herself lies low in the sea and furthest away,
facing the dark, while the other islands look to the eastern sun,
a rugged place, but good for nurturing young men.

Odyssey 9.25–27

Ithaka mirrors its king: keeping a low profile, often wreathed in darkness, tough but also able to nourish and protect. Where people live in the Odyssey and how they interact with their surroundings usually tells us something about their character. The easy opulence of Sparta fits with the outward complacency of the king and queen. Ogygia reflects Calypso’s magical control over nature, the vegetation lush but somehow responding to the nymph’s eerie singing. The Phaeacians, with their over-refined culture of warm baths and dancing, averse to conflict except in the safe confines of the athletic field, represent a mediated relationship to the natural world, softer than the rugged proving-ground of Ithaka. Books 9–12 will continue to offer diverse models for how to live, all resonating in one way or another with Ithaka.

Perhaps to solidify his persona as a man driven by a single-minded desire for home and family, Odysseus now touches briefly on his encounters with Calypso and Circe. Each “wanted [him] for her husband” (29–32) holding him against his will. This description fits Calypso, as we have seen, but not the Circe we will meet in Book 10 and the differences will be important to the ongoing characterization of Penelope. For now, it serves Odysseus’s purposes to portray these two seductresses as interchangeable, bent on keeping the hero from his mission.

Odysseus launches his tale with the Cicones, the first civilization he and his crew reach after leaving Troy. The emphasis here is not so much on the unique qualities of the new place as with the ongoing problem of the crew’s lack of self-control. The operation begins straightforwardly, the Greeks killing the men and enslaving the women, gathering plunder for the long voyage. Once the larders are full, Odysseus wants a quick exit to avoid further hostilities, but the crew cannot restrain themselves, eating the locals’ cattle and drinking their wine, with the result that six crew members from each ship die. The message is clear: the casualties are not the fault of the leader, but his weak-willed sailors. This pattern will surface again at the end of the adventures, but we will see that in other places the responsibility for losses in the crew is not always theirs.

Further Reading

Edwards, M.W. 2002. Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry, 45–51. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heubeck, A. and A. Hoekstra. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 3–11. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 8–10; 89–90. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Pedrick, V. 1988. “The Hospitality of Noble Women in the Odyssey." Helios 15: 85–104.

Reece, S. 1993. The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 61–66. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 51–59. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 49–50. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.​​​​​​


The unfortunate raid on Ismarus. They are driven south by storm.

The battle with the Cicones goes well enough for most of the day, but the reinforcements summoned by the locals eventually prove too much for the Greeks, who are driven back out to sea after suffering significant losses. Odysseus makes a point of saying that after their costly battle, he would not let the ships sail far before the crew cried out three times to each of their lost comrades. The gesture is apparently part of a ritual to help the souls of the dead reach their final rest in Hades. Odysseus insists on his solicitude for the lost crew, perhaps to blunt any later criticism of his strategic decisions, some of which will cost more lives. 

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Once underway, the ships make good progress, sailing along from the coast of Thrace, where the Cicones live, until Zeus sends a storm that tears up their sails and forces the crew to row the ships back to the mainland. After two days on shore, they set off again and make it almost to the southern tip of the Peloponnesus. But just as it looks as if he will bring the expedition safely home, rounding Cape Malea and heading north to Ithaka, another storm drives the ships south past the island of Kythera.

We note that Zeus seems to be working against the mission, twice sending storms that eventually blow the ships off course. We might expect Poseidon to be named as the Greeks’ tormentor, since he is generally in charge of the sea and, as we discovered in Books 1 and 5, holds a special grudge against Odysseus for harming his son. Yet we must remember that the narrator here is not the omniscient poet, but Odysseus, who has no special knowledge of the gods’ motives. Hermes will materialize in Book 10 to protect the hero against Circe’s magic, but Odysseus does not know why, only that the god appears. Likewise, although we know that Athena loves Odysseus and may well be helping him all along the way home, he himself does not see her hand in any of his adventures until after she declares herself to him in Book 13. From his perspective, a storm arrives and blows the ships south. Since he does not know for certain that Poseidon is the instigator, he decides that Zeus, who is both the sky god and the head deity of the universe, must have sent the bad weather, for reasons as yet undisclosed.

Such an intervention is characteristic of the gods in the Odyssey, whose function in the story is different from what we find in the Iliad. There, the gods, in their carefree, perfected lives, serve as a constant foil for the struggle of humans to come to terms with the limitations of their existence; there, the squabbling between divine siblings, insofar as it affects only them, is always trivial and often comic, reminding us that only the fact of mortality requires humans to have virtue. The Odyssey insists—at least in the dominant heroic narrative directed by Athena—that we accept as the story’s overriding goal the restoration of right order in Ithaka, whatever the cost in misery and suffering. Gods in this kind of story appear principally to help or hinder that restoration. Poseidon hates Odysseus, Athena loves him, and Zeus tries to mediate.

The geography of the Greeks’ voyage home has so far been recognizable. Traveling toward northwest Greece from Troy by sailing along the southern coast of Thrace, then turning south toward the tip of the Peloponnesus reflects a realistic geography, as does blowing past Kythera when Zeus pushes the ships too far. But after this detour, we will leave the world of maps and encounter a fantastic series of places that cannot be fitted into any known geography of the Mediterranean. Ingenious attempts to trace the exact route of Odysseus’s journey began as early as the 7th century BCE in Hesiod’s Theogony (1011–1016) and continue to this day. Books claiming to recreate Odysseus’s travels, with glossy photos of actual places in the Mediterranean, rest on many coffee tables. Travel agents book tours that offer the chance to sail along the same route as the Greeks took. Entertaining as they might be, these projects are largely fanciful. The important thing about all of the places Odysseus visits after he goes by Kythera is that they are not inhabited by ordinary humans, but monsters and supernatural beings, whose habits and customs allow us to think about the societies in Sparta, Pylos, and Ithaka from a detached perspective.

Further Reading

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 133–185. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dougherty, C. 2001. The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination in Homer’s Odyssey, 3–16. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 32–34. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Stanford, W.B. ed. 2003. The Odyssey of Homer: I–XII, xxxv–xli. London: Duckworth & Co.


The Lotus Eaters. The Cyclopes.

Sailing on, the Greeks reach the land of the Lotus Eaters. This brief episode reflects economically the threat that underlies all of Odysseus’s adventures in one way or another, annihilating oblivion—both in the sense of forgetting and being forgotten. Forgetting home (νόστου τε λαθέσθαι 97) will ensure that the sailors will be forgotten. Like the Iliad’s warriors, Odysseus and his crew face violent death in many forms, but just as dangerous, to Odysseus at least, is the threat of disappearing while alive from the admiring gaze of others, becoming nothing.

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Forgetting who you are risks losing the ability to win glory, the foundation of heroic status. Choosing to be nameless, as Odysseus often does, is by contrast somewhat less threatening, since anonymity can be used to manipulate others and avoid enemies and then discarded when the right moment for self-revelation arrives.

The encounter begins with Odysseus sending some of his men to scout out the local settlement and assess the people, “eaters of bread” (89), who live there. The epithet might seem out of place, since the Lotus Eaters are distinguished by the fact that they do not eat bread, but only the flower of the lotus. As is often the case with Homeric poetry, this small anomaly repays attention. Bread, made by modifying grain, a ubiquitous food source, is a common symbol for human culture in the Mediterranean, appearing with this meaning as early as 1600 BCE in the Epic of Gilgamesh. As that story begins, Enkidu, a wild man who runs with the gazelles and drinks from their watering hole, encounters a harlot sent by a hunter whose traps he has been disturbing. Enkidu enjoys seven days of lovemaking with the harlot, then eats bread and drinks beer—another human product made from grain—for the first time. The animals shun him now, as he has crossed the threshold from nature to human culture. He travels to the city of Uruk to confront Gilgamesh and later accompanies the king on an adventure to defeat the monster of the Cedar Forest, a typical exploit for the “culture hero,” who establishes or preserves civilization by defeating a creature that represents chaos (GiI.1–V.344). Like Enkidu, the Greeks have crossed the boundary of the human world, but the Greeks are leaving rather than entering.

