With the gods not present on the island of the Cyclopes, it’s no surprise that the law of the gods really holds no sway over them. Specifically, we’re talking about the law of hospitality, for “Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and strangers—Zeus, the strangers' god—who ever attends upon reverend strangers” (line 271). This a big deal. We’re not talking about some minor deity being in charge of strangers. Zeus, king of the gods. The head honcho, the big cheese himself. The language, too, is strong. Avenger is no word to be tossed about lightly, and the same is true for reverend. These mean that strangers, travelers, have a sacred position within Greek society, and to do wrong by them is to invite the wrath of Zeus.
But the Cyclopes are far from Greek society, “for the Cyclopes reck[on] not of Zeus, who bears the aegis, nor of the blessed gods, since verily we are better far than they” (276). We already established that the Greek gods are not omniscient, and now we have the Cyclopes whothink they are superior, and is not willing to follow the law of Zeus regarding strangers. The Greeks divided the world into those who “are cruel, and wild, and unjust, or whether they love strangers and fear the gods in their thoughts” (176). We take this even further, and the cyclopes all live in caves and subsist only by their flocks. They do not cultivate the land in any way, nor do they build. Their living is very primitive. In short, the Cyclopes are barbarians. By every measurement the Greeks have, the Cyclopes are a tribal people, not much above monsters (if that).
This is very bad news for Odysseus and his men, who are about to become dinner. The only measure towards civilization and mercy—in Polyphemus’s eyes—is that he will eat Odysseus last. Not exactly a good host. How will our hero escape this peril? Tune in next week for “What’s in a Name?”