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Excerpts from Homer, Odyssey, IX

The end of the eighth century and the seventh century was marked in Greek culture by the process of colonization, when the Greek city states established colonies in other parts of the Mediterranean world. This period is also called the Orientalizing period. This label given by modern scholars is a reference to the Eastern or Oriental influences on Greek culture brought about by the contact the Greeks had with the Ancient Near Eastern cultures during this period of colonization. The Odyssey can be read from these perspectives. In the first part of this passage, Odysseus and his cohorts arrive on the island of the Cyclopes and they assess their environs. Note the colonist’s perspective here as they assess the adjacent island. The most famous part of Odyssey IX recounts Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemos. In this context the Cyclopes can be read as the non-Greek, “barbarian.” It is also a good example of heroic “arete”. Try to articulate the values and priorities of Greek culture re-presented in these passages.

The amphora above was found at an ancient graveyard at Eleusis. It was a gravemarker for a male's grave. It is an important monument in the development of narrative representations. On the belly of the vase is represented the story of the hero Perseus fleeing with the aid of Athena from the Gorgons after he had beheaded Medusa.

This story was widely popular in the art of the 7th and 6th centuries. It is interesting to note the experimental nature of this narrative by observing the form of the gorgons that do not reflect the later canonical form. On the neck of this vase is represented the story of Odysseus Blinding Polyphemos:

Compare this representation to the Homeric account that follows. Note the thematic connections of the stories shown on this vase.

[105] “Thence we sailed on, grieved at heart, and we came to the land of the Cyclopes, an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, [110] wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase. Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each one is lawgiver [115] to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.

“Now there is a level isle that stretches aslant outside the harbor, neither close to the shore of the land of the Cyclopes, nor yet far off, a wooded isle. Therein live wild goats innumerable, for the tread of men scares them not away, [120] nor are hunters wont to come thither, men who endure toils in the woodland as they course over the peaks of the mountains. Neither with flocks is it held, nor with ploughed lands, but unsown and untilled all the days it knows naught of men, but feeds the bleating goats. [125] For the Cyclopes have at hand no ships with vermilion cheeks, nor are there ship-wrights in their land who might build them well-benched ships, which should perform all their wants, passing to the cities of other folk, as men often cross the sea in ships to visit one another — [130] craftsmen, who would have made of this isle also a fair settlement. For the isle is nowise poor, but would bear all things in season. In it are meadows by the shores of the grey sea, well-watered meadows and soft, where vines would never fail, and in it level ploughland, whence [135] they might reap from season to season harvests exceeding deep, so rich is the soil beneath; and in it, too, is a harbor giving safe anchorage, where there is no need of moorings, either to throw out anchor-stones or to make fast stern cables, but one may beach one's ship and wait until the sailors' minds bid them put out, and the breezes blow fair. [140] Now at the head of the harbor a spring of bright water flows forth from beneath a cave, and round about it poplars grow. Thither we sailed in, and some god guided us through the murky night; for there was no light to see, but a mist lay deep about the ships and the moon [145] showed no light from heaven, but was shut in by clouds. Then no man's eyes beheld that island, nor did we see the long waves rolling on the beach, until we ran our well-benched ships on shore. And when we had beached the ships we lowered all the sails [150] and ourselves went forth on the shore of the sea, and there we fell asleep and waited for the bright Dawn.

“As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, we roamed throughout the isle marvelling at it; and the nymphs, the daughters of Zeus who bears the aegis, roused [155] the mountain goats, that my comrades might have whereof to make their meal. Straightway we took from the ships our curved bows and long javelins, and arrayed in three bands we fell to smiting; and the god soon gave us game to satisfy our hearts. The ships that followed me were twelve, and to each [160] nine goats fell by lot, but for me alone they chose out ten....