Odysseus drags his unwilling shipmates, who have eaten the lotus plant and forgotten home (97), back to the ships and they sail on to meet the Cyclopes. There follows the first of three major episodes around which Books 9–12 are structured. Odysseus’s description of the one-eyed creatures establishes their peculiar mode of living immediately. They are ὑπερφίαλοι, which can mean physically enormous, but usually with the connotation of “overbearing,” “arrogant,” or “savage,” and ἀθέμιστοι, “lawless.” The former epithet is the most common one used of Penelope’s suitors. Like those oafish men, Polyphemus will prove to be a conspicuous failure when it comes to the civilizing norms of hospitality, θέμιστες, that articulate the poem’s moral and ethical standards.

Our view of these curious creatures is immediately complicated by the lines that follow (107–115). Here is a version of what the Greeks called the Golden Age, when humans lived alongside the gods and had no need of practical skills to secure food and lodging. The basic form of the myth appears widely across the Mediterranean in the 1st millennium BCE, perhaps best known through the biblical story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2.4–3.24). Each version features some form of paradise, when crops grow without cultivation and trees bear fruit continuously. This ideal world comes to end when a breach occurs between gods and humans, causing the latter to be cut off from the abundance once provided without any labor. In the Greek version, first appearing in Hesiod, Works and Days (109–201), the Silver Age follows, when humans had to compensate for losing their access to nature’s bounty by developing civilizing skills, growing and harvesting crops, banding together for mutual protection and benefit.

From the outset, the poet sends mixed signals about the Cyclopes. They are boorish like the suitors, asocial creatures living at a lower level of civilization than humans, isolated in their atomistic families, trusting in the gods rather than each other. They are primitive, but like the first inhabitants of paradise they are so because they have no need of community or civilizing skills to extract their livelihood through agriculture. At the same time, Polyphemus will prove to be a fastidious shepherd, caring for his flocks, tidily arranging his cave and pens, and making cheese from the milk of goats. Homer seems to have an almost anthropological interest in the Cyclopes, whose way of living offers insights into the trade-offs implied by the Golden Age myth. As this rich and entertaining episode unfolds, ironies will multiply. Polyphemus will prove to be a grotesque parody of the good host, and Odysseus, the obvious candidate for the role of culture hero, a treacherous guest. The interplay between anonymity and kleos continues, as the trickster uses his namelessness as part of his plan to conquer the powerful monster with intelligence, rather than force. And once again, the crew will suffer to satisfy Odysseus’s thirst for knowledge.

Further Reading

Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 143–149. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 125–132. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 110–111. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Murnaghan, S. 1987. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, 91–103. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Segal, C. 1983. “Kleos and Its Ironies in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey, 201–222. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 60–61. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 8–38. New York: Oxford University Press.


The small uninhabited island on which Odysseus lands.

Having piqued our curiosity about the Cyclopes’ strange way of life, Odysseus abruptly shifts the focus to a nearby island where they do not live. The episode’s anthropological perspective continues, as we hear an extended description of the island’s many promising features.

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No human hunters toil across the ridges, harassing the goats that breed unmolested. With no flocks and no farmers, the land lies unplowed and unplanted, though it could bear crops in season. Its soft, moist meadows, stretching down to the sea, would be good for growing grapes. The land is smooth for plowing, with rich topsoil. An inviting natural harbor offers an easy landing, with no anchor stones needed; just run the ships up on the shore until the weather is right for sailing away again. Once there, travelers could refresh themselves at a natural spring that flows at the head of the harbor.

In short, an apparently splendid place to settle, much like the island of the Cyclopes. But the Cyclopes have never been there, because they do not know how to build ships or sail the sea. They have not needed to master the skills that humans developed to compensate for being cut off from the automatic abundance afforded by the Golden Age. This point comes through strongly in the portrait of the island, full of optative verbs to describe what settlers could do with such a lush spot: growing crops, keeping herds, making wine. Two centuries later, Sophocles captures the civilizing spirit the Cyclopes lack in a choral ode:

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ᾽ οἴδμασιν.
θεῶν τε τὰν ὑπερτάταν, Γᾶν
ἄφθιτον, ἀκαμάταν, ἀποτρύεται
ἰλλομένων ἀρότρων ἔτος εἰς ἔτος
ἱππείῳ γένει πολεύων.
κουφονόων τε φῦλον ὀρνίθων ἀμφιβαλὼν ἄγει
καὶ θηρῶν ἀγρίων ἔθνη πόντου τ᾽ εἰναλίαν φύσιν
σπείραισι δικτυοκλώστοις,
περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ:
κρατεῖ δὲ μηχαναῖς ἀγραύλου
θηρὸς ὀρεσσιβάτα, λασιαύχενά θ᾽
ἵππον ὀχμάζεται ἀμφὶ λόφον ζυγῶν
οὔρειόν τ᾽ ἀκμῆτα ταῦρον.

Many are the wonders and none more wondrous than man.
He crosses the gray sea in the wintry blast,
passing under the engulfing swells.
He wears away the highest of gods, Earth
imperishable, unwearying,
his plough going back and forth,
year after year,
turning the soil with the breed of horses.
He snares the tribe of flighty birds
and the race of fierce beasts and sea-dwelling fish
in his nets woven in mesh,
man the skillful.
With his wiles he conquers
the beast that walks the mountains, taming
the shaggy-maned horse and unwearying mountain bull
yoking them around the neck.

Antigone 334–52

The images here all celebrate what Homer suggests the Cyclopes are too primitive to achieve, the imposition of control over natural forces to create civilization: cutting through the sea in ships, wearing away the earth by plowing through it, trapping with guile the creatures who live by the rhythms of nature, constraining the force of animals to channel it for human use. With characteristic irony, Sophocles displays in his choral ode the operation of hubris, of humans overestimating their own power to control the world. This illusion will be shattered at the end of the play as Creon’s world crashes down around him. We will find a similar irony in the Cyclops episode, subtly understated and part of a larger meditation on the trade-offs between the easy abundance of the Golden Age and the heroic energy that would compensate for its loss.

Once the Greeks land on this promising island, crosscurrents continue, as supernatural powers appear to augment the crew’s civilizing skills. Expert sailors though they are, they cannot see land because the night is dark, the moon shrouded in clouds. Some god, Odysseus says, guides them into the harbor. After a good night’s sleep on the beach, the men wander the island in amazement. Again Odysseus senses the work of higher powers, as nymphs, the daughters of Zeus, flush out mountain goats for them to kill and eat. The contrast between a life made easy by the largess of the gods and the creation of human civilization through the imposition of hard-won skills on the natural world continues to be blurred as the Greeks approach their clash with the Cyclopes. And behind that polarity lies another, central to the Greeks’ understanding of the particular place of human life within the larger cosmos, between inborn excellence, often characterized as a gift from the gods, and the collective power of learned human culture. The hero, with his outsized abilities and appetites, is often crucial to the survival of his community. But his extraordinary powers can also disrupt the group he is working to protect. Achilles is the best fighter in the Greek army, their best hope against the Trojans. But his willful demands to be recognized as preeminent eventually tear the army apart. When Hector travels back to Troy from the battlefield, he brings the war into the city with him, separated from those he loves by his fierce loyalty to his duties as a warrior. Oedipus, who defeats the Sphinx with his great intellect, unwittingly imperils the city he vows to save from plague by arrogantly refusing to heed the warnings of the prophet Tiresias.

Odysseus presents a vivid example of these trade-offs, since he is characterized throughout the poem as a loner, one who trusts no one and relies on his cleverness and duplicity to overcome obstacles. The series of encounters in Books 9–12 ostensibly portrays the Greeks negotiating various exotic venues, but in fact the needs of crew are always subordinated to the desires of their captain. The central drama pits Odysseus, with his indomitable will and great intelligence, against the forces that would keep him from his appointed goals. Because he confronts nonhuman creatures, Odysseus initially seems to embody the essence of what is human. But his impact on the groups he enters is almost always destructive, leaving us with an ambiguous assessment of the glories of civilization.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 114–115. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey, 5; 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 83–84. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 2–4. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

———. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 47–49. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Hunting and feasting for one day. Then Odysseus sails with one ship to the land of the Cyclopes.

