The Cyclops Polyphemus

All the monstrous forms of life which were first created, the hundred-handed creatures, the Giants, and so on, were permanently banished from the earth when they had been conquered, with the single exception of the Cyclopes. They were allowed to come back, and they became finally great favorites of Zeus. They were wonderful workmen and they forged his thunderbolts. At first there had been only three, but later there were many. Zeus gave them a home in a fortunate country where the vineyards and cornlands, unplowed and unsown, bore fruits plenteously. They had great flocks of sheep and goats as well, and they lived at their ease. Their fierceness and savage temper, however, did not grow less; they had no laws or courts of justice, but each one did as he pleased. It was not a good country for strangers.

Ages after Prometheus was punished, when the descendants of the men he helped had grown civilized and had learned to build far-sailing ships, a Greek prince beached his boat on the shore of this dangerous land. His name was Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and he was on his way home after the destruction of Troy. In the hardest battle he had fought with the Trojans, he had never come as near to death as he did then.

Not far from the spot where his crew had made the vessel fast was a cave, open toward the sea and very lofty. It looked inhabited; there was a strong fence before the entrance. Odysseus started off to explore it with twelve of his men. They were in need of food and he took with him a goatskin full of very potent and mellow wine to give whoever lived there in return for hospitality. The gate in the fence was not closed and they made their way into the cave. No one was there, but it was clearly the dwelling of some very prosperous person. Along the sides of the cave were many crowded pens of lambs and kids. Also there were racks full of cheeses and pails brimming with milk, delightful to the sea-worn travelers who ate and drank as they waited for the master.

At last he came, hideous and huge, tall as a great mountain crag. Driving his flock before him he entered and closed the cave’s mouth with a ponderous slab of stone. Then looking around he caught sight of the strangers, and cried out in a dreadful booming voice, “Who are you who enter unbidden the house of Polyphemus? Traders or thieving pirates?” They were terror-stricken at the sight and sound of him, but Odysseus made swift to answer, and firmly, too: “Shipwrecked warriors from Troy are we, and your suppliants, under the protection of Zeus, the suppliants’ god.” But Polyphemus roared out that he cared not for Zeus. He was bigger than any god and feared none of them. With that, he stretched out his mighty arms and in each great hand he seized one of the men and dashed his brains out on the ground. Slowly he feasted off them to the last shred, and then, satisfied, stretched himself out across the cavern and slept. He was safe from attack. No one but he could roll back the huge stone before the door, and if the horrified men had been able to summon courage and strength enough to kill him they would have been imprisoned there forever.

During that long terrible night Odysseus faced the awful thing that had happened and would happen to every one of them if he could not think out some way of escape. But by the time day had dawned and the flock gathering at the entrance woke the Cyclops up, no idea at all had come to him. He had to watch two more of his company die, for Polyphemus breakfasted as he had supped. Then he drove out his flock, moving back the big block at the door and pushing it into place again as easily as a man opens and shuts the lid to his quiver. Throughout the day, shut in the cave, Odysseus thought and thought. Four of his men had perished hideously. Must they all go the same dreadful way? At last a plan shaped itself in his mind. An enormous timber lay near the pens, as long and as thick as the mast of a twenty-oared ship. From this he cut off a good piece, and then he and his men sharpened it and hardened the point by turning it round and round in the fire. They had finished and hidden it by the time the Cyclops came back. There followed the same horrible feast as before. When it was over Odysseus filled a cup with his own wine that he had brought with him and offered it to the Cyclops. He emptied it with delight and demanded more, and Odysseus poured for him until finally a drunken sleep overcame him. Then Odysseus and his men drew out the great stake from its hiding-place and heated the point in the fire until it almost burst into flame. Some power from on high breathed a mad courage into them and they drove the red-hot spike right into the Cyclops’ eye. With an awful scream he sprang up and wrenched the point out. This way and that he flung around the cavern searching for his tormentors, but, blind as he was, they were able to slip away from him.

