Classically Inclined

September 24, 2016

To Cyclops or not to Cyclops?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 pm
Tags: ,

When I first came up with the Monster Book proposal, I decided I wanted to have the first half of the book think about some of the big issues around monsters and dedicate the second half to chapters focusing on individual case studies – the plan is for those to look at Medusa, the Minotaur, centaurs and sirens. As I’ve been starting to get to grips with the project, I’ve had to think about what I want to do about Polyphemus, the Cyclops who first turns up in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s funny, because when I initially thought about classical monsters, Polyphemus simply didn’t come into my mind.

If you read the original text, for me it’s a story not about what makes a monster, but how to be human. Polyphemus is one of a tribe of Cyclopes rather than a one-off beast. Yes, he eats some of Odysseus’ men and has every intention of eating all of them, but he only does so after discovering the company in his cave, rifling through it and breaking all the laws of guest-hospitality that should govern the first encounter between civilised peoples. Odysseus’ decision to rifle through Polyphemus’ possessions, essentially pillaging them, makes it clear he doesn’t think that Polyphemus is worth treating like an equal – so Polyphemus returns the contempt. So there’s appalling interpersonal relationships, but no worse than many of the humans that Odysseus meets on the rest of his travels.

However, although Polyphemus is an exaggerated human rather than a monster for Homer, in his later incarnations the trappings of civilization that surround him get stripped away. Eleanor OKell has written about this in the context of the cyclops created by Ray Harryhausen for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, if you fancy reading more about this (the link goes to a PDF), but the general gist is that the social complexity of Polyphemus’ life, his co-existence with other Cyclopes, his command of language and his obvious competence in the complicated art of shepherding and cheese-making get overwhelmed by the man-eating and the single eye. In the process of transmission, he gets flattened out into a beast.

So I think my initial instinct on this is right, and I’m not going to spend too much of the book talking about Polyphemus or the Cyclops – he’s a special case, in that his monstrosity is imposed on him. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that the ancients associated with him – he fell in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who did not return his affections. Both Theocritus and Ovid wrote about Polyphemus’ unrequited love – not something you find when people are talking about the Chimera or the Minotaur. While it’s understandable that the Cyclops in contemporary popular culture has been trimmed down to a one-dimensional bogeyman, the price that’s paid is the humanity that Homer and other ancient poets saw in him.



  1. what about Polyphemus’ father? Does that not influence a viewpoint about the son? He may be a monster but he has a very powerful dad!!!!

    Comment by Ian Spoor — September 24, 2016 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

    • Having a god as a father doesn’t make you a monster, of course – it’s much more likely to make you a hero, which is another reason for me not to think about Polyphemus! But again, the divine parentage tends to slip out of most stories (Tyson from the Percy Jackson stories being an honourable exception) – it’s too complicated for narratives which are basically after a monstrous thrill factor.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 25, 2016 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

      • I personally think Polyphemus’ relationship with his divine father in Odyssey makes him more human and less unhuman – he doesn’t manage to enact his own revenge, but instead successfully prays to a god who gets involved on his side. That’s quite a human pattern of behaviour in Homer – a lot of the Odyssey’s other ‘monsters’ (Scylla etc., Sirens) don’t need divine help – it’s the mortals, esp. Odysseus, who rely on that.

        Incidentally, if you ever do decide to return to Polyphemus (not that I think you should – I agree that he doesn’t really seem to fit with the other figures you’re considering) Lilah Grace Canevaro gave a v. interesting paper at the 2016 CA on Od’s and Polyphemus’ approach to stuff/objects as being part of depictions of their identities – was an unusual perspective.

        Comment by Kate Cook — September 25, 2016 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  2. I think this may be a mistake. Leaving out the human from the monstrous is to ignore what the monstrous demonstrates (don’t ignore the etymology) – passion and vice made manifest. Whereas in Greek tragedy the passions are cast as external forces (like fate) which either attack us or take us over, what is insightful in Senecan tragedy is that it is the human which is monstrous when it allows its passions free reign and it is the world and gods who suffer (the gods flee, day turns to night and the seasons are reversed). In Ovid’s account of Polyphemus it is the contrast between his attempts to impress Galatea with his humble gifts (a country bumpkin who is truly infatuated) with his blood-thirsty jealousy against Acis which demonstrates what is monstrous.

