Chapter 9: Odysseus and the Cyclops
Odysseus said, “King Alcinous, it’s a wonderful thing to listen to a bard, to hear his stories and songs. Nothing is better than to listen and to feast and to drink in times of peace. But since you want to hear the tale of my hardships, so be it. I have suffered so much. But first let me tell you my name. Some day to come, perhaps you will visit me and be my guest.
“My name is Odysseus, and as the songs of the bard have shown, my fame has reached the skies.”
King Alcinous and the Phaeacians marveled. Here before them was the Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War, a hero who had vanished and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. They had known that their guest must be a man of some importance in his own land, but they had not expected this.
“My father is Laertes, and my home is Ithaca,” Odysseus continued. “I am the man of twists and turns, and I long to see my home. For years, I lived with the goddesses Calypso and Circe, but even then I longed for home. Nothing is better than one’s own home — not even foreign luxury. Let me tell you my story, everything that happened after the Fall of Troy.”
Tell a good story now, Odysseus thought. Tomorrow you will return home. You are generously laden with gifts, but if you can impress the Phaeacians with your story, they may give you more gifts. You have lost everything you gained from the Trojan War, and this is a chance to make up for what you have lost.
“We sailed first to Ismarus, the city of the Cicones. We attacked and conquered the city, gaining more booty that we hoped to take home with us. We killed all of the men, and then we divided the Cicones’ wives and booty equally — no one went without a fair share. I urged my men to sail away quickly, but they did not listen to me. No. They were more interested in drinking the wine of the Cicones and feasting on their cattle. Meanwhile, the refugees from the city sought relatives and friends, armed themselves, and attacked at dawn. We fought all day, but in the end the Cicones defeated us, killing six men from each of my twelve ships.
“We fled in our ships, mourning the men we had lost, and Zeus sent a storm against us, blowing us way off course for nine days. Finally, we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters. We landed, we ate, and I sent out three men to scout the territory to see who, if anyone, lived there. They ran across the Lotus-eaters, a gentle people who would never attack anyone, but who were addicted to the Lotus, a plant that contains a drug that takes away all ambition. Anyone who eats the Lotus forgets about goals and forgets about trying to achieve something important with their lives. All they want to do is to eat the Lotus. That is no life for a human being. The scouting party ate the Lotus, and they forgot about seeing home again, but I forced them to return to the ships and continue our journey.
“Then we reached the land of the Cyclopes, a one-eyed race of giants who do not farm. They herd animals and gather wild plants. They make wine from wild grapes. They have no laws, no courts, no councils. They have no ships. They live wild and uncivilized. Each Cyclops rules his own wife and children, if any, and they do not care for neighbors or for strangers.
“We landed on an island by the home of the Cyclopes. We slept and ate there for a day, and then I became curious. I did not know then that the Cyclopes lived just across the water, but I could see the smoke from their fires, and I could hear the sounds made by their animals. I could even hear the voices of the Cyclopes.
“The next morning, I issued orders: ‘Most of you will stay here on this island. I will sail in my ship across the water and investigate what is on the land over there. Who lives there? Are they wild and do not follow the rules of xenia? Are they civilized and follow the rules of xenia?’
“We crossed the water and landed. Most of my men stayed behind with the ship, but twelve warriors and I set off to investigate a cave that was home to one of the beings that lived here. I took along fine wine as a gift to my host. The wine was a gift from Maron, a man whom we had rescued — him and his family. Even when mixed with water, the wine was strong and delicious.
“We went to the cave, but no one was at home. We looked around. We saw the cheeses. We saw the young animals: lambs and kids. We saw the buckets the owner used for milking.
“My crewmembers urged me to be a pirate — to steal the cheeses first and then to come back and steal the lambs and kids. But I was curious and would not be a pirate, although it would have better for my men and me if I had been a pirate rather than a curious but bad guest.