The Greeks feast all day and drink the red wine they plundered from the Cicones. Looking across the water, they see smoke rising from the island of the Cyclopes and hear the bleating of sheep and goats. We can imagine the curiosity building in the mind of Odysseus, and sure enough, the next morning he calls an assembly, proposing that he and the men on his ship sail across to reconnoiter.

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Lines 175–176 also appear verbatim at 6.120–121 and 13.201–202. Like the stranger who lands on the shores of Scheria and Ithaka, Odysseus is curious but also aware of the possible dangers that might await him. We know, as he does not, that these creatures are not even human, much less hospitable. The anthropological exploration continues.

Odysseus and his crew arrive on the island of the Cyclopes to find a telling scene. Near the water is a lofty cave, overgrown with laurel, the first we have seen since Book 5, when Hermes arrived at the cave of Calypso. Comparing the two caves is instructive. The earlier episode opens with the nymph inside the cave, spinning and singing, a threatening combination in the Odyssey:

πῦρ μὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐσχαρόφιν μέγα καίετο, τηλόσε δ᾽ ὀδμὴ
κέδρου τ᾽ εὐκεάτοιο θύου τ᾽ ἀνὰ νῆσον ὀδώδει
δαιομένων: ἡ δ᾽ ἔνδον ἀοιδιάουσ᾽ ὀπὶ καλῇ
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένη χρυσείῃ κερκίδ᾽ ὕφαινεν.
ὕλη δὲ σπέος ἀμφὶ πεφύκει τηλεθόωσα,
κλήθρη τ᾽ αἴγειρός τε καὶ εὐώδης κυπάρισσος.
ἔνθα δέ τ᾽ ὄρνιθες τανυσίπτεροι εὐνάζοντο,
σκῶπές τ᾽ ἴρηκές τε τανύγλωσσοί τε κορῶναι
εἰνάλιαι, τῇσίν τε θαλάσσια ἔργα μέμηλεν.
ἡ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ τετάνυστο περὶ σπείους γλαφυροῖο
ἡμερὶς ἡβώωσα, τεθήλει δὲ σταφυλῇσι.
κρῆναι δ᾽ ἑξείης πίσυρες ῥέον ὕδατι λευκῷ,
πλησίαι ἀλλήλων τετραμμέναι ἄλλυδις ἄλλη.

A great fire was burning in the hearth, and the sweet smell
of split cedar and sweetwood wafted across the island
from their fires. Inside, the goddess sang in a lovely voice
while she was weaving, back and forth with a golden shuttle.
Around the cave a forest flourished,
of alder, black poplar, and fragrant cypress,
and birds with spreading wings made their nests there,
horned owls and hawks and long-beaked sea birds
like ravens but doing their work on the water.
And across the opening of the hollow cave
a vine flourished, heavy with ripened grapes.
Next to it were four fountains, all in a row, running
with shining water, turned to flow in different directions.

Odyssey 5.59–71

Everything about this venue is redolent with feminine seductiveness. As enclosed spaces, caves can be threatening to men in the poem, a physical symbol of the oblivion portended in the nymph’s name, Καλύψω, “I will smother.” The combination of fragrance, shiny things, and ambrosia—soon to be served to Hermes by the nymph (5.93)—is often associated with trickery in the Odyssey. The lush vegetation hints at unrestrained fertility, yet the fountains suggest that there is some kind of order imposed, perhaps by goddess’s voice, which seems to float over it all. Singing in the Odyssey is gendered, the male bards offering narratives of the famous deeds of gods and heroes, while the females make mysterious music that seems to carry a power threatening to men. The former contribute to the human project of civilization, creating kleos with its attendant status; the latter send out alluring sounds that surround the listener, blurring the outlines of human order. Calypso, Circe, and of course the Sirens, all sing enticingly (5.61; 10.221; 12.44, 184–191). When he crawls onshore at Scheria, Odysseus is on the alert for just this sort of threat:

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;
ὥς τέ με κουράων ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀυτή:
νυμφάων, αἳ ἔχουσ᾽ ὀρέων αἰπεινὰ κάρηνα
καὶ πηγὰς ποταμῶν καὶ πίσεα ποιήεντα.
ἦ νύ που ἀνθρώπων εἰμὶ σχεδὸν αὐδηέντων;

Ah me, what sort of people live here?
Are they savage and fierce and lacking justice
or hospitable to strangers and possessing of godly minds?
That’s the voice of girls wafting around me,
or nymphs, who haunt the steep summits of the mountains
and springs of rivers and grassy meadows.
Am I near people who speak my language?

Odyssey 6.119–25

The cave of Polyphemus, by contrast, sends mixed signals. Hollow and dark, its edges softened by laurel, the space radiates danger for men. Its immediate surroundings are more reassuring: in front of the opening, flocks rest tranquilly in a space fenced—and thus structured—by large boulders, pines, and oaks, much like the pens of human shepherds. But this is no ordinary herdsman. He is πελώριος, “huge,” “monstrous,” the word used elsewhere to describe Skylla (12.87) and the beasts that faun on Circe (10.219). Not only is he monstrous, but apart (ἀπόπροθεν), alone (οἶος). Both words resonate with the typical isolation of the hero, separated from his fellow humans by his enormous gifts and often by his arrogant temperament. For a male hero, to be alone follows, as we have said, from his inborn nature.

So far then, the language signals a curious amalgam, a monstrous yet potentially heroic shepherd, living in a dangerously feminine cave, we might say. The next verses add to the crosscurrents, pressing the non-human aspect of the Cyclops:

καὶ γὰρ θαῦμ᾽ ἐτέτυκτο πελώριον, οὐδὲ ἐῴκει
ἀνδρί γε σιτοφάγῳ, ἀλλὰ ῥίῳ ὑλήεντι
ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων, ὅ τε φαίνεται οἶον ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων.

For indeed he was a monstrous wonder to behold, not like
a bread-eating human, but rather a woody peak
in the tall mountains, that appears alone, apart from the others.

Odyssey 9.190–92

With Odysseus and his crew on the threshold of the cave, Homer paints a complex portrait of the creature they are about to meet. He is frightening, to be sure, physically intimidating, sharing with Calypso and the Lotus Eaters the potential for erasing the Greeks from human memory. And yet, his tidy husbandry of flocks hints that the role of chaos monster might not quite fit him.

Further Reading

Nagler, M. 1996. “Dread Goddess Revisited.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey, 141–162. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey, 22–23. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 47–50. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 31–33. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1980. “Apollonos Apate: Associative Imagery in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 227–292.” Classical World 74, 1–5.

———. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 50–53. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Mooring the ship, Odysseus goes with twelve men to the Cyclops’ cave, which is described.

Odysseus yields to his curiosity and chooses twelve men to go with him to the Cyclops’s island. Before setting off, he makes sure to pack one crucial item, a goatskin sack of dark, sweet wine, a gift from Maron, a priest of Apollo. This is no ordinary vintage and is available only to the priest and his wife. The fragrance seems to preoccupy Odysseus.

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It is ἡδύς, “sweet,” (197, 205), θεῖος, “divine,” (205), μελιηδής, “honey-sweet” (208). When poured, its effects are powerful (210–211)

Like the savor of burning cedar and sweetwood in Calypso’s cave, the wine engages the senses, its fragrance floating around; like the seductive voices of Calypso, Circe, and the Sirens, it beckons those who approach, drawing them toward danger. As we have noted, the combination of fragrance, ambrosia, and shiny things is often associated with trickery in the Odyssey Later, as he drinks and falls victim to Odysseus’s trickery, Polyphemus himself will compare the wine to nectar and ambrosia (9.359). Odysseus has had a premonition that they will meet a wild, strong man, ignorant of laws and good customs. Now he has a weapon.

Odysseus and his chosen companions arrive at the cave to find it unoccupied for the moment. The Cyclops, it seems, is out in the pasture, tending to his flocks. They enter the monster’s home and gaze in wonder at the tidy scene within, baskets filled with cheese, pails overflowing with milk and whey, pens crowded with lambs and kids, carefully segregated according to age. We encounter again the abiding paradox of the Cyclops episode: the loutish, dangerous creature is also a methodical, attentive shepherd. The interplay of civilized and savage behavior, not confined to Polyphemus only, will run through the entire episode, part of the poem’s anthropological meditation on the complexities of human experience.

