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The Cyclops in The Odyssey & Greek Mythology

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  • 0:04 The Cyclops in ''The Odyssey''
  • 1:10 A Bad Host
  • 2:10 Polyphemus and Odysseus
  • 3:22 The Third Eye
  • 3:57 Cyclops in Greek Mythology
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

The Cyclops in Homer's classic poem, ''The Odyssey'' plays a vital role in launching the famous tale of the ancient king, Odysseus, struggling to return home. However, the Cyclops also figures powerfully in Greek mythology as a whole.

The Cyclops in The Odyssey

Imagine you're planning the perfect dinner party: what's the worst thing you could possibly do as host or hostess? Burn dinner? Run out of silverware? Well, we've got the hosting faux pas to end them all: eating the guests!

That's exactly what Polyphemus, better known as the Cyclops (a mythological one-eyed giant, in Homer's classic poem The Odyssey), does. When King Odysseus and his men seek refuge in Polyphemus' cave, he tries to eat them. The Cyclops' bad behavior sets into motion a chain of events that will change the lives of Odysseus, his soldiers, and his family forever. It also gives rise to one of the most famous tales in all of world literature.

Bust of Homer
Homer

In The Odyssey, the Trojan War has ended after ten years, and Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, a Greek city-state, is preparing to bring his soldiers home from the war. It's a sea journey across the Aegean that should have taken a matter of days, weeks at the most. It ends up taking another ten years and costing far too many lives.

And it all starts with Polyphemus.

Polyphemus
Polyphemus

A Bad Host

When Odysseus and his men are shipwrecked shortly after leaving Troy, they take refuge on Polyphemus' island. Polyphemus invites them into his cave. Initially, he seems to be doing what a good Greek is supposed to do: care for the weary traveler, tend to those in need, and make guests feel welcome. Then, out of nowhere, Polyphemus eats two of Odysseus' men. He then bars the entrance to the cave with an impossibly huge stone. Odysseus' men go from guest to prisoner to snack. Twice a day, Polyphemus chows down on two more of Odysseus' men.

Polyphemus violates one of the most sacred obligations to which an ancient Greek man or woman is bound: the rule of hospitality. If you don't treat your guests well, it not only reflects poorly on you, but it is also considered an insult to the gods. After all, the gods often appear to men in human form, so to treat a guest badly is to risk treating a god badly.

Polyphemus and Odysseus

Of course, Odysseus isn't going to stand by and let his men get eaten. Odysseus is a courageous warrior king and a cunning man, which is unsurprising since Odysseus' protector and guide is the goddess Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and strategic warfare. While Polyphemus is out, Odysseus and his men forge a long wooden stake, which they use to poke out Polyphemus' one eye. Now blind, Polyphemus doesn't know until it's too late that Odysseus and his men have escaped. Polyphemus gets what he deserves for being such a bad host: he loses both his sight and his dinner.

In a moment of hubris (dangerously reckless pride), the escaping Odysseus shouts out his name. He wants Polyphemus to know the name of the man who has been smart and bold enough to escape him. It's never a good idea, though, to tick off the son of a god and then give him your real name. Polyphemus cries out to his father, Poseidon, the God of the Sea, to avenge him. Poseidon vows to destroy Odysseus and his men. Only Athena's intervention saves Odysseus' life, but she cannot spare him another ten years of wandering and suffering.

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