“We made ourselves at home. We built a fire. We ate most of the cheeses. We also sacrificed some of the cheeses to the gods. We were bad guests. Then the Cyclops returned home, carrying logs with which to build a fire. We saw him — one-eyed, immense — and out of fear, we hid ourselves in the shadows in the rear of the cave.
“The Cyclops blocked the opening to his cave with a boulder that was impossible for us — even with our strength combined — to move. We were trapped in the cave of the Cyclops. He milked his animals, and then started a fire — and saw us.
“He cried out, ‘Strangers, who are you? Where’ you come from? Are you merchants sailing the seas? Or are you pirates, robbing everybo’y you can?’
“I replied, ‘We are men from Troy, trying to sail home but driven far off course. We fought for Agamemnon, but now we are your guests. We hope that you will welcome us, even give us a guest-gift. That is what the gods would want you to do — especially Zeus, the god of xenia.’
“The Cyclops replied, ‘Stranger, we Cyclopes ’o not fear Zeus or any other go’. We ’o what we want, and we have no ’uties except to ’o what benefits us. But tell me, where is your ship?’
“I was suspicious. I did not want to tell him where our ship was, so I lied: ‘We are shipwrecked. Our ship has been broken by Poseidon, god of the sea.’
“Hearing that, the Cyclops grabbed two of my men, knocked their heads against the rocky floor of his cave, dashing out their brains, and then ate them raw. We were horrified. We prayed to Zeus, god of xenia, but we heard no reply. Having filled his belly, the Cyclops slept.
“My first thought was to kill the Cyclops as he slept, but I could not. We were trapped inside the cavern, and all of us together could not move the boulder that blocked the opening of the cave. If I had drawn my sword and killed the Cyclops, we would have been trapped in the cave with his decomposing corpse. And once we had eaten all the cheeses and all the animals inside the cave, we would have starved to death.
“The next morning, the Cyclops awoke and milked his ewes, and then he killed and ate two more of my men. He drove the mature animals out of the cave so they could go to pasture, but he made sure to block the opening of the cave with the boulder so that we could not escape.
“We needed a plan. We could not do nothing and allow the Cyclops to devour us. I gave orders. We found a club that the Cyclops had in the cave — it was big enough to be the mast of a ship with twenty oars. We cut off six feet of the club, and we planed it to make it smooth. I myself sharpened one end of the club to a sharp point. We hardened the point in a fire, and then we hid our new weapon well. By lot we chose four good men to help me that night as the Cyclops slept.
“That evening the Cyclops returned to the cave. He drove all of his animals into the cave, blocked the opening with the boulder, performed his chores, and then ate two more of my men. I poured some of my wine — my gift to my host — into a mixing-bowl and offered it to the Cyclops, saying, ‘Drink this fine wine. I brought it as a gift. I had hoped to meet a friendly host, but you have been the opposite of friendly. Instead of making your guests a meal, you have made your guests your meal!’
“The Cyclops took the wine and drank, and then praised the wine, ‘This is ambrosia, the ’rink of the go’s. More! Give me another bowlful! And tell me your name — I will give a guest-gift to you.’
“I gave the Cyclops another bowlful of wine. He drank three bowlfuls — enough to cloud his brain and make him drunk and sleepy. I said to him, ‘You want to know my name, Cyclops? I will tell you, but give me a guest-gift. My name is Nomad, wanderer of the sea.’
“‘Your name is Noma’?’ the Cyclops replied. “I will give a guest-gift to Noma’. I will eat your men first. I will eat you last of all. That is the guest-gift I will give to you.’
“Having said that, the Cyclops fell down drunk and vomited up chunks of human flesh mixed with wine. Then he slept.
“My men and I got out the sharpened log hardened in fire, and we put it in fire again — to make it red-hot. Then I told my men, ‘Be brave. We can’t afford to be cowards now.’ We then drove the red-hot stake into the sleeping Cyclops’ eye — I myself directed the point into his eye and used all my strength to drive the stake deep. The eye sizzled and blood ran from the socket. The Cyclops awoke, roaring with pain, and he grabbed the stake and pulled it from his eye.
