HOMER: The Odyssey [Book IX]

In Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus reveals his true name to Alcinous and the Phaeacian citizens and relates the tale of his adventures after the Trojan War. Shortly after the destruction of Troy, Odysseus and his men attack Ismarus, the city of the Ciconians. They achieve momentary success, but eventually they are repelled by the Ciconians and forced to sail away. Odysseus and his men next land on the island of the Lotus-eaters. On the island, Odysseus’ men encounter the inhabitants, who offer them lotus to eat. After tasting the plant, the men no longer wish to return home, but rather desire to remain on the island and eat lotus for the rest of their days. Odysseus forces them onto the ship, binds them beneath the deck, and sails away.

The crew next lands on a small island filled with sheep. They feast on the sheep, and then Odysseus decides to sail with some of his crew to a neighboring island and explore the cause of the fires that they see there. Upon arriving on the island, they enter a vast cave and find stores of cheese, milk, and meat. The crew urges Odysseus to steal the goods and bring them back to the other island before the owner returns. But Odysseus resolves to await the arrival of the owner, hoping that he will receive a present from him as his suppliant.

When the owner finally returns to the cave in the evening with his sheep, Odysseus realizes he has made a mistake. The cave-dweller is a cyclops – a large, strong, and grotesque monster with only one eye. The cyclops, named Polyphemus, moves a large stone in front of the entrance of the cave and thus prevents Odysseus and his crew from escaping. Polyphemus eats two members of Odysseus’ crew and promises to eat the rest.

Aware of the dire situation, Odysseus contrives a plan to escape. First, he offers Polyphemus wine until the cyclops passes out. Then he fashions a stake from the cyclops’ club and stabs Polyphemus in the eye, blinding him. Finally, he hides under Polyphemus’ sheep and exits the cave undetected. When Odysseus and his crew are far from shore, Odysseus taunts Polyphemus and tells him his true name. Polyphemus invokes his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to kill all of Odysseus’ crew and make his return home miserable.

The infamous cunning of Odysseus is prominent in Book IX. While being held captive by Polyphemus, Odysseus tells the cyclops that his name is Noman. Thus, when Odysseus stabs Polyphemus in the eye, Polyphemus cries for help to his fellow cyclopes that “Noman is killing me.” Of course, the other cyclopes do not come to Polyphemus aid because they believe that no one is hurting him. Odysseus revels in his cunning. His attitude is remarkably different from that of Achilles, who states in the Iliad that he hates liars as he hates death – “Who dares think one thing, and another tell, my heart detests him as the gates of hell.” Achilles would certainly try to kill Polyphemus without the aid of deceit and probably be slaughtered. Is it better to be cunning like Odysseus and live, or is it better to be truthful like Achilles and die?

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