‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’ So asks Odysseus, King of Ithaca. His hosts – these Phaeacians – have asked to hear his story, the tale of his shipwreck upon their coast, and the laws of hospitality see Odysseus honour-bound to oblige.
For he is a man cursed.
The seas are set against him. No ship he sails is safe. No sailor who serves him survives. He has transgressed against the Lord of the Deep himself, and Poseidon’s temper is tempest.
And yet the fates are not without a sense of irony. For these Phaeacians are a sea-faring people. Their island of Scheria is a perfect port, a bounty of deep anchors and shallow quays. Their prows carve the wine-dark waves as keen as blades. And their sails don’t merely catch the wind, they stalk it.
If anyone can help Odysseus, it is surely them. But the question is, once the Muses have told his story, his blinding of Poseidon’s son, will they dare to?
The Muses open their song with dreadful discord: it is the sound of chewing flesh and crunching bone. It is the cyclops, Polyphemus, as he devours two men whole.
They tried to escape at first, Odysseus and his band of Ithacans; they keep to the edges of the great cave the cyclops calls home, hiding in among the produce of his livestock – the wheels of cheese, the deep pails of milk, the countless bales of wool. They hope to sneak out unnoticed. But Polyphemus guards his sheep well – after leading them into the cave, he shuts off the entrance with a huge boulder and lights a fire.
There is no place to hide then. The single eye sees all.
‘Who comes into my home?’ the cyclops asks. Odysseus replies that they are sailors shipwrecked, that they have come as guests in hope of hospitality. But the rights of guests are guaranteed by Zeus, and Polyphemus answers to no god but his father, Poseidon. He is a force of nature after all. And nature makes no promise of hospitality.
He grabs the first of Odysseus’s men and makes his monstrous meal of them.
The other Ithacans want to charge the cyclops then – but Odysseus stays their blades. After all, even if they could overcome their captor – an unlikely outcome – they would be trapped; they could never move the boulder. No, they must rely on cunning.
‘After such a hearty meal, you must be thirsty, great cyclops,’ shouts Odysseus. He holds aloft wineskins taken from his comrades. The very finest of vintages. The last from Troy’s scorched vineyards.
‘Offer me mercy in exchange for this gift.’
‘Who are you who asks for mercy?’ Polyphemus replies. He peers down at the mortal, and his iris is the grey of stone, his pupil a depthless black. It reminds Odysseus of looking down the throat of a well.
‘Nobody. My name is Nobody,’ the Ithacan replies.
‘Then, Nobody, I will show you mercy. I will eat you last.’ His laugh is a horrible, grating thing. The only thing worse is the leer that accompanies it. His mouth is a red ruin.
Odysseus bows his head in gratitude then, but he hides a smile of his own.
Another dreadful discord plays amid the Muses song. It is a hissing and spitting like fat cooking over a fire. It is the sound of Polyphemus’s eye blistering and boiling. It is the sound of Odysseus and his men blinding him with a flame-hardened stake while he sleeps, drunk from the wine.
The howls are deafening. They echo about the cave, sending the sheep into a frenzy. They are so loud that they rouse the attention of the other cyclopes who live on the island. And from beyond the cave, they ask him:
‘What has happened?’
They think Polyphemus mad then. For between his whimpers and his wails, Polyphemus roars: ‘Nobody has blinded me. Nobody has blinded me!’
What can the other cyclopes do then but withdraw; Polyphemus’s sanity has clearly left him.
Odysseus need not hide his smile this time.
Even blind, Polyphemus still tries to prevent the Ithacans escape. When he rolls aside the boulder the next morning, he does so just enough to let out his livestock one at a time, running monstrous fingers through their wool.
But Odysseus has one final gambit.
He orders each of his men to lash themselves to the underside of a sheep. As for himself, he takes the single black ram. It is Polyphemus’s favourite; the cyclops mewls and laments to it as he gently strokes its back, but he never notices the load the beast carries.
‘Would that I had stayed silent then,’ Odysseus tells his audience, the Phaeacian court. He cuts the shape of a man bent low by the weight of his years.
‘As we cast off, fleeing the island by ship, I called back to the cyclops. I needed him to know who truly had blinded him: Odysseus of Ithaca, son of Laertes, most cunning of the Greeks. But cunning is no match for a force of nature, it is no match for the wrath Polyphemus called down from his father, Poseidon. And so I have been denied my homecoming for ten years.’
The Phaeacians share piteous looks, but it is their King, Alcinous, who alone Odysseus watches. The man’s face is expressionless; the calm of a placid ocean, a sight Odysseus has not seen for near a decade.
‘Caprice,’ Alcinous says at last ‘Unpredictability. It is the sea’s only promise. But we mortals are held to a higher standard – laws enshrined by Zeus himself. You may be Poseidon’s enemy, Odysseus of Ithaca, but to me you are a guest. I will show you what the cyclops would not: hospitality. Come the morning tide, we will take you home.’
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse