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PolyphemusPottery

The blinding of Polyphemus by Odysseus and his men is depicted on this piece of Greek pottery from the 7th century BCE.

Polyphemus (Greek: Πολύφημος, Polyphēmos) is the gigantic one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa in Greek mythology, one of the Cyclopes. His name means "everywhere famous".[1] Polyphemus plays a pivotal role in Homer's Odyssey.

In Homer's Odyssey

In Homer's Odyssey (Book 9), Odysseus lands on the Island of the Cyclopes during his journey home from the Trojan War. He takes with him twelve men to find food and drink, and they eventually find a large cave, which is the home of the great Cyclops Polyphemus. When Polyphemus returns home with his flocks and finds Odysseus and his men, he blocks the cave entrance with a great stone, trapping the remaining Greeks inside. Polyphemus then crushes and immediately devours two of his men for his meal. It is said that "rapping them on the ground, he knocked them dead like pups".[2]

The next morning, Polyphemus kills and eats two more of Odysseus' men for his breakfast and exits the cave to graze his sheep. The desperate Odysseus devises a clever escape plan. He spots a massive unseasoned olivewood club that Polyphemus left behind the previous night and, with the help of his men, sharpens the narrow end to a fine point. He hardens the stake over a flame and hides it from sight. That night, Polyphemus returns from herding his flock of sheep. He sits down and kills two more of Odysseus' men, bringing the death toll to six. At that point, Odysseus offers Polyphemus the strong and undiluted wine given to him by Maron. The wine makes Polyphemus drunk and unwary. When Polyphemus asks for Odysseus' name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers, Odysseus tells him "οὔτις," literally "nobody." Being drunk, Polyphemus thinks of it as a real name and says that he will eat "nobody" last and that this shall be his guest-gift—a vicious insult both to the tradition of hospitality and to Odysseus. With that, Polyphemus crashes to the floor and passes out. Odysseus, with the help of his men, lifts the flaming stake, charges forward and drives it into Polyphemus' eye, blinding him. Polyphemus yells for help from his fellow cyclopes that "nobody" has hurt him. The other cyclopes think Polyphemus is making a fool out of them or that it must be a matter with the gods, and they grumble and go away.

In the morning, Odysseus and his men tie themselves to the undersides of Polyphemus' sheep. When the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, he feels their backs to ensure the men aren't riding out, but because of Odysseus' plan, he does not feel the men underneath. Odysseus leaves last, riding beneath the belly of the biggest ram. Polyphemus doesn't realize that the men are no longer in his cave until the sheep and the men are safely out.

As he sails away with his men, Odysseus boasts to Polyphemus that "I am not nobody; I am Odysseus, Son of Laertes, King of Ithaca." This act of hubris causes problems for Odysseus later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon for revenge. Even though Poseidon fought on the side of the Greeks during the Iliad, he bore Odysseus a grudge for not giving him a sacrifice when Poseidon prevented them from being discovered inside of the Trojan Horse. Poseidon curses Odysseus, sending storms and contrary winds to inhibit his homeward journey.

The episode in Odyssey is the oldest testament to cannibalism in ancient Greek literature. Walter Burkert detects in the Polyphemus episode a subtext that "seems to offer us something more ancient: threatened by the man-eater, men conceal themselves in the skins of slaughtered animals, and thus, disguised as animals, escape the groping hands of the blinded monster."[3] The vivid nature of the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey made it a favorite theme of ancient Greek painted pottery, both Black-figure and Red-figure pottery.

In Theocritus

The Hellenistic poet Theocritus painted a more sympathetic picture of Polyphemus. The Cyclops of the Odyssey has been recast in the poet's pastoral style which idealized the simple lives of shepherds. In Idylls 6 and 11, Polyphemus becomes a gentle shepherd in love with the sea-nymph Galatea, finding solace in song.

In Virgil's Aeneid

Aeneas observes Polyphemus as he leads his flocks down to the sea after Achaemenides re-tells the story of how Odysseus and his men escaped Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey. Polyphemus is described as using a “lopped pine tree” as a walking staff. Once Polyphemus reaches the sea, he washes his oozing eye socket with water and groans painfully. Achaemenides is taken aboard Aeneas’ vessel and they begin to row away. Polyphemus hears them and gives chase into the sea, but is unable to reach them. He then lets out a great roar and the rest of the cyclopes in Polyphemus’ tribe come down to the shore and watch as Aeneas safely sails away.[4]

In Ovid's Metamorphoses

The Cyclops also appears in Ovid's story of Acis and Galatea.[5] As a jealous suitor of the sea nymph, Galatea, he kills his rival Acis with a rock. Rather than telling the love stories of Odysseus and Aeneas, Ovid chooses to tell love stories about the monsters that those heroes experienced. Ovid's first century Roman audience would surely have had a basic knowledge of Polyphemus' role as an uncivilized cannibal in Book IX of the Odyssey, and this episode gives an amusing contrast to that characterization. Polyphemus is shown doing all of the things that a proper Roman suitor would do—trims his beard, composes a poem etc.—which encourage the reader/hearer to cheer for him, even though his courtship is doomed to fail. Ovid tells this story shortly after the Judgement of Arms, where he shows how perceptions of Odysseus in Ovid's time were very different from the Archaic period in Greece. Ovid's self-conscious and urbane report appears to be suggesting in his uncharacteristic depiction of Polyphemus that it is possible for the way that readers view a character to drastically change over time.

Although the full story was described by Ovid, it was also mentioned by Philoxenus and Theocritus, and in Valerius Flaccus' version of Argonautica, among the themes painted on the Argos, "Cyclops from the Sicilian shore calls Galatea back."[6]

Other mythological figures

Additionally, one of the Argonauts was named Polyphemus, "famous". He was the son of Elatus and Hippea, and when he helped Heracles search for Hylas, both were left behind by the Argo. In Iliad I, Nestor numbers "the godlike Polyphemus" among an earlier generation of heroes of his youth, "the strongest men that Earth has bred, the strongest men against the strongest enemies, a savage mountain-dwelling tribe whom they utterly destroyed." No trace of such an oral tradition, which Homer's listeners would have recognized in Nestor's allusion, survived in literary epic.

In media

  • Polyphemus has been repeatedly portrayed in post-classical art and literature. Nicholas Poussin's painting Landscape with Polyphemus was the subject of a famous essay by William Hazlitt.[7]
  • Polyphemus is also the subject of a series of sculptures made by the French artist August Rodin about 1888.
  • Polyphème is the theme of an opera by French composer Jean Cras (1879-1932).

Notes

  1. Πολύφημος, "famous".
  2. Robert Fagles' translation.
  3. Burkert, Homo Necans (1982) translated by Peter Bing (University of California Press) 1983, p. 131.
  4. Book 3, Virgil's Aeneid (translation by Stanley Lombardo)
  5. Ovid, Metamorphoses xiii. 750–68.
  6. J.H. Mozley translation, Book I.
  7. Frederick Cummings, "Poussin, Haydon, and The Judgement of Solomon", The Burlington Magazine Publications, 1962.

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