Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of the Ithacan king Odysseus, who famously journeyed for a decade before making his way home from the Trojan War.
Poseidon had been angry with the Greeks as they left Troy and sent a storm that destroyed many ships. The single remaining Ithacan ship that carried Odysseus, however, attracted special ire.
The king of Ithaca attracted the anger of Poseidon not because of the events of the war, however, but because of what happened afterward. On a rugged island, an encounter with a one-eyed giant would earn Odysseus the enmity of the god of the sea.
Odysseus used his wits to cleverly escape the cannibal giant that held him captive. His arrogance, however, would set the stage for a long and deadly journey.
Odysseus was the king of the island of Ithaca and a participant in the Trojan War. While he had tried to avoid the war to remain with his infant son, he had been conscripted and spent ten years away from his family and kingdom.
Homer’s Odyssey describes the next ten years of the king’s life. While many ships were waylaid or delayed on their journey back from Troy, Odysseus would take ten full years to return home.
While his journey had already been foretold before he left Ithaca, his first adventure after his departure from Troy would set in motion the events that kept him at sea.
Ships often stopped several times on their journeys to replenish their supplies and give the sailors a chance to rest. The first stop made by Odysseus was on the island of the Lotus Eaters, and his next was on another uncharted and mysterious island.
The island appeared to be uninhabited, but the crew found a herd of sheep and goats there. Odysseus took twelve of his strongest and bravest men, leaving the rest to guard the ship, to explore the island.
They found a cave with a crude stone courtyard outside its entrance. Venturing inside, they discovered pens for livestock and stores of milk and cheese.
The men decided to wait for the cave’s inhabitant to return. In the meantime they lit a fire and took some of the cheese for themselves, being sure to offer some to the gods.
When the owner of the flock returned, they were surprised to discover that he was not a man. He was a cyclops, a one-eyed giant, who blocked the entrance with an enormous boulder once his flocks were inside and began to question the men.
They were dismayed to learn that the giant did not care about Zeus or his laws. He showed that he had no regard for the laws of hospitality when he grabbed two of the men and smashed them against the rocks.
The giant ate the two men as Odysseus and his companions looked on in horror. When the monster fell asleep, Odysseus considered stabbing him in the heart but realized that there would be no way to move the boulder and escape the cave.
When morning came, Polyphemus the cyclops ate two more of the men. He left to take his sheep and goats to pasture, shutting the surviving men in the cave once again.
Odysseus and his men made a plan to escape from Polyphemus before they could all be eaten.
Among the giant’s simple belongings they found an enormous cudgel of olive wood. They sharpened it over the fire and drew lots to determine who would help their captain lift the resulting stake.
When Polyphemus returned, he slaughtered two more men. Once they were eaten, Odysseus approached him with an offer of peace.
The hero had been carrying a skin of exceptionally strong wine when he explored the island, and he offered this to the cyclops. He claimed that they had been hoping to win the favor of the great giant that ruled the island, but he saw now that Polyphemus was too mighty and wild to win over.
Polyphemus drank the bowl of wine and asked for another. He then asked the hero’s name.
Odysseus claimed that he was called Outis, or “Nobody.” As thanks for the wine, Polyphemus declared that he would eat Nobody last of all.
Polyphemus drank until he became sick, then fell asleep in a stupor. Once the giant had passed out, Odysseus and his surviving men put their plan in motion.
The four who had drawn lots, along with Odysseus, hoisted up the heavy stake they had made that day and held it over the fire. As the giant slept, they plunged it into his eye.
The giant awoke screaming and flailed around. The men hid in the furthest corners of the cave, however, so that he could not find them.
Polyphemus had two brothers that lived elsewhere on the island and they, too, awoke when he screamed. They called out to him, asking what had happened.
The cyclops yelled back that Nobody had attacked him and Nobody had blinded him. The clever trick of Odysseus led the other giants to believe that their brother had not been harmed.
The men hid through the night and when morning came the blinded giant moved the boulder aside to let his sheep and goats out. He stayed close to the cave’s entrance, however, and felt blindly for the men to keep them from escaping.
Odysseus and his men had expected this, though, and clung to the undersides of the sheep. They used the sheep’s wool to make ropes and tie themselves beneath the largest rams, positioning their animals each between two others for added protection.
When Polyphemus felt the sheep’s backs, he did not know that the Greeks were hanging below the animals’ stomachs. Even though he stopped the ram Odysseus hid beneath, the largest of the flock, the captain and his six surviving men all made it out of the cave undetected.
Once clear of the cave, the men hurried back to the ship. When they began to sail away, however, Odysseus shouted one last insult back to the blinded giant.
He yelled that he was not called Nobody. If anyone asked who had blinded them, the giant should tell them that it was Odysseus of Ithaca.
The story of the cyclops occurred at the beginning of the hero’s journey in the Odyssey. In many ways, it set up both the character of Odysseus and the later trials he would face.
The encounter with Polyphemus showed Odysseus to be an exceptionally clever and intelligent man. While he was tempted to kill the giant outright, he realized that doing so would leave him and his men trapped.
Instead, he came up with a smart plan to free his men, even though it meant losing two more. He used the scant materials he had on hand to fashion an effective weapon and provide means of escape.
Giving the name Nobody is often regarded as the most ingenious trick the hero devised during his long voyage. Anticipating that his captor would call for help, the hero planned a way to keep Polyphemus’s brothers from coming to his aid and recapturing the escaping men.
While this clever trick saved the men in the short-term, however, Odysseus made the mistake of giving his real name when he believed that he was safe. This would set the stage for his further adventures.
Polyphemus was a son of Poseidon, the god of the seas. When he learned the true identity of the man who had blinded him, he called out to his father for revenge.
Poseidon’s son asked his father to ensure that Odysseus never returned to Ithaca. If he did make it back to his homeland, the giant asked that it be only after a great delay, that all his men die first, and that he found trouble in his own home.
The blinding of Polyphemus earned Odysseus the enmity of the sea god, and everything Polyphemus asked for came to pass. After a decade of wandering and the loss of his ship and all the men who crewed it, Odysseus made it back to Ithaca to find suitors conspiring to take his land and kill his son.
The hero had the opportunity to escape from Thrinacia without further harm, however. Had he not shouted his name back to Polyphemus, Poseidon might not have known who to target for wounding his son.
While Odysseus was clever in his dealings with the giant, this last act of arrogance led to his many trials and the deaths of his men.
Had Odysseus not given the cyclops his full name, it is likely that his journey would have been much easier. While many ships experienced delays on their trips back to Greece, the anger Poseidon felt toward Odysseus made the Odyssey particularly arduous.
From the beginning, therefore, the Odyssey is more than a tale of cunning and intelligence. It is also a caution against hubris and the dangers of angering the gods.
The first major adventure described in Homer’s Odyssey details the hero’s escape from the one-eyed giant Polyphemus.
Having already lost most of his fleet to a storm, Odysseus landed his last remaining ship on an island they first thought to be uninhabited. Soon after, however, he and a dozen of his men were taken captive by the cyclops Polyphemus.
The monstrous giant treated them as intruders rather than guests and locked them in the cave he shared with his sheep and goats. He killed the men two at a time, eating their bodies in front of the horrified survivors.
Odysseus knew that killing the giant outright would leave them trapped in the cave because the boulder that blocked the entrance was too large for the men to move. Instead, he came up with a clever plan to escape.
The men created an enormous stake from a cudgel they found in the cave. Odysseus got the cyclops drunk on wine and used the stake to blind him when he had fallen asleep.
The hero had cleverly told the giant that his name was Nobody. When Polyphemus’s shouts woke his brothers, he yelled that Nobody had hurt him so they did not come to his aid.
Odysseus and his surviving men tied themselves beneath Polyphemus’s rams so he would not feel them as he let his flock out in the morning. Hiding among the animals they were able to escape detection and run back to their ship.
The escape from Polyphemus establishes Odysseus as a cunning and witty hero, but it also illustrates his arrogance. As the ship sailed away, he could not resist shouting his real name back to the blinded giant.
This arrogance led to the Ithacan king’s many trials, and ultimately the deaths of his men. Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, and when he learned his assailant’s true identity he prayed to his father for revenge.
The escape from Polyphemus ultimately earned Odysseus the enmity of Poseidon. Because he taunted the wounded giant, his journey would take ten years and none of his men would make it back to their homes in Ithaca.