A Literary Criticism of Homer’s Odyssey IX

Homer Odyssey IX.387-397:

ὣς τοῦ ἐν ὀφθαλμῷ πυριήκεα μοχλὸν ἑλόντες
δινέομεν, τὸν δ᾽ αἷμα περίρρεε θερμὸν ἐόντα.
πάντα δέ οἱ βλέφαρ᾽ ἀμφὶ καὶ ὀφρύας εὗσεν ἀυτμὴ
γλήνης καιομένης, σφαραγεῦντο δέ οἱ πυρὶ ῥίζαι.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἀνὴρ χαλκεὺς πέλεκυν μέγαν ἠὲ σκέπαρνον
εἰν ὕδατι ψυχρῷ βάπτῃ μεγάλα ἰάχοντα
φαρμάσσων: τὸ γὰρ αὖτε σιδήρου γε κράτος ἐστίν
ὣς τοῦ σίζ᾽ ὀφθαλμὸς ἐλαϊνέῳ περὶ μοχλῷ.
σμερδαλέον δὲ μέγ᾽ ᾤμωξεν, περὶ δ᾽ ἴαχε πέτρη,
ἡμεῖς δὲ δείσαντες ἀπεσσύμεθ᾽: αὐτὰρ ὁ μοχλὸν
ἐξέρυσ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖο πεφυρμένον αἵματι πολλῷ.

Analysis:

This passage from Odyssey IX marks what is in many ways, the Kairos of the Cyclopeia. Odysseus has planned how he is to debilitate the Cyclops without impeding his chances of escape, prepared his instrument of attack and after a notable allegory to ship-building whereby the μοχλός is wielded like a shipwright handles his drill, this passage throws us into the sanguinary account of the Cyclops’ blinding as told by Odysseus to Alcinous and the Phaeacians. The story following this passage has the emasculated Cyclops abandoned by his kin, and a triumphant Odysseus escapes with his ἑταίροι and an infamously hubristic farewell.

A number of significant themes are to be seen in this passage, but the first thing that must be noted is its nature as a mise-en-abyme from the mouth of Odysseus himself. As narrator to the Phaeacian audience, it is remarkable just how grisly Odysseus makes the blinding to his hosts. Homer puts into his mouth the jarring onomatopoeia σίζω to re-enact the sound of the burning eye, the blood flowed around it θερμὸν ἐόντα, and the roots of the eye were described as σφαγεῦντο in the fire. This vivid, ghastly account could not possibly have made Alcinous feel at ease, especially since Odysseus earlier criticises Polyphemus’ own disregard for ξενία. Indeed this passage seems to act as much as a warning to the Phaeacians lest they transgress the rules of guest-hospitality, as it does a boast of Odysseus’ own μῆτις and bid for κλέος.

Odysseus’ brutality in this passage also allows one to question the legitimacy of any real antithesis between him and Polyphemus. Rather than being the innocent victim of a godless monster, Newton plausibly draws attention to the excess of the blinding. It would have been enough for Odysseus to merely disable the γλήνη, but the additional and graphic destruction of βλέφαροι, ὀφρύας and ῥίζαι, whilst perhaps ensuring a job well done, cannot help but ring of savagery. Indeed Odysseus seems rather proud of what can easily be considered a monstrous deed. Though he admitted that ‘δείσαντες ἀπεσσύμεθα’, the Cyclops’ reacted in a pleonastic σμεδραλέον δὲ μέγ’ ὤμωχεν, serving really to demonstrate just how fearsome an opponent he had vanquished. To further narrow the antithesis, Odysseus even considers aggression with a club of his own later on in the story against Melantheus, something when considered leads one to question Odysseus’ character in this passage.

The significance in the blacksmithing simile lies in the Greek cultural theme of civilisation. Odysseus has come to an uncivilised, lawless land, and finding it hostile, defeated it with reference to the technologies of the πολίς. Recognition of this theme was taken up by Homer’s successors, as in Euripides’ take on the Cyclopeia, who also had Odysseus query the lack of civilisation on the land of the Cyclopes. Homer also employs civilised symbology in the form of the ἐλαινέος μοχλός, since as an icon of Athena, olive-wood also becomes one of civilisation.

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