The crew begs him to plunder the Cyclops’s stores and then sail away to safety. In retrospect, this would have been better, he admits (228–230).

The centrifugal version of Odysseus, hungry for knowledge and experience, even at the risk of endangering himself and others, emerges here for the first time in the hero’s recounting of his adventures. In the poem’s opening verses, Homer explicitly links his hero’s desire for knowledge and the suffering he endured (1.3–4). There, the pain is said to be in the service of saving himself and his crew. But here and elsewhere, as we will see, that goal gives way to Odysseus’s restless curiosity. His rueful admission here comes, let us remember, after he has lost all of his crew. Of course, not all of the losses can be blamed on Odysseus. Their lack of self-control got his companions into trouble with the Cicones and will lead them to ignore his warnings about the bag of winds from Aeolus and the cattle of the sun. But some of the dangers they encounter might have been avoided, had they not been sacrificed to their captain’s need to “know the cities and minds of many” (1.3).

These two urges in Odysseus, to reach home and to seek new knowledge, are not always in conflict. Finding out as much as he can about the people and places he visits on his journey, while hiding his own identity, gives him leverage as he makes his way toward Ithaka. Knowledge is, in this sense, power in the poem. Yet we cannot help but feel that the alter ego Odysseus creates for himself in the false tales he spins for Athena, Eumaeus, Telemachus, and Penelope, wandering the Mediterranean in search of adventure and riches, reflects something inside him that peeks out at moments like this. And the uneasiness many, including later storytellers, have felt about the end of the poem can be attributed at least in part to the feeling that the dutiful king, husband, father, and son who finally triumphs will not be content with staying home. Likewise, the tension between these impulses in the hero finds its analog in the larger structure of the poem in the coexistence of two different worlds: the Ithaka of Athena’s return story, where the centripetal hero can reestablish his kingship with all its attendant hierarchies, and the world through which the anonymous stranger passes, teeming with possibilities, wide open to all the vagaries of ordinary human experience.

Odysseus insists on waiting in order to see Polyphemus, but also to find out if he will offer them ξείνια, “guest gifts.” We know at this point in the poem that the issue is not simply one of manners. How strangers behave when they arrive in a new place and how they are treated are important measures of moral worth in the Odyssey. Despite a wobbly start, Alcinous proves to be an excellent host for Odysseus, as do Nestor and Menelaus for Telemachus. Even the gods observe the niceties, as we see when Hermes arrives unannounced at the cave of Calypso (5.87–97). We may feel that these matters are somewhat trivial amid dangerous encounters with monsters, but the background of the Odyssey is the 9th century BCE in the Mediterranean, a time of considerable unrest, with wandering people uprooted from their homes. When night fell, there would be no anonymous hotel in which weary travelers could find rest. How one is treated by strangers could be a matter of life and death.

Is, then, the creature going to be a proper, civilized host, or a dangerous savage? So far, as we have seen, the signals have been mixed. Behind the episode lies a potent mythical paradigm. The figure of the “culture hero,” who battles against a chaos monster and by conquering it preserves civilization, is ubiquitous in stories across the Mediterranean, appearing as early as The Epic of Gilgamesh in the 2nd millennium BCE: Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat Humbaba, monster of the Cedar Forest; Apollo slays Pytho, a giant serpent, the rotting body of which marks the site of the god’s oracle at Delphi; Zeus conquers Typhon, a Storm God, and secures the rule of the Olympian gods. The story pattern appears in the Iliad, but in a more complex form, befitting an ambiguous hero. Achilles, cutting a gory path toward Hector, throws so many dead bodies into the river Scamander that its flow is blocked by corpses and the river’s god protests. Achilles dismisses the complaint, prompting the god to make the river overflow its banks and threaten to drown the hero. Hephaestus, prompted by Hera, starts a back-fire and drives the river back into its channel (Iliad 21.209–382). Achilles begins as the chaos monster, clogging the flow of nature, then, with the help of the gods, becomes the agent for restoring order.

The echoes of this story pattern are more muted in the Cyclops episode, but no less central to its ironies. Odysseus seems at first a fitting candidate for the culture hero, facing the one-eyed creature, who eats his guests instead of feeding them, as a good host should do. But as the episode unfolds, we will see that the poet blurs the outlines of the story’s logic. Polyphemus, as we have seen, is a rather tidy monster in his own way, and Odysseus will prove to be a dangerous guest.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 117–118. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Finley, M. 1978. The World of Odysseus. London: Harmondsworth.

Nagler, M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 147–162. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pedrick, V. 1988. “The Hospitality of Noble Women in the Odyssey.” Helios 15: 85–104.

Peradotto, J. 1990. The Man in the Middle: Name and Narration in Homer’s Odyssey, 53–58. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey, 79–83. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 36; 74–76. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 30–35. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


The monster arrives and questions Odysseus.

Ambiguities persist as the Greeks first perform a proper sacrifice, then settle, uninvited, into the cave and help themselves to some cheese while they await their host. He arrives with a crash, throwing down a huge stack of wood for his fire. The interlopers scatter in fear to the dark recesses of the cave, then watch as Polyphemus attends to his chores with his usual fastidious care.

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Herding the female goats and sheep into the cave, leaving the males outside in their pens, he blocks the entrance to the cave with a huge boulder, then milks the sheep and goats, finally putting a lamb or kid under each female to nurse. Half of the milk goes into baskets for cheese, the other half into pails for his own meals.

Polyphemus’s monocular face, huge size, and cannibalistic eating habits would seem to mark him as an apt candidate for chaos monster, embodying and/or effecting a scrambling of the usual categories that define proper order in the universe. But what the Greeks witness here sends a different message: nurturing husbandry, careful sequestering of his flocks according to sex, judicious apportioning of the dairy products, all aimed at preserving the orderly categories that will ensure a fruitful harvest of resources. The poet seems determined to keep the monster’s status indeterminate.

Such a liminal figure is useful for Homer, as for all storytellers, drawing our attention to boundaries that define ordinary experience, prompting us to consider why they should happen to be where they are. Proteus the shapeshifter, also a shepherd, performs this function even more overtly (Od. 4.383–424). Because he can assume the form of many other elements in the universe, other creatures and even water and fire, Proteus defies easy categorization. Menelaus is told that in order to find out how to escape from Egypt, he must restrain this “Old Man of the Sea,” as he is called, preventing him from changing form. He must, in other words, find the knowledge he needs by bounding out the myriad alternate shapes—and thus, categories of existence—that Proteus can assume, confining the creature to one kind of being. By putting limits around what is potentially limitless, Menelaus can produce the requisite knowledge. The entire episode is a symbolic representation of the Greek paradigm for human civilization, imposing human order on the untamed forces of nature to channel its power for human use. That the Polyphemus episode does not fit as easily into this paradigm underscores the fact that the poet is not in this case looking for clarity but rather a fruitful ambiguity that trains our attention on the question so often raised by Greek literature: what does it mean to be human?

The rituals of hospitality resurface as Polyphemus catches sight of the intruders. We might expect a violent response, but again the poet surprises us:

ὦ ξεῖνοι, τίνες ἐστέ; πόθεν πλεῖθ᾽ ὑγρὰ κέλευθα;
ἦ τι κατὰ πρῆξιν ἦ μαψιδίως ἀλάλησθε,
οἷά τε ληιστῆρες, ὑπεὶρ ἅλα, τοί τ᾽ ἀλόωνται
ψυχὰς παρθέμενοι κακὸν ἀλλοδαποῖσι φέροντες;

Oh strangers, who are you? From where do you sail the watery waves?
Do you travel on business, or wander recklessly
like pirates, over the sea, roaming around,
risking your lives and bringing evil to those from other places?

