IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPES
With heavy hearts we put back out to sea and within a few days reached a land inhabited by the Cyclopes, huge and fearsome giants with one eye in the middle of their forehead. They do not plough or sow the earth, for everything there grows by itself: wheat, barley, grapes and what you will. They never meet to discuss their common problems, and as for laws, they do not know what they are. They live apart, in caves high on the mountains, and each one concerns himself with his own affairs alone. They are completely indifferent towards their neighbours.
Beyond their harbour lies a lovely green island, empty of men but filled with wild goats which find rich grazing in its lush meadows. It has its own sheltered cove for ships, where you need no anchor-stones or hawsers but just beach your vessel as long as you like upon the shore and leave it till you feel like sailing off again. It’s just a stone’s throw from where the Cyclopes live, and yet they’ve never been across to it, nor anywhere else, for that matter, for they have no ships and do not like the sea.
We sailed into this bay at night. At its head there was a cave, with a spring of clear water gushing out beside it, and all around grew tall and shady poplars. We clambered over the thwarts and spent the remaining hours of darkness in that beautiful, safe place.
At dawn, we rose and set off in search of wild goats. The gods were with us and we had good hunting. I had twelve vessels and we killed enough for nine goats each, with one to spare, which the comrades awarded to my ship. We ate fresh meat all day, and drank sweet wine as well, for we had plenty left on board from the sacking of Ismaros. Just opposite we could see the land of the Cyclopes, and hear their voices mingling with the bleats of sheep and goats. Next day, I said to my companions:
“You stay here, and my crew and I will take our ship and sail across to see what kind of folks live there – whether they are wild and lawless or respect the gods and are kindly towards strangers.”
So my crew and I climbed on board and we made our way over to the facing shore. Not far from the beach we saw a cave. It was tall and wide and round it flocks of sheep and goats lay resting.
Telling the rest of my companions to stay on board, I chose twelve of the strongest and most daring and set off in that direction. With us we took a goatskin full of wine. It was so strong that you had to mix in twenty parts of water before it could be drunk, and when you did, such a sweet fragrance rose from the ruby liquid it was impossible to keep your lips from the cup – not that I took it for ourselves to drink, but because I knew that we were going to meet a huge and savage man who had nothing but evil in his heart.
We went to the cave while he was out grazing his sheep in the meadows. It was wide and lofty and ran deep into the mountain. Inside, there were even stone pens for the Cyclops’ herds. In one corner were stacks of cheeses and in another great jars filled with whey and the empty tubs and pails he used for milking. My companions were terrified, and begged me to let them help themselves to some cheeses and a sheep and goat or two apiece and then be off. I ignored them, being curious to meet the Cyclops and see what he would give us of his own accord, rather than stealing from him. If only I had listened to my men! As it was, we just helped ourselves to a little of the cheese and sat down to wait for him.
When he arrived, he was carrying a huge load of firewood which he threw down onto the floor of the cave with such a crash that the whole place shook and we shrank back trembling into a dark corner. Next he drove in his ewes and began to milk them, leaving the rams and billy-goats outside. After that, he went to the cave entrance and picked up a rock so huge and heavy that twenty chariots could not have dragged it from its place; but he lifted it with ease with his two bare hands and blocked the entrance to the cave. Then he set the lambs under the mother sheep to suckle and made half the milk he had collected into cheese, keeping the rest to drink. When all his tasks were finished, he lit a fire. Its flames lit up the corner we were cowering in and he spotted us.
“Who are you fellows?” he roared, “and how did you get here? Have you come to trade, or are you here like pirates, ready to make off with other peoples’ goods, to kill or to be killed?”
His angry words and deep, rough voice put fear into our hearts, but I managed to stand up and say to him:
“We are lost Achaeans, soldiers of the mighty Agamemnon, and we are trying to get home from Troy, but the gods have chosen to drive us off our course with contrary winds, and now we throw ourselves at your feet and beg your help. Give us food and shelter, as is the custom everywhere, and as almighty Zeus, the traveller’s guardian, would wish.”
He answered me with cruel words.
“You are a fool, my little friend, or else you come from so far off you have not heard that the Cyclopes do not give a damn for Zeus or any other god. Our strength is fearsome, and I, Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, am strongest of us all. Why, even the immortals are terrified of me! However, I may decide to take pity on you, if you just tell me where your ship is anchored – merely out of curiosity, you know.”
He was trying it on, of course, but I wasn’t to be fooled that easily.