At last he pushed aside the stone at the entrance and sat down there, stretching his arms across, thinking thus to catch them when they tried to get away. But Odysseus had made a plan for this, too. He bade each man choose out three thick-fleeced rams and bind them together with strong, pliant strips of bark; then to wait for day, when the flock would be sent out to pasture. At last the dawn came and as the beasts crowding through the entrance passed out Polyphemus felt them over to be sure no one carried a man on his back. He never thought to feel underneath, but that was where the men were, each tucked under the middle ram, holding on to the great fleece. Once out of that fearful place they dropped to the ground and, hurrying to the ship, in no time launched it and were aboard. But Odysseus was too angry to leave in prudent silence. He sent a great shout over the water to the blind giant at the cave’s mouth. “So, Cyclops, you were not quite strong enough to eat all of the puny men? You are rightly punished for what you did to those who were guests in your house.”

The words stung Polyphemus to the heart. Up he sprang and tore a great crag from the mountain and flung it at the ship. It came within a hair’s breadth of crushing the prow, and with the backwash the boat was borne landward. The crew put all their strength into their oars and just succeeded in pulling out to sea. When Odysseus saw that they were safely away, he cried again tauntingly, “Cyclops, Odysseus, wrecker of cities, put out your eye, and do you so tell anyone who asks.” But they were too far off by then; the giant could do nothing. He sat blinded on the shore.

This was the only story told about Polyphemus for many years. Centuries passed and he was still the same, a frightful monster, shapeless, huge, his eye put out. But finally he changed, as what is ugly and evil is apt to change and grow milder with time. Perhaps some storyteller saw the helpless, suffering creature Odysseus left behind as a thing to be pitied. At all events, the next story about him shows him in a very pleasing light, not terrifying at all, but a most poor credulous monster, a most ridiculous monster, quite aware of how hideous and uncouth and repulsive he was, and therefore wretched, because he was madly in love with the charming, mocking sea nymph, Galatea. By this time the place where he lived was Sicily and he had somehow got his eye back, perhaps by some miracle of his father who in this story is Poseidon, the great God of the Sea. The lovelorn giant knew Galatea would never have him; his case was hopeless. And yet, whenever his pain made him harden his heart against her and bid himself, “Milk the ewe you have; why pursue what shuns you?” the minx would come softly stealing near him; then suddenly a shower of apples would pelt his flock and her voice would ring in his ears calling him a laggard in love. But no sooner was he up and after her than she would be off, laughing at his slow clumsiness as he tried to follow her. All he could do was again to sit wretched and helpless on the shore, but this time not trying in fury to kill people, only singing mournful love son
gs to soften the sea nymph’s heart.

In a much later story, Galatea turned kind, not because the exquisite, delicate, milk-white maid, as Polyphemus called her in his songs, fell in love with the hideous one-eyed creature (in this tale, too, he has got back his eye), but because she prudently reflected that he was the favored son of the Lord of the Sea and by no means to be despised. So she told her sister nymph, Doris, who had rather hoped to attract the Cyclops herself, and who began the talk by saying scornfully, “A fine lover you’ve got—that Sicilian shepherd. Everybody’s talking about it.”

GALATEA: None of your airs, please. He’s the son of Poseidon. There!

DORIS: Zeus’s, for all I care. One thing’s certain—he’s an ugly, ill-mannered brute.

GALATEA: Just let me tell you, Doris, there’s something very manly about him. Of course it’s true he’s got only one eye, but he sees as well with it as if he had two.

DORIS: It sounds as if you were in love yourself.

GALATEA: I in love—with Polyphemus! Not I—but of course I can guess why you’re talking like this. You know perfectly well he has never noticed you—only me.

DORIS: A shepherd with only one eye thinks you handsome! That’s something to be proud of. Anyway, you won’t have to cook for him. He can make a very good meal off a traveler, I understand.

But Polyphemus never won Galatea. She fell in love with a beautiful young prince named Acis, whom Polyphemus, furiously jealous, killed. However, Acis was changed into a river-god, so that story ended well. But we are not told that Polyphemus ever loved any maiden except Galatea, or that any maiden ever loved Polyphemus.

The first part of this story goes back to the Odyssey; the second part is told only by the third-century Alexandrian poet Theocritus; the last part could have been written by no one except the satirist Lucian, in the second century A.D. At least a thousand years separate the beginning from the end. Homer’s vigor and power of storytelling, the pretty fancies of Theocritus, the smart cynicism of Lucian, illustrate in their degree the course of Greek literature.