The Cyclops Polyphemus Perversity

Odysseus comes now to an island that is an unspoiled natural paradise. The locals are the enormous giant Cyclopes, “man mountains” Homer calls them; they have one huge eye in the center of their forehead. The Cyclopes don’t farm their land; instead they “live on such wheat, barley, and grapes as grow wild without any kind of tillage.” Cyclopes Land is a kind of Garden of Eden, a bountiful, fecund, natural wilderness.

The Cyclopes have no laws and no meeting places because each Cyclops “is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbours.” The Cyclopes want what they want when they want it, and they take it. They don’t suffer shame or guilt or reservations. They are not worried about what others think.

Odysseus and his men make their way to the cave of a Cyclops named Polyphemus, who is out. They build a fire and make themselves at home. When the ugly, enormous Polyphemus returns to the cave, Odysseus and his men are understandably terrified and cower in the back of the cave. Polyphemus closes his cave’ s opening with a huge rock slab so big that Odysseus guesses 22 wagons could not budge it.

Then Polyphemus notices his intruders. Odysseus is normally a pretty slick talker, but here he is petulant and demanding. Odysseus warns Polyphemus that Zeus himself is the god who protects travelers, so Polyphemus had better treat him well or else. Further, Odysseus insolently demands a “guest gift” per Greek custom. As it happens, Odysseus has said the wrong thing in the wrong place to the wrong monster. Polyphemus roars, ” Stranger, you are a fool, or you know nothing of this country. Fear the gods? We Cyclopes do not care about your blessed gods, for we are ever so much stronger than they! In a rage, and to second the point, Polyphemus crushes the heads of two of Odysseus’ men and eats them raw. Then, arrogantly, supremely overconfident, he goes to sleep, even with Odysseus and his team cowering about the cave. He sleeps on his back, his feet splayed out, snoring.

Odysseus wants to run Polyphemus through with his sword straight away, but he understands – brilliantly – that he and his men by themselves won’t be able to move the immense rock slab that imprisons them in the cave. Odysseus needs to have the Cyclops open the door. But how? When faced with a Cyclops, the great task is to figure out a way to turn his overwhelming power to your own purposes, to get him to move the slab for you without getting yourself eaten. Success here requires patience for the right moment, discipline in execution and the rare self-sophistication that allows you not to get so hooked by your ego that you must kill him or be killed by him. All of this has Odysseus in spades.

For a quick instant breakfast, the Cyclops scoffs two more men. When Polyphemus heads out with his flocks leaving Odysseus and his men imprisoned in the cave, they spend the day sharpening a large olivewood stake as a weapon. Polyphemus returns in the evening to dine on two more men. Now the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name. Famously Odysseus says his name is “Nobody”. Odysseus offers the Cyclops some potent Maronian wine that he has brought with him and in short order Polyphemus passes out. This Cyclops does not know when to stop. And this is true of all Cyclopes you may meet: in spite of how big and scary they are, their voracious appetites, and their insensitivity to their own limits make them vulnerable and set up the conditions for their undoing. Odysseus and his crew now thrust the olivewood stake through the sleeping Polyphemus’s single eye. Polyphemus screams so loud in pain that he rouses his Cyclops neighbors who come running. “Polyphemus” they yell through the slab door, ” is anyone bothering you?” ” Nobody!” says Polyphemus, referring to Odysseus, ” Nobody is messing with me!” To which the Cyclopedian neighbors reply, ” OK, if nobody’ s bothering you, it must be the gods at work and we’ll go home.” And they do.

Homer offers a fundamental clue about how to deal with the Cyclops when you are besieged, overpowered and without recourse. You don’t engage the Cyclops directly and beat him by overpowering him (unless you are a Cyclop yourself). You will lose, guaranteed. Power is his thing. When you’re in a fight with a Cyclops, and you make it personal or make it about your ego, you’re surely done.

When the blinded Polyphemus opens the cave slab in the morning so that his flock can graze, Odysseus and his men escape by clinging to the underbellies of the sheep and goats, while Polyphemus pats his animals’ backs but not their undersides to check for the visitors. Outside the cave, the crew runs for the ships and quickly casts off. But from this ship as he’s sailing away, Odysseus taunts the Cyclops. “Cyclops, if any one asks you who it was that put your eye out and disgraced you, say it was the valiant warrior Odysseus, who lives in Ithaca.” Once Odysseus reveals his true name, Polyphemus can ask for a specific revenge. The Cyclops prays to his father, the Lord of the Sea Poseidon, that Odysseus never reach home, or if he must return, that he arrive a broken man after a long struggle, in a foreigner’s ship and find lots of trouble at home. Poseidon hears his blinded son’s prayer and, furious for revenge, he singles out Odysseus for a devastating vendetta that will last the next ten years. Odysseus does ultimately make it Home, but Polyphemus’ prayer is answered: Odysseus arrives late, battered and alone; all his shipmates are dead, and he is facing very acute trouble at Home.

