Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Cyclops

After the most grueling siege in history, after ten long years Troy fell to the Greek armies. Some of the greatest heroes ever born had fought and died on both sides, Olympus was divided and the world would never be the same again. But the ordeal of many of the Greek heroes was far from over. Indeed for one man above all others, it had only just begun...

Second Century Greek Sculpture, housed
in the Villa of the Roman Emperor Tiberius
at Sperlonga
Cunning Odysseus, King of Ithaca and sacker of cities, was the man who won the Trojan War. Renowned the world over for his sagacity and brilliant mind, it had been he who had masterminded the stratagem of the Wooden Horse, a deception famous the world over even today. But now, nearly ten years after the Trojan citadel burned, a weary and despairing man sat before King Alcinous of Phaeacia. The Phaeacians had been most intrigued when a strange and ragged looking man had been washed up on their shores, but Alcinous was a kindly man, and entertained the stranger in his palace. That night, at the banquet, the court bard struck up a song, a song which rang with the deeds of those famous men at Troy so long ago now. The gathered crowd cheered as the song turned to the valiant heroism of those who fought inside Troy's walls as the city fell to its knees, most of all proud Odysseus, blessed by Athena. At the sound of the bard's song, the memories welled up afresh in the stranger's mind, and choked with emotion, tears fell from his eyes. Seeing his distress, Alcinous bade the bard fall silent, and prayed the stranger to reveal his as yet unknown name, and what force had brought him here. Realising he could remain anonymous no longer, the stranger replied "Where shall I begin, where end, my tale? For the list of woes which the gods in Heaven have sent me is a long one... I am Odysseus, Laertes' son. The whole world talks of my stratagems, and my fame has reached the Heavens...". The room fell silent. All were entranced by the hero's words, stunned and saddened at his melancholy. So, with a heavy heart, Odysseus began his mighty tale.

Ten long years ago, Odysseus and his men departed Trojan shores, desperate to see beloved Ithaca again. The journey should have been quick and easy, but little could they have known that it would be as arduous and perilous as the War had ever been. For the gathered Greek Kings had made sacrifices to the gods on the shores of Troy, giving praise for their triumph. But the rituals were in vain. For the Greek soldiers had desecrated the holy places within Troy when they stormed the city, burning her temples and slaughtering her priests. In their rage, the gods decreed a terrible retribution upon the Greeks...

Odysseus rescues his men from the Lotus Eaters
Engraver unknown
Odysseus' ships made landfall in the land of the Cicones, a vicious and warlike tribe who despised all foreign men. The Ithacans sacked their citadels, eager for plunder to take home for their families as they were. But the Cicones struck back, and many were killed in the ensuing slaughter. Rallying his men, Odysseus sounded their retreat, as they continued South on their journey home. Zeus the Thunderer, however, gathered the storm clouds and unleashed a tempest upon the sea, and for nine days the Greek ships were blasted across the Mediterranean, coming to the strange land. Odysseus sent two men to investigate the local tribe, and determine if they were hostile. The locals, however, were not violent at all, on the contrary they gave Odysseus' men lotus fruit to eat. As soon as the sweet, luscious fruit touched their lips, however, the men lost all thought of home and the worries of the world. All they desired was to remain here and feast on the Lotus flower for ever more. With a great struggle did Odysseus drag his men back to the ships, urgently making for distant shores, lest his whole crew fall victim to the dangerous fruit.

Home seemed more distant than ever when, sometime later, the ships chanced upon a dense fog which descended upon them, shrouding the moonlight. So dark was the night that the ships ran aground upon a peculiar island, not a large land, but a bountiful one. Lush and verdant, this island was teeming with life, and the weary crew dined well on the plentiful goat population of the island. For the first time in many long months, Odysseus and his men enjoyed a peaceful sleep. When Dawn arrived, and the light hit Odysseus' eyes, he awoke to the beauty of the island. Across the strait, however, there was a land that night had veiled. A wild and mountainous sight it was too, in the shadow of a towering volcano - Mount Etna. When the ships were filled to bursting with supplies, curious Odysseus picked his best ship's crew, and together they set sail across the strait, inquisitive as to the local peoples and their ways. Odysseus ordered gifts to be brought, in the form of wine taken from the groves sacred to Apollo, a wine fit for Olympus itself, such was the floral aroma that rose from it. A fitting present for the local leader who, Odysseus hoped, might grant hospitality to his men in return. How very wrong he would be.