“Alas, our ship is wrecked,” I answered. “Poseidon smashed it on the rocks, and only I and these few friends escaped.”
The giant said nothing in response to this. He simply looked my comrades over – and then did something hideous. His huge, hairy paws shot out, seized two of them, and beat their brains out on a rock the way you kill an octopus. Then he tore their lifeless bodies limb from limb and gobbled them, crunching bones and all. When he had wolfed them both, he lifted a whole pail of milk and swilled it down into his bottomless gut, while we groaned and lifted up our hands to Zeus in vain. Rubbing his great belly, he stretched and yawned, then sank down among the sheep and fell into a heavy slumber punctuated with hair-raising snores. My first instinct was to draw my sword and plunge it through his liver, but then I thought that even if I killed him we would not escape death’s clutches, for there was no way we could shift the rock that blocked the entrance to the cave. So we waited for the dawn. When daylight came, he rose, relit the fire and milked the ewes and she-goats once again. He placed the young under their mothers’ teats to suck, and when he had finished all his tasks, he seized two more of my companions, beat them to death against the ground and then devoured them. His belly filled, he went off to graze his flock, rolling the rock aside with ease, but immediately pushing it back again, so we were shut inside. While he was gone, I racked my brains to find a way of avenging ourselves upon this fearful monster and regaining our lost freedom, if Athena would grant my prayer.
Inside his cave, the Cyclops had a fresh-cut trunk of fir. Perhaps he’d intended to use it as a walking-stick once it had dried, but to us it seemed more like the mast for a ship with twenty oars. I cut off a good arm’s length of this and gave it to my men to whittle down. When they had got it smooth, I sharpened one end to a point and thrust it into the embers of his fire to dry the sap out. When it was hardened, I hid it beneath the dung upon the floor, then told my comrades to cast lots to choose the ones who would join me in driving it into the Cyclops’ eye. The lots fell to the men I would have chosen anyway – four of the strongest of them, and myself making a fifth.
When evening came, the Cyclops returned and carried out his usual tasks, then grabbed two of my crew once more and made his dinner of them. As he wiped his lips, I took a wooden bucket, filled it with the wine I had brought with me and offered it to him with both hands.
“Here you are, Cyclops,” I called out, “have some wine to drink, now you have made a hearty meal of man-meat. Taste what a splendid drink I had on board my ship and perhaps you will take pity on me and help me to get home. But you’re a heartless fellow. How can you expect anyone to visit you when you behave in such a savage fashion?”
Without a word, he snatched the wine and downed it in one gulp.
“Give me some more!” he begged, “and tell me what your name is. Then I will make you a present to be pleased with. We, too, make wine – but yours is better than the nectar of the gods.”
I gave him more. He asked for a third draught, and once again I handed it to him. I could see that he was getting dizzy now and so I said:
“Cyclops, you asked what I am called, and promised me a gift, so I shall tell you what my name is. I am Nobody. Nobody is what I’m known as by my father, mother, friends and all.”
That’s what I said to him, and this is how the monster answered:
“When Polyphemus promises a present, he never goes back on his word; so here is mine to you, Mr Nobody, and a great favour it is, too: I shall eat you last of all!”
As he said this, his one eye closed, he sank heavily to the floor and began to snore and slobber and growl like a wild beast, spewing up wine and mangled gobbets of my comrades. Then I took our stake from its hiding-place and held its point over the fire till it glowed red, trying to bolster my companions’ courage as I did so. I waited till it was so hot that it was on the point of bursting into flame, then took a good hold on it with the other four and plunged the burning tip into the Cyclops’ single eye with all the strength the gods had given us.
The giant howled in agony, and the cavern’s rocky walls echoed and re-echoed with his screams. Out of his mind with pain, he hollered to the other Cyclopes to run and help him. We sprang back in alarm as he tore the sizzling stake out from his eye-socket and, thrashing his bleeding head from side to side, cried for assistance again and yet again. Hearing his frenzied roars, the other Cyclopes came hurrying to the cave.
“What is the matter with you, Polyphemus?” they asked bad-temperedly. “Why are you screaming out like this in the middle of the night and waking us all up? Have your flocks been stolen, or is someone trying to take your life by stealth or force? Tell us, who is it?”
“It’s Nobody!” howled the Cyclops, “Nobody, I tell you!”
“Nobody?” they responded, “Well, if nobody is hurting you, then it must be some sickness sent down from the heavens, and the only one who can help you there is your father Poseidon, not us.”