The Cyclops

The Cyclops embodies the forces of nature unrestrained, uncultivated, unfettered. He is natural, raw power. He appears in the outer world as the overbearing boss, the tyrannical gang leader, the oppressive parent, wherever bullying, overwhelming might or demand or craving works its way. In the inner world he is the ” I want what I want when I want it” monster, which Carl Jung called the libido and Sigmund Freud called the id. The id, according to Freud, is ‘ the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of instinctual needs”. Just like the Cyclops, the id has no laws, no meeting places, no community, no sense of propriety or concern for any neighbor. The id, bursting with energy, just cares about its own will and its own pleasure.

The Cyclops has just the one eye. The most particular thing that happens when you have one eye is that you lose the perception of depth, which is to say you lose the perspective of the psyche. (The Greeks thought that of the two eyes, one looked out on the external world and the other looked within. The Cyclops has no ‘in sight’ ). Without being able to look within (to see with depth) its difficult to know who you are, what’s important and what to value. It’ s hard to see yourself in context, and with just the one eye, it is hard to see from the point of view of others. Uninterested in complexity or reflection, neither tentative nor nuanced, Cyclopes are steamrollers who plow straight ahead over anything in their way. They don’t have much flair for lateral thinking or for finessing around a problem. All Cyclopes by their nature and physiology intensely focus on the one thing right in front of them; it is their great advantage and a principal source of their demise. With limited peripheral vision, the Cyclops is easily blindsided. Subtlety, cleverness, out of the box thinking, misdirection, paradox? The Cyclops is not likely to see these coming. Of course his laser focus serves the Cyclops well where intense raw power, force of will and single-mindedness are key to victory. They are willing to have an impact on events. The Cyclops are id-iots – big loud bullies who want their own way, who only see their own way and who will over others to get it. The Cyclop’s life is a series of showdowns and intimidations.

You’ll know you’re in Cyclops Land when:

  • You feel powerlessness in the face of an intimidating bully who seems to hold all the cards
  • The Cyclops has real power which can crush you and which, at the same time, you are dependent upon
  • The Cyclops does not see who you really are: your considerable strengths, your commitment to virtue, the private struggles you endure
  • You despair about your own powers, whether they are real or of any value

If you meet the Cyclops:

  • Don’t try to reason. Reason is out of place here.
  • Don’t demand your rights. The customs of civil society don’t apply either
  • Don’t moralize. Cyclops is not religious.
  • You can be sure the Cyclops will test the limits and break the rules, conventions, laws and understandings (especially if you are the person setting the rules)
  • He is guaranteed to test you as well, to see what you are made of, to see if you are a man or a mouse.
  • Remember to work from your own powers even though the Cyclops will try to make you think you don’ t have any.
  • Don’t retaliate out of anger or loss of temper. Have a tempered, clever plan instead. A calm head is the way to deal with the wild man.
  • Don’t take on the Cyclops face to face, on his terms. Don’t take the bully by the horns. You will lose for certain. Rather the Cyclop’s great vulnerability is to indirection. Like Odysseus, speak cleverly to power.
  • Set clear limits but don’t raise the level of confrontation. You need to stand up to the bullying Cyclops, but you can’t kill him or be killed by him, or you will be stuck in the Cyclops mindset forever. You will die in the cave under he misimpression that life is simply about raw, brutal, direct power.

The Poseidon Adventure

Once Odysseus reveals his true identity, Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, to take revenge against Odysseus. Poseidon superintends a vast, primitive oceanic kingdom, which is below the surface, under conscious awareness. The deep is his domain. It is dark and unfathomable, a Mystery. It is a world that we do not know: normally we only skim the surface. Poseidon bullyrags us with messages from the deep however he chooses: depressions, shocks and failures of whatever kind. The Sea God is around when we feel as though we are inundated, in over our head, overwhelmed, swept away by sea changes. He can be turbulent and destructive: he devises earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons. He makes waves. He rocks the boat, whatever it takes to unnerve a traveler. Poseidon certainly makes the journey home perilous and fraught with difficulty; he is vengeful and mischievous and relentless, at critical moments scuttling Odysseus’ best laid plans.

But with his tests he gives the journey meaning. By ensuring that Odysseus make the essential detours and meet the necessary beings, he transports Odysseus to worlds beyond himself. And Poseidon teaches Odysseus profound lessons in what may be the main thing for a traveler: the depth of his resources to continue. These are hard lessons, tough love. Every lesson is crucial for the self involved, full of himself, sorry for himself, easily distracted Odysseus. Still Poseidon seems to thoroughly enjoy his grudge and most people cast moody, volatile Poseidon as the bad actor in this story; yet he has every opportunity to drown Odysseus in the ocean, but he does not. Why not put the poor human out of his misery?

Poseidon will not let Odysseus off the hook so easily. Later, the soothsayer Tiresias and the goddess Circe tell Odysseus that his harrowing trials will not end until he makes his peace with Poseidon. The god of the depths insists that Odysseus come to terms with him. But what will it take? What does Poseidon want? This is the decisive question, of course. But for now, as Poseidon insinuates himself into Odysseus’ journey, the story becomes the Sea God’s as well. Somehow, and to some purpose, these tow, man and god, are traveling companions of a kind.