Homer’s Odyssey: Book 9
“Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launches out on his story” (9.1), first praising the bard before turning to his tale of woe. “Well then, what should I go through first, / what shall I save for last?” (9.14-15). He seems to be pre-crafting his narrative. He begins with the big reveal: his identity. “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world / for every kind of craft — my fame has reached the skies” (9.21-22). Is his confession of guile yet another tactic?
Well, “homeward bound from Troy” (9.43), he first sacked a city on the northern coast of the Aegean. The raid got out of hand, the invaded people mustered reinforcements, and a war left many of Odysseus’ comrades dead. After some rough seas, they reached the land of the Lotus-eaters. They ate and drank and recovered their strength, but many crewmen accepted the lotus to eat and lost all will to return. They were addicted. (Are we in North Africa? Libya? Eating dates? Hashish?) Odysseus had to force hem back to the ships.
They sailed to the land of the Cyclops, “lawless brutes, who trust so to the everlasting gods / they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil. / … / They have no meeting place for council, no laws either, / … / not a care in the world for any neighbor” (9.120-128). So some cultivation is needed, but goats and sheep are plentiful.
“When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” (9.168), the men decide to indulge in the bounty of the land. Odysseus wonders about the natives: “What are they — violent, savage, lawless? / or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?” (9.195-196). Odysseus sets out with a dozen men and some powerful wine (normally you’d want to dilute the stuff twenty to one). Inside a cave they find cheeses and lambs. The men want to take stuff and come back but Odysseus stubbornly wants to meet the resident.
A terrifying giant returns from his outside flocks to his cave, heaving a massive rock slab as a wedge to block exit. With his booming voice he demands to know who is plundering him. Odysseus says they come from Troy and are heading home; he tries a bit of name-dropping. “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!” (9.300-305). The Cyclops is not persuaded.
Odysseus fools the Cyclops into thinking that his ship has been smashed, at which point the Cyclops, “Lurching up, he lunged out with his hands towards my men / and snatching two at once, rapping them on the ground / he knocked them dead like pups — / their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor — / and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal / he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap, / devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all! / We flung our arms to Zeus, we wept and cried aloud, / looking on at his grisly work — paralyzed, appalled” (9.324-332). Having treated his guests as commodities, the Cyclops washes down his meal with milk and goes to sleep.
Odysseus wants to stab the bastard’s liver but realizes they could never get out of the cave. “When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shown once more” (9.344), the Cyclops milks his ewes, eats two more men, and drives the herd outside, being sure to replace the tone slab. Odysseus decides to whittle one end of the giant’s club down to a sharp stabbing point. Four men and Odysseus, after drawing lots, will stab the eye out of the Cyclops when he sleeps.
The monster returns for the night and eats two more men. Odysseus tells him that the intention was to offer their host this fine wine, “but your rages are insufferable. You barbarian — / how can any man on earth come visit you after this?” (9.393-394). The Cyclops seizes the wine and drinks three bowls of it. Then, “So, you ask me the name I’m knwn by, Cyclops? / I will tell you. But you must give me a guest-gift / as you’ve promised. Nobody — that’s my name, Nobody” (9.408-410). The gift is the Cyclops’ promise that he’ll eat Odysseus last. Blind drunk, the Cyclops vomits up “chunks of human flesh” (9.419). They get the stake red-hot and jam it into the Cyclops eye “till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft / … / and the broiling eyeball burst — its crackling roots blazed and hissed” (9.435-437).
The giant roars so loudly that neighbor Cyclops ask him, Polyphemus (which turns out to be his name — meaning “much fame”), what’s wrong. Is someone trying to rustle your flocks or kill you? “Nobody, friends … / Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” (9.454-455). Well, if nobody’s being a problem, you’d just “better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon” (9.460). Uh-oh.
Odysseus rejoices at his own cunning. The blind Cyclops pushes the slab aside but awaits for men to try to pass. “My wits kept weaving, weaving cunning schemes” (9.472). Odysseus lashes each man between two rams who head out to pasture. So they sneak out pretending to be animals (and may need to be rehumanized). They all escape, and from his ship Odysseus calls back tauntingly to the Cyclops with his “filthy crimes / … you shameless cannibal, / daring to eat your guests in you own house” (9.533-535). The Cyclops is so enraged that he rips a chunk of crag off and heaves it into the sea — a close call. Odysseus asserts his true identity; he is not “nobody,” but “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” (9.559-561).
The Cyclops recalls a prophesy that foretold of all this: his fate is realized. But Poseidon is his father, he asserts, hoping to be healed, and he calls on Poseidon to curse Odysseus: “grant that Odysseus … / never reaches home” (9.588-590). But there’s a glimmer of hope with an alternate curse-lite: “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!” (9.590-595). The Cyclops throws another boulder as the men sail off. They offer a sacrifice to Zeus, futilely, and continue on, “sick at heart for the comrades we had lost” (9.630).