That’s all the other Cyclopes had to say, and then they left. I laughed with all my heart to see how perfectly my trick had worked.
Moaning in distress, Polyphemus stumbled to the entrance, heaved aside the boulder and ran his hands throughout the flock as they made their way out of the cave, lest any of us escape that way. Poor fool! Did he think I wouldn’t find a way of evading his clutches?
I tell you, I ran through every cunning trick my mind could seize upon, for now it was our very lives that were at stake. Then it occurred to me that the best way to get out would be by hanging upside-down beneath the bellies of his rams, for there were some great fat ones in the cave, with shaggy fleeces. I separated them and tied them three abreast with long reeds from the Cyclops’ couch, so my comrades could each hang from the middle one. One of the rams was even bigger than the others, and I got beneath him and took a firm grip on his shaggy flanks. My companions went through first. The Cyclops ran his fingers over the rams’ backs, but how was he to see we were escaping him by hanging on beneath their bellies! Last of all came the ram I was, suspended from. Polyphemus recognized it by touch and asked, “Why are you last, you lazy creature? That’s not your way. You were always first to leave the cave and find sweet grass to graze on by the stream. You were first to go in search of water, too, and first to come back to the fold at dusk. But now you’ve stayed till last to weep for the lost eye of your master, the eye that cursed Nobody put out when he’d fuddled me with wine. Ah, if only you could speak, then you could tell me where he’s hiding from my wrath. You’d see how I would beat him on the rocks until his spirit fled his shattered corpse, and how the pain this Nobody has given me would be relieved.”
Having said all this, he let the ram out. As soon as it was past the courtyard, I disentangled myself and ran to free my comrades. We were safe at last. Before making our way down to the ships, we drove some sheep off from the herd and took them with us. The others greeted us with joy and sadness mixed, and we all wept together for the companions we had lost. There was little time for grief, for we had to leave with all speed possible, but once we were a little way off shore I stood up in the bows and cried out at the top of my lungs:
“Hey, Polyphemus! Strangers were in your house and begged for help, but you did not hesitate to eat them. Now vengeance has fallen on you for your evil deeds!”
This made the Cyclops more furious than ever. In his rage, he broke off the whole top of a mountain and hurled it down on us. It narrowly missed our prow and sent up a huge column of spray, while the ship was flung backwards by its wash and would have fallen on the rocks if I had not staved it off with a long spear. Then I ordered my crew to grab hold of the oars and pull with all their might until we were in the open sea again and beyond the grasp of Charon. But once we had put twice the previous distance between us and the shore, I started shouting once again, so bitter did I feel about the companions we had lost.
“Don’t be so foolhardy!” the others protested. “Why provoke such a fearsome monster? You saw the size of the rock he flung at us. We thought our end had come. Leave him be, in case he decides to throw another one this way.”
But nothing could restrain me now, and I shouted out a second time:
“Hey, Cyclops! If anyone asks you who put out your ugly eye, tell him it was the man who conquered Troy: Laertes’ son, Odysseus of Ithaca!”
And this is what he shouted back:
“Alas, all that was written has come true! A seer who lived here and told the Cyclopes’ future for them warned me that some day I should be blinded by a fellow named Odysseus. But I imagined that Laertes’ son would be a mighty giant like us, not the puny weakling who fuddled me with wine. Come back and be my guest, Odysseus, and I will ask my father Poseidon to give you his aid, for only he can send you safely homewards and cure my wounded eye.”
That’s what he said, and here is what I answered:
“Ah, if only I could drink your blood, and hurl you into the dark depths of Hades, where even Earthshaker could not find you and heal your goggle eye!”
In response to this, he cupped his hands and let out a great cry:
“Hear my plea, Earthshaker Poseidon! If you are truly my father and I your son, do not allow the son of Laertes to get back to his home. But if the fates have decreed that he shall see his house and kinsmen once again, then buffet him upon the seas for years, and when he does reach home at last, may it be alone, with all his comrades lost, his own ship wrecked – and may fresh troubles await him when he comes!”
With these words he sent another huge boulder spinning through the air and nearly smashed our steering-oar. Falling where it did, however, it pushed us further out to sea and so we soon got back to the desert island, where the crews of the other ships were waiting for us with sad and anxious faces.
When night fell, we lay down on the sand to sleep and in the morning we went on board and set sail, mourning the loss of our dear friends.
Excerpted from The Odyssey by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.