“The neighboring Cyclopes arrived to see if he needed help, but I was too clever for them. I had foreseen what would happen and had planned a trick. The Cyclopes shouted, ‘Polyphemus, what man now is hurting you?’
“As I had foreseen, Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops who had been keeping us captive, replied, ‘Noma’ now is hurting me.’ The other Cyclopes replied, ‘If no man now is hurting you, then the go’s must be angry at you and are sending you an illness. Pray to your father, Posei’on, for help.’ Then they left.
“Polyphemus wanted revenge. When it was time to take his animals to pasture, he moved the boulder from the opening of the cave and he squatted in the opening and used his hands to feel whatever left his cave. He hoped to catch my men and me and kill us, but I was too smart for him. I tied rams together — three rams were enough to camouflage one of my men so that they could escape the hands of the Cyclops and escape from the cave. I myself hid under the oldest and the biggest of the rams, leaving the cave last of all.
“Polyphemus felt the back of the old ram, and with newfound sympathy learned from suffering said, ‘Ol’ ram, why are you the last of the flock to leave the cave? When you were younger, you were the first of the flock to reach the pasture and feast on grass. When you were younger, you were the first of the flock to hea’ for home in the evening. Now you are last of all. Why? ’o you mourn for your master, whose eye has been put out by Noma’, the cowar’ who got me ’runk and attacked me while I was asleep? I will have my revenge against him. He will not escape retribution. How I want to kill him!’
“Polyphemus let the ram — and me — go. When I was out of the cave, I left the ram and gathered my men together and we drove Polyphemus’ flocks to my ship — the Cyclops was floundering, unused to being blind. The crewmembers we had left behind with the ship mourned the men who had died, but quickly loaded the animals on board our ship. We set sail.
“But I spoke when I should have remained silent. I yelled to Polyphemus, ‘You devoured the men of a captain who is no coward! You ate your guests, and now you have been paid back!’
“Furious, Polyphemus grabbed a boulder and hurled it in the direction of my voice. It fell past my ship, and the wave it made drove us toward Polyphemus. My men rowed frantically to save their lives.
“Again, I taunted the Cyclops, although my men urged me not to, saying, ‘We almost died. Why risk death a second time? If he had heard us when we were close to shore, he would have killed us all!’
“But I insisted on taking the credit for my exploit. I yelled to the Cyclops, ‘Do you want to know who blinded you? It was I, Odysseus, son of Laertes. My home is Ithaca.’
“The Cyclops moaned, ‘Once I heard a prophecy that O’ysseus would blind me. I have always looked for him, but I expected him to be a giant, a magnificent warrior, not a puny human. If you return, O’ysseus, I will give you a guest-gift. My father, Posei’on, will heal my eye if he wants to.’
“I was not about to return to the Cyclops’ shore. I shouted at him, ‘I wish that you were dead! I hope that your eye is never healed!’
“Polyphemus, angry, prayed to Poseidon, ‘Father, curse O’ysseus, son of Laertes. O’ysseus’ home is Ithaca. May he never return home. Or if he ’oes return home, let it be only after years of wandering, and let him find ’anger and trouble at home.’”
As soon as I heard the Cyclops’ prayer, I knew that I had made a mistake, thought Odysseus. If I had not told the Cyclops my identity, he would not have been able to pray to Poseidon and curse me. Poseidon may never have found out that it was me who blinded his son, and he would not have known to hate me.
“Poseidon heard the Cyclops’ prayer. Gods can do that. Polyphemus lifted and hurled another boulder. It fell short of my ship, and the wave it made pushed us across the water to our other ships. We landed, and we divided the Cyclops’ animals equally, so that all had a share. My crew voted to award me the big, old ram, which I sacrificed to Zeus, god of xenia, but the sacrifice did not move Zeus. He still plotted to destroy my ships and my men.
“We feasted, and then we slept. In the morning, we rowed away to new lands, mourning still for the men who had died.”