Ancient Greek Literature
Odysseus and the Cyclops
Cyclopes appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, the sons of Ouranos and Gaia, craftsmen who supply Zeus with the thunderbolts which enable him to defeat the Titans. In the Odyssey, Polyphemus is the son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoösa. Thus there is a question hanging over Polyphemus' origins, how he became a cyclops, since he had no cyclopean blood on his father or mother’s side.
While he tells the story of his wanderings, Odysseus is being accommodated by the Phaeacians, an idealised community who are the perfect hosts. In contrast, the Cyclops eats his guests instead of feeding them! Everything Polyphemus says or does is a perversion or mockery of the rites of hospitality. Homer creates in the Cyclopes a cultural group at the opposite extreme from the Phaeacians on the scale of civilisation and hospitality. Once neighbours, the peace-loving Phaecians were driven from their home by the violent actions of the Cyclopes:
"The Phaeacian men, who formerly lived in the spacious land, Hyperia, next to the Cyclopes who were men too overbearing, and who had kept harrying them, being greater in strength. From here godlike Nausithoös had removed and led a migration, and settled in Scheria." (Od. 6.3-8 , trans. Lattimore)
The Phaeacians live in a polis, in houses, and worship the gods while the Cyclopes live in caves and "do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they (Od. 9.275-7, trans. Lattimore).
The story of the hero's escape from a blinded ogre is based on a universal folktake of which versions can be found throughout Europe as well as parts of northern Africa and the near East. The tale of Polyphemus in Odyssey 9 is one of many versions of a folktale widespread throughout Europe and beyond. Oskar Hackman collected 125 specimens and discovered the following common theme : the hero finds himself at the mercy of a giant shepherd in a cave, he blinds the giant and escapes from the cave by walking out on all fours dressed in sheep's skin. This folktale has been recorded in Spain, France, Italy, Sicily, Albania, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Germany, Lithuania, Finland.
Two aspects of the Odyssey 9 story which are not found in the folk-tale are the trick of the name 'Nobody', and the inebriation of the giant.
The trick of the name Nobody is a characteristic of another common folktale in Hackman’s list and will only work if Polyphemus is alone. Odyssey 1 introduces Polyphemus with grandeur: ‘for Polyphemus [is] like a god, whose power is greatest over all the Cyclopes.’ (Od. 1.70-71, trans. Lattimore). So there is a community of cyclopes but Homer tells us that our cyclops is solitary: “there lodged a monster of a man, who now was herding the flocks sat a distance away, alone, for he did not range with others but stayed away by himself” (Od.9.187-9, trans. Lattimore). In the folk-tale, the giant is also solitary, living remote from men and other giants.
The inebriation of the giant is not found in the folktale, it may be an invention or a later addition. A small circle of folktales are concerned with a man who inebriates a devil or demon in order to capture him and force him to reveal some knowledge. It is impossible to know if the Odyssey is the common source of the folktale versions, but it is likely not since these incidents were either excluded or not known. In the Odyssey, the incident with the wine is prepared for several pages, we are told the origin of the wine, and it is mentioned over and over. The wine Odysseus brings to the cyclops' cave is extra special Ciconian wine from the celebrated vineyards of Ismarus, and it is extra-strong because we are told it needs to be diluted 20 times.