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Polyphemus

by Ron Leadbetter
Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and Thoosa. He was a Cyclops (plural Cyclopes) in Greek (Kuklops) meaning "round eye", a mythical semi-human monster of huge proportions, with a single eye at the centre of his forehead, usually described as a one-eyed giant. The island where they are thought to have dwelt is a remote part of Sicily, where they lived in caves and eating raw flesh of any kind (including human), and also keeping goats and sheep. They led a fairly solitary existence.

Polyphemus is best remembered for the role he took in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey when he captures the Greek hero Odysseus. The story unfolds as Odysseus and twelve of his crew, on their way home from the Trojan War, land on the island of the Cyclopes in search of provisions. Odysseus and his men came across the cave of Polyphemus, and went inside hoping to steal food while Polyphemus was away tending his flock. Being inquisitive, Odysseus wanted to see what a Cyclops looked like, so they hid in the cave until Polyphemus returned.

That evening, Polyphemus herded his flock of sheep and goats into his cave and, for safekeeping, rolled a huge boulder across the entrance, not knowing the Greeks were inside. On seeing the one-eyed giant. Odysseus and his men gasped in disbelief, giving away their hiding place. Polyphemus rushed forward and killed two of the men, then devouring them both for his dinner, he then fell fast asleep. Odysseus relished the thought of killing Polyphemus, but knowing full well he and his men could never remove the boulder from the cave entrance, conceived a plan on how to escape. On waking the next morning Polyphemus caught two more of Odysseus' men, and ate them both for breakfast. He then rolled back the boulder, allowing just enough room for his flock to get out, then rolling the huge rock back into place, leaving the Greeks inside ready for his next meal.

Odysseus set his men to work on sharpening a stout pole, which they did, and then hiding it ready for that evening. As dusk grew close Polyphemus returned, again rolling back the boulder and letting in his flock. He then caught two more Greeks, killed them and ate them raw. After consuming both men he spoke to Odysseus asking, "what is your name", Odysseus' reply was "Outis" (in Greek this means "nobody"). As part of the plan, Odysseus offered Polyphemus a full goatskin of wine and when he had finish the last drop, and feeling a little drunk, Polyphemus fell fast asleep. This was the time to take action, Odysseus and four of his men brought out the pole, which they had sharpened, and with one great thrust plunged the point into Polyphemus' eye, pushing it deep, to ensure it made him totally blind. The agonizing pain made Polyphemus scream out, so loud in fact that it brought the neighboring Cyclopes to see what was wrong. "Who is hurting you" asked the other Cyclopes, Polyphemus screamed "nobody is hurting me", (which is why Odysseus said was his name was "Outis"). Tthinking his screams were a punishment from the gods, the other Cyclopes went away.

At daybreak Polyphemus rolled the great boulder from the mouth of the cave to let out his flock, but being totally blind, and knowing the Greeks would try to escape, he felt each animal as he let it pass. Odysseus and his men held on to the belly of a ram, and, one at a time escaped from the cave. They quickly ran to their ship, taking with then part of the flock. Once aboard, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus by telling him his true identity, and Polyphemus, realizing he had been tricked hurled rocks at the ship, trying to smash its hull to pieces. When Odysseus had made his escape, Polyphemus prayed to his father asking him to send a curse, and throughout the rest of Odysseus' journey home Poseidon was his enemy.

In the Hellenistic age, Theocritus the Sicilian Greek poet, wrote two poems (circa 275 BCE) set in the time before the Odysseus legend, a tale of how Polyphemus fell in love with the sea nymph Galatea. Polyphemus was also one of the Argonauts names, from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, but bears no relationship to "Polyphemus the Cyclops".


Article details:

  • Pronunciation:
    pah-luh-fee'-muhs

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