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.