Polyphemus - Whose Prayer for Revenge Was the Origin of the Odyssey
Polyphemus is the cyclops found in the famous Greek mythological tale found in Homer’s Odyssey. This one-eyed beast, arguably the most famous of his kind, is presented as a man-eating monster, and an obstacle to Odysseus’ journey home.
While Odyssey is the best-known story about Polyphemus, other tales about this cyclops were written later by Greek and Roman writers, the best-known one being Ovid’s. During the Renaissance, Ovid’s tale about Polyphemus, became a popular theme in art, including painting, literature, and music.
The name ‘Polyphemus’ may be translated to mean ‘Many Words’, or ‘Abounding in Songs and Legends’. In Greek mythology, the cyclopes were giants who possessed great strength and could be easily identified by the single eye in the middle of the foreheads.
Incidentally, the word ‘cyclops’ (plural ‘cyclopes’) translates as ‘round eye’ or ‘circle eye’, though there are scholars who believe that this name is derived from an older word meaning ‘sheep thief’. Some scholars are of the opinion that the myth of the cyclopes originated in the discovery of the fossils of giant prehistoric animals by the ancient Greeks.
In a 2003 article from National Geographic , it was reported that the tusk, several teeth, and bones of a Deinotherium giganteum were unearthed for the first time on the island of Crete. This animal, whose name roughly means ‘giant terrible beast’, is a distant relative of today’s elephants.
At the center of the creature’s skull is a large nasal opening and palaeontologists today assume that a trunk used to cover that area. To the ancient Greeks who found such skulls, it is entirely plausible that they interpreted the hole as an eye socket, and in turn physical evidence for the existence of the cyclopes.
Cyclopes Before Polyphemus
In the works of the earliest Greek writers, i.e. Hesiod and Homer, two types of cyclopes can be identified. In Hesiod’s Theogony, three cyclopes are mentioned – Arges, Brontes, and Steropes, whose names mean ‘Bright’, ‘Thunderer’, and ‘Lightener’ respectively. These three cyclopes are said to be the sons of Uranus and Gaia, and that they were not unlike the gods apart from the single eye in the middle of their foreheads.
A 1st century AD head of a cyclops from the Roman Colosseum. (Sweetpool50 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Along with the other Titans, the three cyclopes were cast into Tartarus by their father. Instigated by their mother, however, the cyclopes aided Cronus in overthrowing their father. Cronus, however, threw them back into Tartarus after his victory and they were only later released by Zeus during the Titanomachy.
It was these cyclopes who forged the thunderbolts for Zeus. In addition, they created the trident for Poseidon, and the cap of invisibility for Hades. After the defeat of the Titans, Zeus retained the services of the cyclopes. In later tradition, the cyclopes are said to be the assistants of Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, and that they worked in the god’s forges under Mount Etna, an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily.
In one myth, the cyclopes were killed by Apollo, as Asclepius, his son, was struck down by Zeus with a thunderbolt forged by the cyclopes. In some versions of the myth, it was not the three cyclopes but their sons who were killed by Apollo. It is clear that the cyclopes in these myths were highly skilled smiths who provided a valuable service to the gods, in particular to Zeus and Hephaestus.
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The cyclopes were skills smiths for the gods. (Fæ / Public Domain )
The ingenuity of Hesiod’s cyclopes is remembered by later generations. These cyclopes, however, are said to be highly-skilled architects, and it should be pointed out that these cyclopes are not the same as the ones in Hesiod’s Theogony.
Unlike Hesiod’s cyclopes, who are said to be the sons of Uranus and Gaia, these later cyclopes are said to be have come from Thrace and were named after Cyclops, their one-eyed king. These cyclopes are credited with the construction of the so-called ‘ Cyclopean walls ’, a term derived from Pausanias’ description of the walls of ancient Mycenae and Tiryns.
A typical stretch of Cyclopean walling at Mycenae. (Dorieo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In his Description of Greece , Pausanias remarks that the stones used to construct these walls were so huge that only the cyclopes could have moved them. Apart from Mycenae, ‘Cyclopean walls’ have also been found on Crete and Italy, and even in some pre-Columbian sites in the New World.
Polyphemus in the Odyssey
Homer’s cyclopes, on the other hand, are quite different from Hesiod’s, and are presented as brutish, uncivilized creatures. They appear in the Odyssey and are described as creatures who practice neither agriculture nor governance:
“they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil. / unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need, / wheat, barley, and vines, swelled by the rains of Zeus / to yield a big full-bodied wine from clustered grapes. / They have no meeting place for council, no laws either”.
In addition, these cyclopes are isolated from the rest of the world, and therefore do not engage in trade:
“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”. These creatures are even isolated from each other, “up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns – / each a law onto himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any other neighbor”.
Homer’s description of the cyclopes may be read as a list of features possessed by a civilized society – agriculture, governance, law, trade, and community, all of which the cyclopes do not have. Therefore, the way of life of the cyclopes, perhaps even more so than their physical differences, distinguishes them from human beings, in particular, the Greeks.
The foremost of Homer’s cyclopes is Polyphemus, who is described as follows, “godlike Polyphemus, / towering over all the Cyclops’ clans in power”. According to the poet, Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoosa, thus making him a demi-god. The hero of the Odyssey, Odysseus, reaches the island of the cyclopes during his journey home after the Trojan War, and went to explore the cave of Polyphemus.