Odyssey 9.252–55

The monster is in highly civilized company here. These words appear, verbatim, on the lips of Nestor, one of the poem’s exemplary hosts (3.71–74) and again in the post-Homeric Hymn to Apollo, from the mouth of the god himself (Hymn Hom. Ap. 452–455). As it happens, Polyphemus is only a middling host in this case, since the strict protocol, observed elsewhere in the poem, is for the host to make the guest comfortable with food and drink before asking who he is (see e.g., 4.60–64). Nevertheless, though frightened, Odysseus takes his cue from Polyphemus’s flawed civility, describing the Greeks’ return from war and its attendant miseries. They are from the army of Agamemnon, whose fame stretches to the heavens, honored for his success in sacking Troy. Since the Cyclops seems familiar with civilized discourse, perhaps he will be moved by the plight of men who fought in a famous war. Hoping to build on the leverage that fame might afford them, Odysseus pulls out all the rhetorical stops. He and his crew are “at his knees” (266), in hopes that he will give them a “guest gift,” as is the custom in civilized society. They are suppliants, under the care of Zeus himself, who honors suppliants and guests, avenging any wrongs done to them. We note, however, that Odysseus does not reveal his name to the monster, a familiar tactic that will be crucial to his survival.

Odysseus’ gambit here has a second life in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, in a scene much influenced by the Cyclops episode. Philoctetes, a warrior headed for Troy, is bitten by a snake at the shrine of Asclepius, causing a festering wound that will not heal. Odysseus convinces the Greeks to abandon him on the remote and desolate island of Lemnos. A prophecy ten years later predicts that Troy will only fall if Philoctetes returns with his famous bow. Odysseus heads an expedition back to Lemnos, which includes Neoptolemus, son of the now-dead Achilles, to fetch the abandoned soldier. As the play opens, we see that Philoctetes has had to survive by hunting with his bow, scratching out a dismal, lonely existence, living in a cave. The Greeks come upon the cave when Philoctetes is out hunting and, like Odysseus and his crew, proceed to explore:

I see an empty dwelling, with no one there.

Are there things needed for making a home inside?

Yes, trampled-down leaves as if for someone living there.

The rest is empty, with nothing under the roof?

There’s a cup, made from one piece of wood, the work
of a bad craftsman, and stones for making a fire.

Those treasures you mention must be his.

Aha! Here’s something else: rags being
dried by the sun, stained with pus from some sore.

Sophocles, Philoctetes 31–39

There is here, as in the Cyclops episode, a certain anthropological cast to the investigation. What kind of creature lives in such bare and solitary surroundings? When Philoctetes approaches soon after from his hunt, the Greeks are alarmed by the sound of his cries and stumbling footsteps. Is this cave creature some kind of primitive savage?

Philoctetes’s first words recall those of Polyphemus:

Hail, strangers!
Who are you, who have put in to this deserted land
that lacks a good harbor?

Sophocles, Philoctetes 219–21

In the exchange that follows, Sophocles presents his “monster” in an entirely sympathetic light, playing against the implications of the Polyphemus paradigm. He greets the strangers warmly, expresses delight at hearing the Greek language, “most beloved of sounds” (234). When Neoptolemus identifies himself, Philoctetes declares him to be the “child of the dearest father,” from “a dear land” (242). He is at pains to identify himself as a patriotic Greek soldier, not some frightening derelict. The rehabilitation of Philoctetes that begins here proceeds through the rest of the play, until he emerges as the divinely ordained hero who seals Troy’s doom. Sophocles has clearly thought carefully about the Cyclops episode, incorporating into his play much of the irony generated by Homer’s deceptively civilized cave dweller. And Polyphemus, like Philoctetes, will undergo some rehabilitation before the Greeks leave.

The savage returns in Polyphemus’s reply to Odysseus’s request for hospitality. Odysseus is a fool (νήπιός, 273) or someone from far away indeed, to expect leniency from him. The Cyclopes are much stronger than the gods and have no need to respect any of them, even Zeus. He will treat the Greeks any way he wants. Nothing we have heard suggests that the Cyclopes are in fact more powerful than the gods. Rather, Polyphemus’ arrogance primes us for the retribution we know is coming. As the episode develops, we will see that the norms of hospitality keep surfacing as paradigm against which the poet casts his complex meditation on heroism and the nature of human civilization.

Further Reading

Edwards, M.W. 1975. “Type Scenes and Homeric Hospitality.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 105: 51–72.

Lateiner, D. 1993. “The Suitors’ Take: Manners and Power in Ithaca.” Colby Quarterly 29: 172–196.

Reece, S. 1994. The Stranger's Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene, 123–144. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thalmanν, W. 1992. The Odyssey: Αn Εpic of Return, 131–132. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Van Nortwick, T. 2015. Late Sophocles: The Hero’s Evolution in Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus, 43–52. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Polyphemus makes meals of the comrades of Odysseus

Polyphemus asks about the location of the Greeks’ ship, “trying [the hero] out” (281). In response, Odysseus launches his campaign to outmaneuver the Cyclops with δολίοις ἐπέεσσι, “crafty words,” concocting a story about how Poseidon drove the ship onto the rocks, destroying it. Here, for the first extended period in the poem, we see Odysseus having to rely only on his wits to triumph against overwhelming physical force.

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We are reminded that the Odyssey offers a fundamentally different perspective on the hero from the one we find in the Iliad, where the hero’s power is almost always expressed physically. We may be horrified by Achilles’ excesses in pursuit of Hector, but we do not question his claim to be the best warrior, the epitome of masculine force. Odysseus has his moments of martial prowess in the poem, principally the slaughter of the suitors, but his renown is based on intelligence and the ability to get the best of his opponents through wily deception. And if we have given assent to the primary premise of the Odyssey, the overriding need for the restoration of the hero to his proper place, we are ready not only to approve of Odysseus’ deceptions, but even to cheer him on (see Introduction, para. 6-7). Such attitudes are repugnant to Achilles, the Iliad’s major hero, as he says in reply to Odysseus:

ἐχθρὸς γάρ μοι κεῖνος ὁμῶς Ἀΐδαο πύλῃσιν
ὅς χ᾽ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθῃ ἐνὶ φρεσίν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ.

Hateful to me like the gates of Hades is that man
who hides one thing in his heart and says another.

Iliad 9.312–13

In the Iliad, Western literature’s first tragic narrative, words and deeds are seen as irrevocable; in a comic narrative, lies and deception, essentially revocable deeds, are fine, as long as they help to restore right order, however the story defines it.

We see these distinctions dramatized in Odysseus’ deliberations over the sleeping Cyclops:

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ βούλευσα κατὰ μεγαλήτορα θυμὸν
ἆσσον ἰών, ξίφος ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ,
οὐτάμεναι πρὸς στῆθος, ὅθι φρένες ἧπαρ ἔχουσι,
χείρ᾽ ἐπιμασσάμενος:

Drawing near to him, I considered whether I
should draw my sharp sword from beside my thigh
and stab him in the chest, where the midriff meets the liver,
feeling for the right place with my hand.

Odyssey 9.299–302

Achilles, provoked by Agamemnon’s insults, reaches a similar moment of decision:

ὣς φάτο: Πηλεΐωνι δ᾽ ἄχος γένετ᾽, ἐν δέ οἱ ἦτορ
στήθεσσιν λασίοισι διάνδιχα μερμήριξεν,
ἢ ὅ γε φάσγανον ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ
τοὺς μὲν ἀναστήσειεν, ὃ δ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδην ἐναρίζοι,
ἦε χόλον παύσειεν ἐρητύσειέ τε θυμόν.

So [Agamemnon] spoke. Anger came to Peleus’s son, and his heart
was divided in his shaggy breast, as to whether
drawing his sharp sword from beside his thigh
he should scatter them all, and kill the son of Atreus, or check his wrath and restrain his spirit.

Iliad 1.188–92

Anger overrules caution in Achilles, as it usually does, and Athena must intervene to keep him from slaughtering Agamemnon. Not so Odysseus, whose own self-control prompts the recognition that the Greeks will be trapped in the cave if they kill the monster.

