Homer’s Cyclopeia, synonymous with Odyssey Book IX, tells the tale of Odysseus’ infamous encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops – from the mouth of Odysseus himself, as he assumes the role of rhapsode for the court of King Alcinous of Phaeacea.
There is a lot to be said about this chapter. It begins with Odysseus introducing himself to Alcinous, and offering commendation to his host for playing the role well. After being prompted to narrate his encounters following the war at Troy, Odysseus begins, becoming in every sense as much a poet as Homer was, performing to an audience an epic. This multi-layered metatextuality is an important theme to remember while reading at this point, for it is not only the fiction composed by Homer, but also the opinion of Odysseus as he sees himself. Everything he says is designed epideictically to impact his audience of Phaeacians, just as Homer did so to the Greeks. Every word he says, every deed performed and statement asserted must be considered in terms of Odysseus’ own motives – he was, after all, remembered for his wiles and schemes.
Odysseus begins with a brief preamble to his arrival at the land of the Cyclopes, describing the danger of being drawn into perpetual respite with the lotus-eaters, of being overrun by Cicones, and being lost at sea. These perils were all resolved by Odysseus, who capably led a smaller force against a larger one, and personally dragged his bewitched comrades away from the lotus-eaters. Remember, Alcinous would hear this and see before him a great hero; to be respected and feared in equal measure, prompting the question: is Odysseus asking his audience to watch their steps around him?
From the lotus-eaters begins the Cyclopeia proper. Leaving eleven of his twelve ships at the Isle of Goats, Odysseus sails across the narrow channel to investigate the alien land opposite them. This too is important to note. The Isle of Goats was emphatically perfect; all food and water was provided for in an idyllic land untouched and untainted by mankind, yet the allure of a undiscovered land was enough for Odysseus to endanger his companions for the sake of being accredited with glory. By taking his civilised Achaeans to a potentially barbaric island and ‘enlightening’ them, Odysseus is presented with an opportunity for kleos (immortal fame) that he cannot pass up (and Alcinous would know this).
Sure enough, the land of the Cyclopes is devoid of cities and laws, but its unsowed harvests are deliberately reminiscent of Hesiod’s Golden Age, where Gods provided everything for all. This should have been sufficient warning to dissuade Odysseus from further exploration, but the call for kleos was too strong.
So as not to spoil the story, Odysseus is drawn into a problematic encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops and forced to use his wiles for escape. Though escape he does, much is revealed about his character, a character clearly more unscrupulous than the average Homeric hero. The question of who the greater monster is between Odysseus and the Cyclops is raised, and the divine punishment inflicted on Odysseus following his escape does nothing to assuage the doubt swirling his morality. This episode makes it no surprise that the Romans despised him.