As many of you know, I have been teaching Homer’s Odyssey for four years now. During this time I have taught it four times to high school students, and I have also had the pleasure to teach community members and parents for the last three years in bi-weekly seminars. So, by the end of this year, I will have taught this Ancient epic poem through lecture and seminar seven times. Add to that my reading it during graduate school, taking an Ancient Greek preceptorial on it, and having “read” it in undergraduate education, and this is my tenth time going through the ancient epic. So, it is high time to share some mature reflections on the meaning of certain key moments in the text as something of a celebration of this feat! Today, we will begin with the cyclopes episode and the dread monster, Polyphemos.
As almost everybody knows, during the “cyclops episode” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a “guest-gift” from a man with savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus’ men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after he reveals his name. Below, we will consider the ways in which Polyphemos is illustrated as truly blind, regardless of whether he has his physical sight, and that in fact he only “sees” after he loses his capacity for physical sight, much as the illuminated poet of the Phaiakians, Demodokos, cannot physically see anything but the truth of stories, and the blind prophet Teiresias, cannot physically see, but can see the truth of the future.
The four examples of Polyphemos’ blindness to intangible truths is illustrated in four events: 1) his blindness to being deceived about Odysseus’ “given” name, Nobody; 2) his blindness of the fact that Odysseus would dare injure or kill him; 3) his blindness to seeing the path beneath his rams as a means of escape, and of course 4) his blindness to the fact that a small and insignificant appearing man might be the very man of prophecy who was sent to bring about his blindness (sort of similar and opposite to another man sent by prophecy to the Western world to alter one’s vision.) Let us now consider what these illustrative examples teach us about the true nature of the cyclops’ sight.
First and foremost, one immediately knows that sight and seeing will be huge parts of this episode by the fact that Polyphemos is a cyclops or a Kuklos+ops=Circle-eye. Though he is reported to have “brows” which are singed by Odysseus’ olive-brand, the cyclops is known to have one eye by nature or due to some injury at another time. The point, however, is to note that a creature with one eye lacks depth-perspective in the natural world, but in this world of epic imagination, his one eye indicates his lack of perspective in general.
How he demonstrates his lack of perspective* is by the following acts. First, Odysseus lies to him multiple times: the first time, Polyphemos asks after Odysseus’ ship’s location, and though Odysseus has 12 ships docked at the island, he savvily responds that Poseidon had destroyed his ship and that only he and his 12 companions remained. Later again, while Odysseus is ingratiating himself to the cyclops and the monster is consuming unmixed wine, the cyclops asks who Odysseus is, to which Odysseus famously responds: Nobody. All this goes to show, so far, that Polyphemos does not see through the words and intentions of Odysseus, whereas Odysseus in his responses to Polyphemos, clearly sees what the monster is up to. Therefore, if Odysseus happens to defeat the monster, who is much stronger and larger than Odysseus, the reason would be that seeing through, or having perspective, or cunning, is a more valuable skill than brute and blind strength. Odysseus, of course, does escape.
Next, the foolish cyclops assumes or does not see the threat posed by Odysseus. He falls asleep drunk, vomits up both wine and human remains, and leaves himself open to attack. To his mind, Odysseus would not dare attack him because only Polyphemos can move the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave. He has however miscalculated, failed to see, that Odysseus might come up with a circuitous and complex plan of escape, which involves physically blinding the cyclops. The cyclops therefore fails to account for a threat precisely because he does not see Odysseus as one. He pays with his physical sight for this. And as Polyphemos yells out that “nobody is hurting me by force or violence,” of course nobody helps him!
After losing his sight, Polyphemos then himself hatches a plot to catch Odysseus. He opens the cavern and sits himself at the entrance to touch and inspect the backs of his goats, sheep, and rams as they exit. That said, he fails to see that Odysseus and his men might just as well lash themselves beneath the rams and escape scot-free. He even fails to see, while wishing that his ram could speak, that it could tell him where Odysseus was. But since it always leads the pack, and today is so clearly weighed down, he fails to see that the ram has told him where Odysseus/Nobody is! And it is the cyclops’ foolish assumptions which keep him from seeing it! So, though his plan takes account of part of the whole situation, again he lacks the perspective necessary to see the situation correctly, or wholly, blinded by his own presuppositions.
Lastly, as Odysseus and his men escape on their ships, Odysseus himself losing perspective yells out to the cyclops twice, both times risking disaster as the cyclops slightly misses the mark (hamartia**) throwing large boulders (one is called a mountain-peak) near enough Odysseus’ ship to wash it back ashore. The blindness, however, is even more lucidly illustrated by the fact that when Polyphemos learns the name Odysseus, he recalls a prophecy by a former prophet named Telemos who said that one day some Odysseus would blind Polyphemos. Polyphemos, however, trenchant in his blinding arrogance had expected a bigger and more exceptional man to fulfill this prophecy! So, he tragically, for himself, failed to see that a man who seemed to be weak and of no account, could be the fulfiller of his destiny. The man who would physically take the sight which he symbolically lacked. So, like Teiresias, the blind prophet, and Demodokos, the blind but illuminated singer, the cyclops loses his physical sight, but in this moment of realization he finally sees what has happened to him, and how symbolically fate tends to work! His physical sight blinds him to what is real, but ultimately, only through losing his physical sight does he acquire the insight or the hindsight that the prophecy about his blindness had already been fulfilled!
**Hamartia comes from the Greek alpha-privative and marturos (seer/witness), so “not-witness”, or one who errs by failing to see the truth.