The true horror of their situation now settles on the captive Greeks, as Polyphemus performs a grotesque parody of the standard meal preparation sequence in the poem, of which Nestor and his family, model hosts, provide a good example (3.447–464). First, the slaughter of the animal whose meat will supply the main course:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ εὔξαντο καὶ οὐλοχύτας προβάλοντο,
αὐτίκα Νέστορος υἱὸς ὑπέρθυμος Θρασυμήδης
ἤλασεν ἄγχι στάς: πέλεκυς δ᾽ ἀπέκοψε τένοντας
αὐχενίους, λῦσεν δὲ βοὸς μένος. αἱ δ᾽ ὀλόλυξαν
θυγατέρες τε νυοί τε καὶ αἰδοίη παράκοιτις
Νέστορος, Εὐρυδίκη, πρέσβα Κλυμένοιο θυγατρῶν.

But when they had prayed and scattered barley
then Thrasymedes, the high-hearted son of Nestor
drew near and struck. The axe chopped through the neck
tendons and unstrung the cow’s strength. The daughters
and daughters-in-law and Eurydice, dear wife of Nestor,
eldest daughter of Klymenos, all cried out.

Odyssey 3.447–52

For his victims, Polyphemus grabs two sailors and smashes their brains out “like puppies” (9.289). In place of the ritual shouting in Pylos, we hear the other Greeks cry out in horror; instead of the careful division of the cow at Nestor’s meal, some of it set aside, wrapped in fat for the gods, πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν, “all according to proper order” (3.457), some of it put on spits for humans to eat, followed by ritual libations, Polyphemus gets right down to business, chopping up the Greeks and gobbling down every last bit, washing it down with some of his goat’s milk.

The eerie echoes of polite hospitality keep us from dismissing the monster’s way of living as mere savagery. The next morning, Polyphemus rises to begin another day, starting a fire, milking his animals, making a meal from two more sailors, πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν, “all according to proper order” (309), moving the stone and driving his flocks out of the cave, which he then seals up again, like a man capping his quiver. As the punctilious shepherd recedes whistling into the distance, the noble hero is left inside to brood, contemplating murder.

Further Reading

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 90–93. New York: Twayne Publishers.


Odysseus plans revenge.

One of the most remarkable features of the Homeric epics is the way in which the poet draws on traditional material, verbal and thematic, from within the poems and also from the wider background of Mediterranean myth and folktale, to create strikingly individual scenes. In the former category, we have seen how the common Homeric language of sacrifice and meal preparation underlies the gruesome feasting of the Cyclops, rendered in meticulous detail...

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πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν, with humans replacing cattle as both offering and meal; in the latter, the paradigm of the culture hero, preserving civilization by imposing control over disorderly monsters, informs—often with ironic overtones, as we have seen—the battle of Odysseus and Polyphemus. The adventures in Books 9–12 reflect the influence of yet another source, a rich folktale tradition that reaches far beyond the Mediterranean. There appear in the Polyphemus episode elements of a ubiquitous folktale, the capture and killing of a cave-dwelling ogre with one eye, found in over 200 different versions across 25 countries. At the same time, the particular form that the tale takes here shows the impress of the Odyssey poet in several details, all working to integrate the episode smoothly into the poem’s larger thematic structure. Certain key departures from the usual version of the story are especially telling, as we will see.

A nearly universal feature of the folktale is the blinding of the monster. In most versions, the captives use the monster’s iron spit, heated over the fire, to poke out their captor’s eye. Here the weapon is to be a large bludgeon made of olive wood, sharpened and then heated in the fire. The substitution of olive wood for iron is telling in several ways. Though Polyphemus routinely makes a fire in the cave, “for his dinner” (234), we never see him cooking anything over it. Each time he kills members of the crew, he eats them raw, “like a lion from the mountains” (292). Cooking food is a universal sign of human culture and its absence here underscores the monster’s savagery. Unlike the iron spit, which comes ready for maiming, the wooden stake requires careful preparation. As Odysseus and his men fashion the weapon, we hear echoes of the everyday, step-by-step activities that always receive careful attention from the poet, preparing a meal, beaching a boat. In particular, we may remember when Calypso provides raw materials for Odysseus to build the boat that will take him away from her island, prompting an elaborate description, sawing, smoothing, joining (5.234–255). In both passages, the transformation of materials from nature into an instrument for human use reflects the dominant civilizing paradigm in Greek culture. Polyphemus has begun work on the weapon, but one that represents only a partial realization of this paradigm. It remains for the Greeks to finish the process. Finally, the substitution of olive wood, sacred to Athena, for iron reminds us that even if Odysseus does not see her, the goddess is with him in his struggles. As with the olive bush on the shore of Scheria that he crawls under to sleep (5.476–477), Athena’s protection is always close at hand.

Once the weapon is finished, Odysseus hides it under a pile of dung in the cave, perhaps another echo from the end of Book 5, where the poet uses a vivid simile to describe Odysseus sleeping under a pile of leaves:

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ᾽ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σώζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὔοι,
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο:

As when someone hides a burning log in a pile of black ashes
in some remote estate, with no neighbors nearby,
saving the seeds of the fire, when he cannot get a flame from elsewhere,
so Odysseus buried himself in the leaves…

Odyssey 5.488–91

Like the smoldering firebrand, the wooden stake—itself about to be fired—symbolizes the hero, a symbol of potent force ready to be tapped.

Polyphemus returns, methodically tending to his flocks, then snatching up two more crew members for his dinner. Now Odysseus’s other weapon, the potent wine he has been saving, comes into play. Getting the monster drunk is not a regular feature of the folktale, perhaps the poet’s own invention, perhaps borrowed from another common story about a demon who is disabled by drink and forced to reveal some special knowledge. In any event, the seductive lure of the wine’s fragrance is as we have seen a familiar feature of Homeric poetry. Odysseus, himself now playing the genial host in the ongoing parody of proper behavior, offers the monster a drink and some pointed criticism, which Polyphemus ignores as he gulps down the wine. Demanding another drink, he steps back into the role of host, observing the niceties by only now asking Odysseus for his name—refraining until after refreshment has been served, but to him rather than his guest—so that he can give him a “guest gift,” and remarking on the superiority of this wine to what the island’s grapes can produce. It seems to be made of “nectar and ambrosia,” he exclaims (359), unwittingly completing the motif that marks Odysseus’s deception.

Like bread and beer, wine is a product of humans modifying natural resources. Its importance here is part of the ongoing and often ironic meditation in the Cyclops episode on the nature of human civilization, using Polyphemus’s overt savagery and oafish appropriation of the rituals of hospitality as a foil. The dominant narrative is clear enough: Odysseus the culture hero will conquer the disorderly monster and preserve human civilization. But true to the Odyssey’s complex view of traditional heroic values, this scenario will unfold less straightforwardly than we might expect, as the poet manipulates the rituals of hospitality to add another layer of complexity.

Further Reading

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 112–125. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Glenn, J. 1971. “The Polyphemus Folktale and Homer’s Kyklopeia.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 102: 133–181.

Mondi, R. 1983. “The Homeric Cyclopes: Folktale, Tradition, and Theme.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 113: 17–38.

Page, D. 1955. The Homeric Odyssey, 1–20. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schein, S. 1970. “Odysseus and Polyphemus in the Odyssey.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 11: 73–83.


Odysseus intoxicates the Cyclops with strong wine and bores out his eye with a red-hot stake. Polyphemus appeals to the other Cyclopes.

The seductive gift is doing its work, its fragrance “surrounding the senses” of the monster (περὶ φρένας ἤλυθεν οἶνος, 362), like the alluring voices Odysseus heard when he awoke near Nausicaa and her handmaidens: ὥς τέ με κουράων ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀυτή (6.123). All is in readiness for the crucial part of the escape plan. 

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Κύκλωψ, εἰρωτᾷς μ᾽ ὄνομα κλυτόν, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ τοι
ἐξερέω: σὺ δέ μοι δὸς ξείνιον, ὥς περ ὑπέστης.
Οὖτις ἐμοί γ᾽ ὄνομα: Οὖτιν δέ με κικλήσκουσι
μήτηρ ἠδὲ πατὴρ ἠδ᾽ ἄλλοι πάντες ἑταῖροι.

Cyclops, you ask me my name, so I will
tell you; but you must give me my guest gift, as you promised.
My name is “Nobody.” My mother and father and all
my other companions call me “Nobody.”

