A Literary Criticism of Euripides’ Cyclops

Cyclops – lines 316-328:

ὁ πλοῦτος, ἀνθρωπίσκε, τοῖς σοφοῖς θεός,
τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλα κόμποι καὶ λόγων εὐμορφία.
ἄκρας δ᾽ ἐναλίας αἷς καθίδρυται πατὴρ
χαίρειν κελεύω: τί τάδε προυστήσω λόγῳ;
Ζηνὸς δ᾽ ἐγὼ κεραυνὸν οὐ φρίσσω, ξένε,
οὐδ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ὅ τι Ζεύς ἐστ᾽ ἐμοῦ κρείσσων θεός.
οὔ μοι μέλει τὸ λοιπόν: ὡς δ᾽ οὔ μοι μέλει
ἄκουσον: ὅταν ἄνωθεν ὄμβρον ἐκχέῃ,
ἐν τῇδε πέτρᾳ στέγν᾽ ἔχων σκηνώματα,
ἢ μόσχον ὀπτὸν ἤ τι θήρειον δάκος
δαινύμενος ἑστιῶ τι γαστέρ᾽ ὑπτίαν,
εἶτ᾽ ἐκπιὼν γάλακτος ἀμφορέα πλέων
κρούω, Διὸς βρονταῖσιν εἰς ἔριν κτυπῶν.


Immediately following the pleading rhesis of Odysseus as he attempts to convince Polyphemus that the fighting at Troy was as much for the Cyclopes’ benefit as it was the Greeks, this passage marks the beginning of Polyphemus’ dismissive response. Within it we see the egomaniacal delusion of the Cyclops at play, shrugging off the power of the Gods over himself, and stepping up to rival them in a manner at once apathetic, hedonistic, impious and even ribald. He shows no regard for the wellbeing of his father’s temples and seems to consider Zeus as, in the words of Fletcher, a mere ‘weather-god’, in whose storms he merely indulges himself with meat, milk and autoeroticism. Beyond this passage Polyphemus continues to boast, ultimately violating ξενία and φιλία, eating Odysseus’ comrades regardless.

The passage plays a major role in the Cyclops’ own character development. Drawing from Homer’s own Cyclops, we see the same lack of fear or concern for Zeus, and the same claim that the Cyclopes are πολὺ φέρτεροι than the Gods. However Euripides veers from Homer with the addition of topoi specific to the satyr-play, such as the crass allusion to masturbation, and it is probable that the 5th Century Athenian intellectual milieu would have inspired Euripides to employ the themes of rhetoric, wealth and religious dogma to provide food for thought for the audience. Such themes, coming from the mouth of the Cyclops sets him up as with greater cognition than Homer’s monster, though the passage clearly portrays him as a brute nonetheless.

The theme of ἀνόσιος is seen most significantly in this passage, the Cyclops being, though no atheist, highly irreverent. Though the irreverent tone could be an allusion to the growing pre-Socratic and sophistic movement against poetic religious dogma and the power of Zeus, it should not be forgotten that Homer too had Polyphemus disregard the Gods. Par Contra, Euripides has his Polyphemus make a bold revaluation of divinity with πλοῦτος instead of Zeus as θεός, and he does so sardonically, addressing Odysseus as ἀνθρωπίσκε, contributing to Polyphemus’ clear superhuman image of himself, mocking the warrior who aids the Gods as he does the Gods themselves. What is interesting is that this impiety is extended towards his own father, saying in as many words that his temples can ‘go hang’ (χαίρειν κελεύω), despite boasting of his divine heritage earlier on in the play. The common denominator of these seemingly paradoxical points is that Polyphemus likes to boast; in the first instance that he has no reason to care for his father’s temples, in the second that his father is a divine being. Clearly he sees his ancestry as a justifier for his radical claims to power, a theme from which one can draw parallels with Zeus’ overthrow of his father, and Cronos’ over his. Another contrast with Homer that can be drawn on this theme of impiety is the length at which Euripides has Polyphemus go on about his lack of concern, even using the imperative ἄκουσον to maintain Odysseus’ attention as he continues his diatribe.

It is possible to see in the connection of πλοῦτος to σοφοῖς an attack on the contemporary sophistic movement, who notoriously charged money to teach ‘wisdom’, an idea which if pursued, would seem to connect Polyphemus to these teachers; a clearly pejorative reference. Indeed it has been posited that Euripides’ Cyclops is rather sophistic; espousing the same hedonistic views of excessive πλεονέξια as Callicles, a view certainly made more credible by the verb (used repeatedly throughout the play) ἐκπιών. However, given the broad spectrum of sophistic views, and Callicles’ own hatred of them, I am inclined to agree with O’Sullivan’s view of Polyphemus as a τύραννος rather than σόφιστης; who worshipped nothing but his possessions and, as seen soon after, his own stomach.

Euripides’ Polyphemus also seems aware of rhetorical devices, this passage even demonstrating clear wit on the Cyclops’ own part. Polyphemus notes Odysseus’ own choice of words and word order and questions it (προυστήσω λόγῳ) as well as describing the rhetoric of those trying to persuade him as κόμποι καὶ λόγων εὐμορφία. As a growing phenomenon in Euripides’ day, this could well be a demonstration of the power of words, as well as lampooning the art of rhetoric: after all, he is unaffected by Odysseus’ powers of persuasion, and his own words are used in a manner both offensive and ridiculous.


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