    Have you read Derrida on the beast and the sovereign?

    Comment by Max Bini — September 25, 2016 @ 2:17 am | Reply

    • I think this actually coincides with something I have deliberately decided is outside the scope of this project, namely the cross-over between the monstrous and the human – for instance, where do we put Medea the child-killer, or (for that matter) Atreus the kin-killer. These are humans who behave in monstrous ways – but that’s not the same as the creatures who the ancient world presents to us as monsters by definition. Putting aside the framing of this episode by Odysseus in an attempt to justify his own actions, Polyphemus seems to occupy that same space of a civilized being who behaves in an uncivilized way. In this project, I’m interested in those monsters who aren’t put anywhere near the civilized category when the heroes encounter them.

      I’ve not come across the Derrida, but Kristeva is also quite good on what makes the monstrous and where horror comes from, which is more in line with this project’s shape.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 25, 2016 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

      • When you mentioned horror films I naturally assumed Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf and parsing them through their mythological ancestors, which all portray the trope of having been human and becoming murderous monsters. (I was not thinking of Atreus or Medea as monsters but rather in terms of how monstrous actions are embodied by fictional monsters.) In Greek myth monsters often are cursed children of the gods or cursed mortals such as the Gorgons – if you leave them out that leaves the likes of the Kraken, Hydra, Cerberus, Chimera … Personally I find the curse and what it embodies and symbolizes more interesting and more prevalent as when you take out the human aspects these monsters aren’t very scary (“The Blob” may have been a hit in the 50’s but try watching it now without laughing).

        I mentioned Derrida but that was in terms (much like Agamben) of distinguishing the human from the animal and realizing that what is truly bestial or brutish is human as it transgresses our ideas of justice, morality and civilization (intentionally). As I don’t think Derrida talks of monsters per se in these last seminars he gave I would advise that you do not read them (you’ve got enough to read for this project I am sure). He does discuss fairytales but they contain anthropomorphized animals, so you would also have to leave them out. I also remember decades ago a friend told me about a seminar that Derrida gave about “words being monsters” which sparked my comments on etymology and ‘demonstrate.’

        Correct me if I am wrong but you seem more concerned with the origin of the object of fear in popular culture, whereas I was thinking more in terms of the metaphysics or better the hermeneutics of fear.

        No matter which monsters you choose to write about in this book my fingers are crossed that you find a way (a language) which leaves behind standard psychoanalytic and cultural theory approaches.

        Comment by Max Bini — September 26, 2016 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

      • I think this comment helps me to understand why you have decided to put aside Polyphemus.

        Comment by tonykeen46 — September 28, 2016 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  3. ‘Here was a giant’s lair, in fact, who always pastured
    His sheepflocks far afield and never mixed with others.
    A grim loner, dead set in his own lawless ways.
    Here was a piece of work, by god, a monster
    Built like no mortal who ever supped on bread,’
    Lines 208- 2012, Book 9, The Odyssey, Translation Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1996.

    Homer, it seems, is quite clear.

    Comment by peterseanoneill — September 25, 2016 @ 10:15 am | Reply

    • Actually, it’s Odysseus who is speaking here – and of course he wants to represent Polyphemus as somehow not being the same as others, and thus fair game for the disrespect that Odysseus shows him. This episode is told from Odysseus’ perspective, when he is trying to impress his current hosts the Phaeacians, and the last thing he wants is to make them think that he is going to behave badly as a recipient of their hospitality. The additional details that the poem gives us, like Polyphemus’ mastery of keeping sheep and the other Cyclopes who come to see what’s happened when Odysseus blinds him, gives the lie to Odysseus’ self-serving version of the story.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 25, 2016 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

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