Odyssey 9.364–67

This name is unique to the Odyssey’s version of the folktale (see essay on 9.318–359). In all other known variants, the monster is alone, without companions nearby, so the name trick is not needed to isolate him. (Though the Cyclopes appear elsewhere in Greek mythology as a group, Homer could presumably have put Polyphemus on the island by himself.) There is another fairly common folktale attested, in which the hero deceives a demon by telling him that his name is “Myself,” thereby heading off help when the demon calls out to his fellows. This name would have served as well as “Nobody,” if the poet’s only purpose had been to have Odysseus deceive and isolate the monster. Sorting out all the variables that went into composing the Cyclops episode is impossible at this remove in time, but clearly Homer wanted the name "Οὖτις" for his hero.

This preference makes sense because it reflects a major motif in the poem, the tension between Odysseus as famous returning hero and his deliberate choice to remain anonymous when he arrives in each new place on his way home. By keeping his identity to himself, Odysseus can learn about each new place and those who live there before he gives up any leverage that anonymity might afford him. When he feels confident about the good will of the locals, he reveals, or allows others to reveal, his identity. Each time this moment arrives at a dramatic high point, when Odysseus has “returned” from namelessness to his heroic persona, with all of its attendant advantages.

On another level, the anonymous stranger is, as we have seen (Introduction, para. 32, 42), the focal point in the poem’s implicit critique of the dominant heroic return story, in which all other considerations must give way to the imperative to restore Odysseus to his former status, symbolized by his re-assumption of the roles of king, husband, father, and son. If kleos (glory) elevates the hero above more ordinary mortals, it also isolates him. Achilles, the most famous of the heroes who went to Troy, is entirely alone except for Patroclus, whom his over-weaning pride and arrogance eventually condemn to death. In the interlude at the humble outpost of Eumaeus that follows Odysseus’s arrival on Ithaka in Book Thirteen, the benefits of namelessness are fully on display (see Introduction, sec. 23-25). Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, forms a warm friendship with his unwitting servant, something that would not be possible for the returning king, whose status would prevent any intimacy with his social inferior. The ambiguous portrait of the glories of human civilization we have been tracing in the Cyclops episode is a part of this ongoing critique, articulated through a series of analogous polarities, civilization and savagery, anonymity and fame, centripetal and centrifugal, open and closed.

The weaponized pun works beautifully, as the other Cyclopes decline to come to the aid of Polyphemus:

‘τίπτε τόσον, Πολύφημ᾽, ἀρημένος ὧδ᾽ ἐβόησας
νύκτα δι᾽ ἀμβροσίην καὶ ἀύπνους ἄμμε τίθησθα;
ἦ μή τίς σευ μῆλα βροτῶν ἀέκοντος ἐλαύνει;
ἦ μή τίς σ᾽ αὐτὸν κτείνει δόλῳ ἠὲ βίηφιν;’
τοὺς δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἐξ ἄντρου προσέφη κρατερὸς Πολύφημος:
‘ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτίς με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ βίηφιν.

“Why have you cried out so in distress, Polyphemus,
through the immortal night, and made us all sleepless?
Surely no mortal is driving off your flocks against your will?
Surely no one is killing you by force or trickery?”
Mighty Polyphemus called to them from inside the cave:
“Oh friends, Nobody is killing me with force and trickery.”

Odyssey 9.403–8

Now the full range of the pun comes into play, in the repeated phrase, μή τίς (405–406), which echoes μῆτις, “intelligence,” as Odysseus confirms a few verses later:

ὣς ἄρ᾽ ἔφαν ἀπιόντες, ἐμὸν δ᾽ ἐγέλασσε φίλον κῆρ,
ὡς ὄνομ᾽ ἐξαπάτησεν ἐμὸν καὶ μῆτις ἀμύμων.

So [the Cyclopes] said as they went away, and I rejoiced in my heart,
that my name and my blameless intelligence fooled him.

Odyssey 9.413–14

Nowhere else in the poem is anonymity valorized so directly: the nameless stranger is, in this instance, pure intelligence, precisely what is needed to escape the monster.

Odysseus is the first intellectual hero, who uses his mind, rather than physical force, to overcome the monster. Sophocles once again shows himself to be a careful student of the Odyssey when Oedipus conquers the Sphinx by solving a riddle: What creature walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet in the evening? Answer: a human being. The Sophoclean hero’s name, too, continues the legacy of wordplay, containing two possible etymologies pointing to his dual identity, Οἰδίπους, from οἰδέω, “I swell up,” plus ποῦς, “foot,” something like “swollen foot,” and οἶδα, “I know,” plus ποῦς, meaning, “know-foot.” The first version points to the helpless infant, abandoned on the mountain with his ankles pierced, the second to the intellectual hero, who solves the riddle.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. “The Name of Odysseus.” Hudson Review 9: 52–70.

Murnaghan, S. 1987. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, 77; 100. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 80–88. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 60–61. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 45–47. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Deceived by the false name Οὖτις, the other Cyclopes give no help. Odysseus and his men escape from the cave.

As Odysseus rejoices in the shadows, Polyphemus struggles: στενάχων τε καὶ ὠδίνων ὀδύνῃσι, “groaning and suffering in his pain” (415). The noun ὀδύνη—of which the name “Odysseus,” is a cognate (see Introduction, para. 13 and 29)—has the general meaning of “pain,” but is often used specifically of the discomfort that mothers suffer in childbirth. While it’s not always a good idea to lean on one word in working out the meaning of a passage in Homeric poetry, in this case there is a telling context that points us toward that particular shading for the noun: Odysseus and his crew have been trapped in the womblike cave of the Cyclops; driving a stake into the single round orifice of the monster will lead to their reemergence from the cave and the eventual return of their leader from “Nobody” to Odysseus. The hero, as we will soon see, is about to be reborn and not for the first time in the poem.

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The recurrent cycle of death and rebirth begins in Book 5. Released from Calypso’s island, where he has been in a deathlike state, out of time, Odysseus sails out on the boat he has crafted, which Poseidon then smashes, leaving him adrift in the ocean. He’s about to be pulled under by the scarf that Calypso (“I will smother”) gave him, when a friendly nymph comes by and gives him another, more helpfully buoyant garment, which carries him to Scheria. He crawls exhausted from the baptismal sea, barely able to breathe. Crawling under a wild olive bush, he buries himself in a pile of leaves and is put to sleep like a newborn baby by Athena. When he awakens the next morning to the alluring voices of Nausicaa and her maidens, he is beginning again, naked, nameless, and alone. From there, he works his way back to the triumphant moment when he announces his name to the Phaeacians at the beginning of Book 9.

At the end of his sojourn on Scheria, it all begins again. Once on the Phaeacian ship that will carry him home, Odysseus falls into a deep sleep:

καὶ τῷ νήδυμος ὕπνος ἐπὶ βλεφάροισιν ἔπιπτε,
νήγρετος, ἥδιστος, θανάτῳ ἄγχιστα ἐοικώς.

And a painless sleep fell upon his eyes,
deep and sweet, very much like death.

Odyssey 13.79–80

When the ship reaches Ithaka, the Phaeacian sailors carry him off the ship, still sleeping. He awakens in the exact same quandary that befell him on that first morning on Scheria:

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι, καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;

Oh no! What sort of people are these, whose land I’ve reached?
Are they arrogant, fierce, and lacking in justice?
Or kind to strangers, with intelligence like the gods?

Odyssey 13.200–2 = 6.119–21

He is alone once again and, thanks to Athena’s trickery, he cannot recognize his own island. As she did on the way to the royal palace of the Phaeacians, Athena appears disguised as a young mortal, this time a boy. In response to Odysseus asking where he is, she calls him νήπιος, often used of babies, and his journey begins again, from baby to beggar in rags to triumphant king of Ithaka.

