Ahh, The Odyssey, one of my favorite books of mythology. I think I like it because it’s got these great episodes throughout the book, much like a nice tv show. “Join us next time as Odysseus deal with Circe the Witch!”
And while at some later date I will go through the entire book analyzing each adventure, that is not today. Today we start in the middle, with Book 9 (or IX if you’re a fan of Roman Numerals like me) where Odysseus faces off against the dreaded Cyclopes!
Why in the middle? Well, for lots of reasons, first and foremost is that because Odysseus’s adventures are mostly episodic, we don’t lose out on anything by starting in the middle. The next big reason is that it has to do with some of the same stuff we talked about with Abraham recently. Third, this story in particular is essential for understanding another myth, which we’ll dive into after this one.
So, Odysseus and his men sail to the island of the Cyclopes (but there’s no sign or anything announcing this). Odysseus, despite the protests of his men, loads up some wine, and heads inland to see if he can find some signs of civilization (spoiler alert, he doesn’t). Instead he finds a cave stocked with cheeses in various stages.
Again, the men are not happy. They want to abscond (yes, that’s the word I’m choosing here) with the cheese and make sail for home. Odysseus, however, insists that they stay because it would be inhospitable to steal.
Enter the Cyclops Polyphemus, erstwhile son of Poseidon, who leads in his sheep and promptly seals the cave entrance with a mighty boulder. I must also point out that these sheep are scaled to size for Polyphemus as well. These are not little lambs.
So, Polyphemus proceeds to do the “Fe Fi Fo Fum” thing and . . . wait, wrong story. It’s similar enough, but we’ll get into that another time. The big P isn’t happy that Odysseus and his men are in his pad, so he proceeds to question them. Odysseus tells him that they’re just looking for hospitality, (citing his devotion to Zeus and how Zeus is the god of Strangers) and that they brought gifts of wine for Polyphemus.
Polyphemus isn’t happy about this, and proceeds to do the most inhospitable thing one can do, smash a couple of sailors heads against the cave wall, chop them up, and eat them (not raw, nicely roasted over a fire).
See, Polyphemus really doesn’t care about the gods, he actually believes that the Cyclopes are greater and more powerful than the gods, so there’s no reason to honor or reverence them. Such irreverence—maybe to the point of outright blasphemy—doesn’t have immediate repercussions for him, either, and the Greek gods are not exactly shy about punishing hubris.
So why aren’t they punished by Zeus and his ilk. Why are there not thunderbolts and transformations aplenty, here? Well, we have to talk about omniscience. The Greek gods ain’t got it. Not by a long shot. If someone is out of earshot, out of sight, or otherwise beyond the senses of the gods, they don’t know about it. Artemis didn’t know about Actaeon's presence until he got too close, nor did she know her father had disguised himself as one of her own nymphs. Hera knew about many of Zeus’s affairs, but not all of them, and the list goes on.
The gods don’t appear to be present on the island of the Cyclopes at all. There is no devotion to the gods save for that brought to the island by Odysseus and his men. The Greek gods are also fiercely territorial, and none of them has any following from this island. None of the gods resides here, most probably because there are no humans here (which is easy to understand since Polyphemus is dining on them).
It’s the natural limit of polytheism. Since there are many gods, each with their own particular specializations, their own domains, none can ever rise up to the level of omniscience. In this respect, they are much more human than God in the Old Testament. Their limits make them more relatable, and also give them flaws with which humans can more readily identify with.
But just because Zeus didn’t hear of this disrespect at the moment does not mean that there is complete unawareness as to the kinds of beings the Cyclopes are. Stay tuned.