The Sack of Troy
Painting by Johan Georg Trautmann
Making landfall upon the beach, Odysseus noticed high up on the slopes an enormous cavern. Fighting an ominous sense of foreboding, the King and his twelve finest warriors scaled the cliff and gazed within the towering entrance. The sight that waited there so amazed them that all thoughts of doubt left their minds. Baskets of the most luxurious cheeses towered high, pails full to the brim with milk and pens laden with the finest lambs all stretched before them. His comrades begged him to let them take some and swiftly make their flight. How much better if would have been for them all if they had, Odysseus mournfully confessed to the Phaeacian King, but alas that hindsight was not theirs, as the hero continued his tale. Odysseus forbade his men to steal from the cave, and was at any rate keen to meet the owner of these splendid things.  Lighting a fire, the Greeks settled down, guessing the owner to be out tending his flocks during the day, as they wondered what gifts their host might present them with. Some hours later, the herds came into their cave, their shepherd close behind. At last, the owner had come. But it was no native tribesman or leader of men. With a titanic crash the Greeks awoke with a start, some might have thought that they had been roused to a nightmare. An enormous pile of logs and fallen to the cavern floor, and the being who had dropped them stood not far behind. A towering giant, mightier in stature than any building raised by the hands of men, stood framed by the mouth of the cave. So feeble were they aside such a vast being, the Greeks had avoided the gaze of the giant's single and enormous eye. With a ripple of terror, Odysseus and his men shrank into the shadows, making not a sound. The Cyclops rolled an enormous boulder into the cave's entrance as some crude door, before turning to drive his flock deeper into the cave. After methodically milking his ewes, the Cyclops lit his fire, and with the orange glow, Odysseus' cover was blown. "Strangers!" the giant roared, "and who are you!"

            " Our hearts sank. The booming voice and the very sight
              of the monster filled us with panic..."
                                          - ODYSSEUS RECOUNTS MEETING THE CYCLOPS

Their courage faltering, the Greeks turned to their King, who boldly replied that they were Achaeans, returning from Troy, once proud subjects of King Agamemnon. Some god had lead them astray on their path home, and they were now suppliants before him. Odysseus reminded the Cyclops of his duty towards guests, for Zeus decreed the honour that bound a host to his guest. The pitiless Cyclops replied that the Cyclopes were no god fearing people, and that he cared nothing for Zeus or the Olympians, since his own strength was a match for they. Nevertheless, the giant demanded to know where Odysseus had moored his ship. Sensing danger for his men still down on the ships, cunning Odysseus replied that Poseidon had smashed up his ships and that they were stranded here. The cruel Cyclops made no reply, but triumphantly dived upon them. Seizing two of Odysseus' men, he dashed their heads against the cold, stone floor. Tearing them limb from limb, he devoured them, as the Greeks shouted in terror, weeping as they raised their hands to Heaven, begging Zeus for help. Taking a gulp of milk to wash down his ghastly meal, the Cyclops settled down into a sleep.

Odysseus blinds Polyphemus
Painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi
Odysseus's first impulse was to draw his blade and slay the giant there and then, but wisdom prevailed. No man could move the vast boulder at the cave's door, and simply kill him would seal all their fates. Stricken groans came from his men, but Odysseus soothed them with his words, as they braced for morning. Dawn came once more, as the giant awoke. After slowly milking his ewes once more, he grabbed two more brave Greeks. Odysseus looked helplessly on at their grisly fate, crying with frustration. As the Cyclops left for the day to tend his flocks, however, Odysseus noticed that he had left his staff behind. If a staff it was, for to human eyes it was more like the mast of some great ship, such was its size. Forming a plan, he drew his sword and began to whittle the staff, sharpening it to a point. Thrusting the point into the fire, so as to harden it in the flames, the men drew lots to see who would have the brave task of helping Odysseus wield it. Just then the goats returned to the cave. With seconds to spare, Odysseus hid the point under a pile of dung, of which there was a great deal in the cave. Evening fell, and after milking his ewes once more, the Cyclops snatched two more of Odysseus' comrades and gobbled them down. Steeling his nerves for not the first, or the last, time, Odysseus beckoned to his men to pass him the wine he had brought. Approaching the fierce giant, Odysseus flattered him, offering him a gift of wine in the hope of pity. The Cyclops took the wine and drank deeply from it, as the intoxicating perfumes from it rose to his nostrils. The wine gave him such joy that he immediately demanded more, and the Odysseus' name, promising him a gift in return. Three times Odysseus refilled the bowl, and three times the Cyclops drained it to the last. Seeing the wine do its work on the giant's wits, Odysseus addressed him once more, "My name is Nobody. That is what I am called by my mother and father and by all my friends". Looking hopefully for his gift, Odysseus looked the giant in his monstrous eye. The heartless being answered, "of all his company I will eat Nobody last, and the rest before him. That shall be your gift". Barely had the word "gift" been uttered, when the Cyclops keeled over into a drunken stupor, vomiting forth a stream of wine and torn human flesh from his gullet.