In the lair of the cyclops, Odysseus and his men discovered that the cyclops was away and found “large flat racks loaded with drying cheeses, / the folds crowded with young lambs and kids, / split into three groups – here the spring-born, / here mid-yearlings, here the fresh sucklings / off to the side – each sort was penned apart. / and all his vessels, pails and hammered buckets / he used or milking, were brimming full with whey”.
Although his comrades urged him steal the cheese, then return for the kids and lambs before setting sail, Odysseus refused to leave the cave, until he saw the cyclops, a decision he would soon come to regret. The men made a fire, ate the cheese, and waited for the cyclops to return.
In time, Polyphemus returned to the cave, closed the entrance with a large boulder, and went on with his business. When the cyclops lit his fire, he spied Odysseus and his men, was enraged, and demanded to know who they were.
Odysseus was terrified but managed to muster his courage to give the cyclops an answer. After telling Polyphemus that they were men from Achaea who were on their way home from Troy, he tried to invoke the customary hospitality due to guests:
“But since we’ve chanced upon you, we’re at your knees / in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift, / the sort that hosts give to 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!”
Polyphemus, however, neither respected this custom nor feared the threat of divine retribution. He killed two of Odysseus’ men, ate them, and went to sleep. Odysseus thought of killing the cyclops in his sleep but stopped himself. He realized that by killing Polyphemus, he would have sealed the fate of himself and of his men, since it would be impossible for them to move the boulder blocking the cave entrance.
Polyphemus blocks the opening of the cave. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain )
The following morning, Polyphemus ate another two of Odysseus’ companions before going out. In the meantime, Odysseus came up with a plan for revenge. He sharpened the cyclops’ wooden club into a stake and planned to blind the monster in his sleep.
Odysseus Attacks Polyphemus
When Polyphemus returned in the evening, another two men were eaten, after which Odysseus offered the cyclops some wine. After a drinking a bowl of wine, Polyphemus demanded a second, and asked for Odysseus’ name, so that he may give him his guest gift. After three bowls of wine, Polyphemus was sufficiently intoxicated, and Odysseus told him his name, saying that it was ‘Nobody’.
Polyphemus responded by promising to eat Odysseus last, which was his ‘guest gift’, after which he fell asleep. This was the moment Odysseus had been waiting for and had the stake plunged into the cyclops’ eye. Polyphemus roared in pain as he awoke, which brought the other cyclopes to the entrance of his cave.
The blinding of Polyphemus. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
When asked whether something was wrong, Polyphemus replied saying “Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force”. The other cyclopes thought that Polyphemus was suffering from a plague sent by Zeus, and advised him to pray to his father, Poseidon, after which they went away.
Odysseus was extremely satisfied with his cunningness and came up with another plan to escape from the cave. The hero decided to use the cyclops’ rams as a means to escape. His remaining men tied themselves to the underbelly of the animals and exited the cave with them when they were sent out to graze the following morning.
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Fleeing the cave of Polyphemus. (Wmpearl / Public Domain )
Although Polyphemus checked the backs of the animals, he did not realize that Odysseus and his men were actually hidden on the animals’ underbelly, and hence inadvertently allowed them to escape. Odysseus and his men reached their ship and set sail.
At this point, however, Odysseus’ hubris got the better of him and he began taunting the cyclops, while his men tried to stop him, lest they were killed by the rocks hurled by Polyphemus. Odysseus continued his taunting and boasted:
“Cyclops – / if any man on the face of the earth should ask you / who blinded you, shamed you so – say Odysseus, / raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, / Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!”
As a consequence of his hubris, Odysseus revealed his name to Polyphemus, who prayed to Poseidon to avenge him, “grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, / Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca, / never reaches home. Or if he’s fated to see / his people once again and reach his well-built house / and his own native country, let him come home late / and come a broken man – all shipmates lost, / alone in a stranger’s ship – / and let him find a world of pain at home!” Poseidon heard his son’s prayer and Odysseus’ long journey home becomes the subject of the Odyssey.
Subsequently, new stories added to the character of Polyphemus, most notably by the Roman poet Ovid. In his Metamorphoses¸ Polyphemus was in love with the nymph Galatea. The nymph, however, despised the cyclops and was interested in Acis instead.
One day, Polyphemus spotted Galatea and Acis together, and in a fit of jealousy, crushed the latter with a rock. Galatea then transformed her lover into the River Acis, which is situated on the eastern coast of Sicily, at the foot of Mount Etna.
Polyphemus discovers Galatea and Acis. (Bibi Saint-Pol / Public Domain )
Although this myth is not as well-known today as the one in the Odyssey, it has been a popular theme in European art during the Renaissance. Apart from numerous paintings and sculptures depicting Acis, Galatea, and Polyphemus, there were also poems and operas inspired by the myth.
To conclude, Polyphemus is one of the most famous cyclopes in Greek mythology, thanks to his appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. It is this myth about Polyphemus that most people today would be familiar with.
Ovid’s story of Polyphemus, Galatea, and Acis, on the other hand, is not so well-known today. Nevertheless, it has a place in the history of art, since it was a popular theme during the Renaissance.
Top image: Polyphemus hurls rocks at Odyssey and his men as they escape. Source: Botaurus / Public Domain .
By Wu Mingren
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