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The Wine Red Sea:  Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 - 2018 by Peter J Ponzio

The Cyclopes, Book IX

 Perhaps the most compelling story of the Odyssey occurs when the hero and his men make their way to the land of the Cyclopes, and meet the Cyclops, Polyphemus.  Before the reader is introduced to Polyphemus, Odysseus paints a picture of the Cyclopes: They have no meeting place for council, no laws either, no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns- each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor. (IX, 125-128) This is no gratuitous statement of dislike for the Cyclopes; rather it expresses a fundamental difference between the lawless other, or “barbarian” in Greek, and the well-ordered life of “civilized” men.  Odysseus and his men, despite being engaged in a war for ten years, and being lost at sea for some time, have rules by which they lead their lives.  To them, the practices of the Cyclopes, people without family and friendship ties, is unthinkable. To make this difference more palpable, Odysseus relates the practices of the Cyclopes to the Phaeacians, master sea-farers: For the Cyclops have no ships with crimson prows, no shipwrights there to build them good trim craft that could sail them out to foreign ports of call as most men risk the seas to trade with other men. Such artisans would have made this island too a decent place to live in . . (IX, 138-143) The Cyclopes are indeed “other,” not only to the Greeks, but to all civilized men. Before setting out to Polyphemus' island, Odysseus takes one ship from the fleet to determine the lay of the land: “What are they-violent, savage, lawless?/or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?” (XI, 195-196).  Odysseus and his men climb up the mountainside and find the cave of Polyphemus.  Not waiting for their host to invite them in, the men make use of whatever provisions they find, while Odysseus has a premonition that something is not quite right. Despite his misgivings, when the Cyclope arrives, Odysseus addresses Polyphemus as a suppliant: But since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift, the sort that hosts give strangers.  That's the custom. Respect the gods, my friend.  We're suppliants-at your mercy! Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: Strangers are sacred-Zeus will avenge their rights! (IX, 300-305) Polyphemus' answer strikes terror in the hearts of Odysseus and his men:  “. . .you must be a fool, stranger, or come from nowhere,/telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath!/We Cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus's shield/of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god” (IX, 307-310).
Odysseus puts out the eye of the Cyclops