Odysseus' Escape
Painting by Jacob Jordaens
Seizing their chance, Odysseus and his men thrust the staff into the glowing fire, and soon the tip was burning hot. Whispering encouragements to his men, Odysseus drove the stake into the Cyclops eye, twisting it with all his might. The heat singed the giant's brow, and the blood bubbled around the wound as his eye hissed furiously. The Cyclops let out a deafening shriek of agony, a shout which rang across the mountains, as the Greeks recoiled again, their nerve buckling. Such was the din, other Cyclopes soon crowded around the sealed entrance to the cave, demanding to know the cause for this disturbance. "What on earth is wrong with you Polyphemus?" they called from the night. "O my friends, it is Nobody's treachery that is doing me to death", Polyphemus shouted back. Confused, the Cyclopes replied "well, if you are alone and nobody is assaulting you, you must be sick", and off they went. Odysseus laughed to himself at the brilliance of his plan, but they had little time to waste. Groaning in pain, Polyphemus rolled aside the boulder at the door of the cave, and groped feebly, hoping to catch Odysseus or his comrades as they fled. Thinking quickly, Odysseus ordered his men to lash together the sheep in threes, using willow twigs from Polyphemus' enormous bed. For himself, Odysseus chose the most robust ram and, clinging tightly on, swung underneath it. As soon as Dawn arrived, the flock made for the pastures on the mountainside. Their master, however, still in blinding pain, ran his fingers along to tops of their fleeces as they passed through the mouth of the cave, for it did not occur to the Cyclops that men would hang beneath. Soon only the great ram remained. As the giant's hands recognised his favourite of the flock, he moaned "Sweet ram, why are you the last of the flock to pass out og the cave like this? You have never before lagged behind the others..." Odysseus felt a sudden pang of fear. "You must be grieved for your master's eye", Polyphemus mournfully concluded, and Odysseus breathed a sigh of relief. Releasing the ram, Polyphemus sat as the flock stepped into the fresh air once more. With many backward glances, Odysseus and his crew detached themselves and sprinted for the shore.

The Rage of Polyphemus
Painting by Annibale Carracci
Reaching the ship as fast as they could, Odysseus and his men were greeted with cries of joy, soon followed by lamentations at those lost. With urgent gestures, Odysseus beckoned them to silently load the flock on board and make their escape. As the oar blades struck the surf, Odysseus could not resist. Shouting in defiance, he taunted Polyphemus, "Cyclops! So he was not such a weakling after all, the man whose friends you meant to overpower and eat in your hollow cave! And your crimes were bound to catch up with you, you brute, who did not shrink from devouring your guests. Now Zeus and the other gods have paid you out!" Polyphemus felt a stab of rage. With a roar he tore off the pinnacle of the mountains and hurled it in the direction of Odysseus' voice. Soaring through the air, the rock struck the sea just ahead of the ship, but the resulting wave drove the Greeks back to shore. Seizing a pole, Odysseus pushed them off, frantically urging the crew to row for their lives. The will to shout more abuse took hold once again, as his men tried to restrain him. But anger and frustration was welling up in Odysseus too, frustration that home was no closer, frustration at his helplessness to save the lives of his men. His men begged him to stop, lest they all die. But Odysseus was not to be restrained, and shouted something he would later rue.

            "Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him
              your eye was put out by Odysseus, sacker of cities,
              the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca!"
                                       - ODYSSEUS TAUNTS POLYPHEMUS

Polyphemus stopped. He remembered an ancient prophecy told amongst the Cyclopes, a prophecy that foretold that he would be robbed of his sight by a man called Odysseus. In return, the Cyclops called to Odysseus, bidding him return, so that he might present him with gifts to speed him on his journey, for his father was none other than Poseidon, the god of the sea himself. Fatally disbelieving, Odysseus angrily retorted "I only wish I could make as sure of robbing you of life and breath and sending you to Hell, as I certain that not even the Earthshaker will ever heal your eye!" As this, Polyphemus kneeled in prayer. Beseeching the skies, he called to his father, laying a curse on Odysseus and his men:

        "Grant that Odysseus, sacker of cities and son of Laertes, may never reach his home
          in Ithaca. But if he is destined to see his friends again, to come once more
          to his own house and reach his native land, let him come late, in wretched plight,
          having lost all his comrades, in a foreign ship, and let him find trouble in his home"
                                        - THE CYCLOP'S CURSE

Polyphemus prayed, and Lord Poseidon heard his prayer. Rising to his feet, with all his might, Polyphemus seized a boulder, mightier by far than the first, and with a roar hurled it towards Odysseus' proud words. Falling through the sky, the rock scraped the rear of the ship, but missed, though the resulting tidal wave propelled the Greeks to foreign shores. Odysseus and his men were overjoyed. Little did they know, as Odysseus later told King Alcinous in Phaeacia, what a world of pain the Cyclops had now unleashed upon them. For in his lair they had had a giant as a foe. Now they had a long ocean voyage home, and now they had the god of the sea himself as a foe...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A version which keeps a dash of the original poetry, good if you like a balance between high poetry and readability)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Odyssey (Oxford World's Classics)
(An excellent choice if you want to read the Odyssey for it's story over it's poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A version which keeps a dash of the original poetry, good if you like a balance between high poetry and readability)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Odyssey (Oxford World's Classics)
(An excellent choice if you want to read the Odyssey for it's story over it's poetry)  

No comments:

Post a Comment