The morning after his blinding, Polyphemus goes about his chores as usual, tending to his flocks, milking the sheep and goats. Odysseus ties the rest of the crew to the bellies of male sheep, saving the lead ram for himself. His men ride out of the cave, escaping the probing fingers of the monster. Now comes a curious moment. The blind Cyclops, still suffering from ὀδύνῃσι κακῇσι, discovers that this dominant male ram, that usually leads the flock, has held back for some reason, prompting a tender speech:

κριὲ πέπον, τί μοι ὧδε διὰ σπέος ἔσσυο μήλων
ὕστατος; οὔ τι πάρος γε λελειμμένος ἔρχεαι οἰῶν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρῶτος νέμεαι τέρεν᾽ ἄνθεα ποίης
μακρὰ βιβάς, πρῶτος δὲ ῥοὰς ποταμῶν ἀφικάνεις,
πρῶτος δὲ σταθμόνδε λιλαίεαι ἀπονέεσθαι
ἑσπέριος: νῦν αὖτε πανύστατος. ἦ σύ γ᾽ ἄνακτος
ὀφθαλμὸν ποθέεις, τὸν ἀνὴρ κακὸς ἐξαλάωσε
σὺν λυγροῖς ἑτάροισι δαμασσάμενος φρένας οἴνῳ,
Οὖτις, ὃν οὔ πώ φημι πεφυγμένον εἶναι ὄλεθρον.
εἰ δὴ ὁμοφρονέὁοις ποτιφωνήεις τε γένοιο
εἰπεῖν ὅππῃ κεῖνος ἐμὸν μένος ἠλασκάζει:
τῷ κέ οἱ ἐγκέφαλός γε διὰ σπέος ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ
θεινομένου ῥαίοιτο πρὸς οὔδεϊ, κὰδ δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ
λωφήσειε κακῶν, τά μοι οὐτιδανὸς πόρεν Οὖτις.

My dear ram, why are you last of the flock to leave
the cave? You were never before left behind by the flock,
but first of all you’d graze the tender shoots of grass,
taking big strides, arriving first at the river’s stream,
and you’d be the first to return home to the sheepfold
at evening. Now you are last of all. Are you grieving
for your master’s eye, which that evil man put out
with his wicked companions, after he damaged my wits with wine,
that Nobody, who I say has not yet escaped destruction?
If you only thought like I do, could speak and
tell me where he is skulking away from my rage,
then he would be smashed against the floor and his brains
would be splattered all through the cave, to give my heart rest
from the pains that worthless Nobody brought me.

Odyssey 9.447–60

The effect of this tableau is unexpectedly poignant. Polyphemus, now blind and presumably helpless without the aid from his fellow Cyclopes, seeks solace from a mute animal that cannot answer him. In this moment, the ram is more pet than livestock, patiently waiting for his master to pour out his grievances. That Polyphemus interprets the animal’s reticence as a sympathetic response to his master’s wound makes his isolation all the more pathetic.

The poet’s ambiguous portrait of Polyphemus, part monster, part shepherd, part midwife to the hero’s rebirth (see νήπιος, 273) creates a correspondingly complex view of Odysseus. In contrast to the Cyclops’s emotional vulnerability, he will issue prideful taunts as his ship leaves the island, again putting his men in jeopardy when Polyphemus almost swamps the boat. Homer surprises us in a similar way when describing the final hours of Odysseus’s stay with Calypso. There, Hermes has delivered Zeus’s inescapable command, that the nymph release Odysseus and send him on his way. In her angry response, Calypso, like Polyphemus, becomes more emotionally available to us: She loved Odysseus and nursed him back to health. Why must she give him up? We rarely see Homeric deities—even minor ones like Calypso—thwarted in their desires when they involve mortals. When we do, their vulnerability brings them closer to our own limited mortal existence and we can feel a kinship in their frustration. Even Zeus, when he decides he must let his son Sarpedon die at Patroclus’s hands, becomes for a moment more vulnerable parent than omnipotent deity (Il. 16.433–461). Pulling our sympathies toward and then away from his characters is one way the poet energizes his long stories and keeps us engaged.

Further Reading

Newton, R. 1983. “Poor Polyphemus: Emotional Ambivalence in Odyssey 9 and 17.” Classical World 76: 137–142.
Segal, C. 1994. “Transition and Ritual in Odysseus’ Return,” in Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey, 65–84. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


Released from the sheep, the crew returns to the ship. Odysseus pushes the crew on board and out to sea. Once they are “as far off as a shout could carry” (475), Odysseus begins to taunt Polyphemus, who angrily throws a huge boulder at his escaped prisoners, washing the ship back to shore. They barely escape, the crew rowing furiously while Odysseus pushes off with a long pole. They get twice as far away and yet Odysseus cannot restrain himself from more taunting, despite the pleas of his crew

The sequence of events here is telling. Having shut off any display of emotion by his crew, Odysseus then once again imperils them all, giving in not once but twice to his own need to crow over his defeat of the monster. The centrifugal Odysseus reemerges here, who declines Calypso’s offer of timeless immortality to plunge back into the arena of death and change, where he can strike out against the numbing effects of oblivion through self-assertion.

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He will resurface on Circe’s island, with the same catastrophic results for his crew. Odysseus’ curiosity, his desire to “know the cities and minds of men” (1.3) will lead them once again into danger. To know, in this sense, is to control through imposing limits and therefore meaning on what is unknown, to stave off oblivion. To stay alive in an existential sense, he must keep asserting himself, even when it puts him and his crew in danger.

After one last bit of bluster from Odysseus, Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon to avenge him either by destroying Odysseus and his ships or, if they are fated to make it back home, to make the journey as perilous as possible. Now we have the backstory for the god’s hatred, as the poet lays in a link back to the story’s beginning (1.20–21). Polyphemus’s next throw falls short, washing the ship away toward the neighboring island, where the rest of the Greeks are waiting by the shore. The joyous reunion that Odysseus’s need to vaunt had quelled can now proceed. The last lines of the Book are full of traditional language, of feasting, dawn rising, and the launching of ships, returning the story to the comforting and familiar, after the spectacular horrors of the monster’s cave.

It’s easy to see why Odysseus’s encounter with Cyclops has been one of the most enduring parts of the Odyssey: a colorful, intriguing monster, defeated by an underdog’s witty wordplay, the elevation of intelligence over brute force, all in the service of returning Odysseus to his proper place in Ithaka. Viewed in the larger context of the entire poem, the episode encapsulates most of the story’s recurrent narrative patterns, each one building toward Odysseus’s ultimate triumph over the suitors. The sexual imagery in the blinding of Polyphemus, followed by Odysseus’s re-assumption of his heroic identity, echoes in a particularly vivid way the sequence that we have noted above: a male traveler penetrating a feminized milieu (reflected in the womblike cave and perhaps, from the Greeks’ perspective, in the monster’s fussy housekeeping), leading to the release of Odysseus. The pattern will recur in the hero’s encounter with Circe, the underworld, the Sirens, Skylla and Charybdis, even the cattle of the sun, as we will see.

The pun at the center of the Cyclops episode dramatizes in an arresting way Odysseus’s repeated journey from anonymous stranger to famous hero. The wordplay involving the hero’s name takes us to the heart of Odysseus’s character. To progress from Οὖτις to Odysseus requires the application of ὀδύνη, and he is always the principal agent of pain for others, slipping away but leaving destruction in his wake. Calypso, the Phaeacians, Polyphemus, the ghosts in Hades, and of course all the Greek sailors who entrusted their lives to his care pay a heavy price for the hero’s return. Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Penelope all insist that Odysseus is a beneficent king who has suffered at the hands of the greedy suitors. From our perspective, he is one of the hardest, most relentless of all Greek heroes, qualities that are on vivid display in the Cyclops episode.

The nature of the civilization that Odysseus’s heroic exertions as culture hero are meant to preserve gets a similarly ambiguous portrait on Polyphemus’s island. The monster’s supposedly savage existence, punctuated by cannibalism and arrogant disregard of the Olympian gods, is also characterized by fastidious husbandry and housekeeping, all in the service of a fierce independence worthy of an Achilles. His parodic transgressions of the norms of hospitality, though they tarnish his credentials as host, also highlight Odysseus’s serious shortcomings as a guest—no one, after all, forced him to invade the cave of the lonely shepherd. A culture hero is meant to impose civilizing order on monstrous chaos, but Odysseus’s heroic acts bring their own chaos, transforming the monocular but self-sufficient existence of Polyphemus into helpless isolation.

Further Reading

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 87–88. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 93–94. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 5–12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2024. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7.