“As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, he [the cyclops Polyphemus] rekindled the fire and milked his goodly flocks all in turn, and beneath each dam placed her young. [310] Then, when he had busily performed his tasks, again he seized two men at once and made ready his meal. And when he had made his meal he drove his fat flocks forth from the cave, easily moving away the great door-stone; and then he put it in place again, as one might set the lid upon a quiver. [315] Then with loud whistling the Cyclops turned his fat flocks toward the mountain, and I was left there, devising evil in the deep of my heart, if in any way I might take vengeance on him, and Athena grant me glory.

“Now this seemed to my mind the best plan. There lay beside a sheep-pen a great club of the Cyclops, [320] a staff of green olive-wood, which he had cut to carry with him when dry; and as we looked at it we thought it as large as is the mast of a black ship of twenty oars, a merchantman, broad of beam, which crosses over the great gulf; so huge it was in length and in breadth to look upon. [325] To this I came, and cut off therefrom about a fathom's length and handed it to my comrades, bidding them dress it down; and they made it smooth, and I, standing by, sharpened it at the point, and then straightway took it and hardened it in the blazing fire. Then I laid it carefully away, hiding it beneath the dung, [330] which lay in great heaps throughout the cave. And I bade my comrades cast lots among them, which of them should have the hardihood with me to lift the stake and grind it into his eye when sweet sleep should come upon him. And the lot fell upon those whom I myself would fain have chosen; [335] four they were, and I was numbered with them as the fifth. At even then he came, herding his flocks of goodly fleece, and straightway drove into the wide cave his fat flocks one and all, and left not one without in the deep court, either from some foreboding or because a god so bade him. [340] Then he lifted on high and set in place the great door-stone, and sitting down he milked the ewes and bleating goats all in turn, and beneath each dam he placed her young. But when he had busily performed his tasks, again he seized two men at once and made ready his supper. [345] Then I drew near and spoke to the Cyclops, holding in my hands an ivy bowl of the dark wine:

“‘Cyclops, take and drink wine after thy meal of human flesh, that thou mayest know what manner of drink this is which our ship contained. It was to thee that I was bringing it as a drink offering, in the hope that, touched with pity, [350] thou mightest send me on my way home; but thou ragest in a way that is past all bearing. Cruel man, how shall any one of all the multitudes of men ever come to thee again hereafter, seeing that thou hast wrought lawlessness?’

“So I spoke, and he took the cup and drained it, and was wondrously pleased as he drank the sweet draught, and asked me for it again a second time:

[355] “‘Give it me again with a ready heart, and tell me thy name straightway, that I may give thee a stranger's gift whereat thou mayest be glad. For among the Cyclopes the earth, the giver of grain, bears the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase; but this is a streamlet of ambrosia and nectar.’

[360] “So he spoke, and again I handed him the flaming wine. Thrice I brought and gave it him, and thrice he drained it in his folly. But when the wine had stolen about the wits of the Cyclops, then I spoke to him with gentle words:

“‘Cyclops, thou askest me of my glorious name, and I [365] will tell it thee; and do thou give me a stranger's gift, even as thou didst promise. Noman is my name, Noman do they call me — my mother and my father, and all my comrades as well.’

“So I spoke, and he straightway answered me with pitiless heart: ‘Noman will I eat last among his comrades, [370] and the others before him; this shall be thy gift.’

“He spoke, and reeling fell upon his back, and lay there with his thick neck bent aslant, and sleep, that conquers all, laid hold on him. And from his gullet came forth wine and bits of human flesh, and he vomited in his drunken sleep. [375] Then verily I thrust in the stake under the deep ashes until it should grow hot, and heartened all my comrades with cheering words, that I might see no man flinch through fear. But when presently that stake of olive-wood was about to catch fire, green though it was, and began to glow terribly, [380] then verily I drew nigh, bringing the stake from the fire, and my comrades stood round me and a god breathed into us great courage. They took the stake of olive-wood, sharp at the point, and thrust it into his eye, while I, throwing my weight upon it from above, whirled it round, as when a man bores a ship's timber [385] with a drill, while those below keep it spinning with the thong, which they lay hold of by either end, and the drill runs around unceasingly. Even so we took the fiery-pointed stake and whirled it around in his eye, and the blood flowed around the heated thing. And his eyelids wholly and his brows round about did the flame singe [390] as the eyeball burned, and its roots crackled in the fire. And as when a smith dips a great axe or an adze in cold water amid loud hissing to temper it — for therefrom comes the strength of iron — even so did his eye hiss round the stake of olive-wood. [395] Terribly then did he cry aloud, and the rock rang around; and we, seized with terror, shrank back, while he wrenched from his eye the stake, all befouled with blood, and flung it from him, wildly waving his arms. Then he called aloud to the Cyclopes, who [400] dwelt round about him in caves among the windy heights, and they heard his cry and came thronging from every side, and standing around the cave asked him what ailed him:

“‘What so sore distress is thine, Polyphemus, that thou criest out thus through the immortal night, and makest us sleepless? [405] Can it be that some mortal man is driving off thy flocks against thy will, or slaying thee thyself by guile or by might?’

“‘Then from out the cave the mighty Polyphemus answered them: ‘My friends, it is Noman that is slaying me by guile and not by force.’

“And they made answer and addressed him with winged words: [410] ‘If, then, no man does violence to thee in thy loneliness, sickness which comes from great Zeus thou mayest in no wise escape. Nay, do thou pray to our father, the lord Poseidon.’

“So they spoke and went their way; and my heart laughed within me that my name and cunning device had so beguiled. [415] But the Cyclops, groaning and travailing in anguish, groped with his hands and took away the stone from the door, and himself sat in the doorway with arms outstretched in the hope of catching anyone who sought to go forth with the sheep — so witless, forsooth, he thought in his heart to find me. [420] But I took counsel how all might be the very best, if I might haply find some way of escape from death for my comrades and for myself. And I wove all manner of wiles and counsel, as a man will in a matter of life and death; for great was the evil that was nigh us. And this seemed to my mind the best plan. [425] Rams there were, well-fed and thick of fleece, fine beasts and large, with wool dark as the violet. These I silently bound together with twisted withes on which the Cyclops, that monster with his heart set on lawlessness, was wont to sleep. Three at a time I took. The one in the middle in each case bore a man, [430] and the other two went, one on either side, saving my comrades. Thus every three sheep bore a man. But as for me — there was a ram, far the best of all the flock; him I grasped by the back, and curled beneath his shaggy belly, lay there face upwards [435] with steadfast heart, clinging fast with my hands to his wondrous fleece. So then, with wailing, we waited for the bright dawn.

“As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, then the males of the flock hastened forth to pasture and the females bleated unmilked about the pens, [440] for their udders were bursting. And their master, distressed with grievous pains, felt along the backs of all the sheep as they stood up before him, but in his folly he marked not this, that my men were bound beneath the breasts of his fleecy sheep. Last of all the flock the ram went forth, [445] burdened with the weight of his fleece and my cunning self. And mighty Polyphemus, as he felt along his back, spoke to him, saying:

“‘Good ram, why pray is it that thou goest forth thus through the cave the last of the flock? Thou hast not heretofore been wont to lag behind the sheep, but wast ever far the first to feed on the tender bloom of the grass, [450] moving with long strides, and ever the first didst reach the streams of the river, and the first didst long to return to the fold at evening. But now thou art last of all. Surely thou art sorrowing for the eye of thy master, which an evil man blinded along with his miserable fellows, when he had overpowered my wits with wine, [455] even Noman, who, I tell thee, has not yet escaped destruction. If only thou couldst feel as I do, and couldst get thee power of speech to tell me where he skulks away from my wrath, then should his brains be dashed on the ground here and there throughout the cave, when I had smitten him, and my heart [460] should be lightened of the woes which good-for-naught Noman has brought me.’

“So saying, he sent the ram forth from him. And when we had gone a little way from the cave and the court, I first loosed myself from under the ram and set my comrades free. Speedily then we drove off those long-shanked sheep, rich with fat, [465] turning full often to look about until we came to the ship.