The Odyssey
Homer
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Book 9
Summary

Odysseus reluctantly narrates to the Phaeacians the sordid tale of his wanderings. Odysseus and his men are swept off by winds from Troy to Ismarus, the city of the Cicones. There, they plunder land greedily and prolong their stay till reinforcements arrive and evict them. Odysseus suffers heavy losses, six men per ship. A storm sent by Zeus sweeps them along for nine days before they reach the land of Lotus-eaters. The natives give some of Odysseus’ men the intoxicating fruit of lotus which makes them forgetful. Intoxicated, they wish to stay there forever, eating more fruit. Odysseus drags his men back and locks them up in the ship before escaping from the island.

After sailing through the night, they reach Cyclopes where they meet a rough and uncivilized race of one-eyed giants. They eat the meat of wild goats and cross over to the mainland.  Here, they see a cave full of sheep and crates of milk and cheese. Odysseus' men want him to snatch some food and get back to the ship quickly but Odysseus lingers on. Soon the cave’s inhabitant, Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon, returns. Polyphemus at first shows hospitality but soon turns hostile and devours two of Odysseus’ men. He captures the rest of the crew for future meals. Odysseus wants to kill Polyphemus then and there but knows that only Polyphemus is strong enough to move the rock that the giant has placed across the door of the cave. The next day, while Polyphemus is pasturing his sheep, Odysseus finds a wooden log in the cave and hardens it in the fire. When Polyphemus returns, Odysseus gets him drunk on wine that he has brought along from the ship. Under the influence of wine, Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name. Odysseus cunningly replies that his name is “Nobody” (9.410).

As soon as Polyphemus collapses under the influence of wine, Odysseus and his men blind giant Polyphemus by driving the red-hot log into his eye. Polyphemus shrieks loudly in pain and his neighbors come to enquire but they leave as soon as he calls out, “Nobody’s killing me” (9.455).

Next morning, Odysseus and his crew flee from the cave by holding on to the bellies of the monster’s sheep as they go out to graze. Once on board the ship with Polyphemus’s flock as well, Odysseus calls to land and reveals his true identity. The blind giant prays to his father, Poseidon, calling for vengeance on Odysseus.

Analysis

Books 9 to 12, concerning Odysseus narration of his story of his wanderings to the Phaeacians, are in flashback mode. The books act as backgrounders not only to Odysseus’ audience but to Homer’s as well. Providing some of the best examples of Odyssean cunning, these books tell us about the resourcefulness of the poet, who uses Odysseus’ voice to draw a complete picture of his hero’s wanderings, and also that of the hero himself. The threat of coming danger as Odysseus heads towards the cave overshadows his upcoming encounter with Polyphemus and the need for trickery. It is for this reason only that Odysseus has taken the bottle of wine along with him.

Homer, after establishing the tension between Odysseus and Polyphemus, unravels Odysseus’ escape plan slowly and subtly. Odysseus’ deliberate act of blinding Polyphemus becomes clear when Polyphemus lets his sheep out to graze the next morning. Similarly, Odysseus’ lie about his name may seem idiotic at first, but in the end, unravels as a clever and humorous twist in keeping the other Cyclopes away from rescuing Polyphemus.

Odysseus’ eventual revelation of his identity to Polyphemus ultimately proves foolish. It embodies a lack of foresight and stands in stark contrast to the cunning prudence that Odysseus displays while escaping from the cave.

Odysseus anger at  Polyphemus for devouring his shipmates is understandable and Polyphemus’s blind rock-throwing fury further eggs him on still Odysseus’ taunts are unnecessary. And telling Polyphemus his name is a sheer act of foolishness. This act of his pits his mortal indignation against Poseidon’s divine vengeance. It can also be called an act of hubris, or excessive pride and ensures that Odysseus will suffer grave consequences.

However, it is interesting to note how Odysseus reveals his full identity and represents the cultural values of ancient Greece. The Greek hero does not simply utters his name, he attaches an epithet (“raider of cities”), immediate paternal ancestry (“Laertes’s son”), and a reference to his homeland (“who makes his home in Ithaca”) (9.561–562). Readers of Greek literature must be aware that such an introduction was very formalised and formulaic in Homeric Greece and should seem familiar to the readers of the Iliad.

Odysseus here is completing the formalities of confirming his kleos, the glory or renown that one earns in the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Odysseus wants to register the fact that he was the one who blinded Polyphemus, explicitly instructing the one-eyed giant to make others aware of his act. Odysseus, like the epic heroes of the Iliad, is of the view that glory is achieved by spreading one's name abroad through great deeds.

Polyphemus, though a stupid and brut, still comes across a sympathetic character to some commentators at the end of Book 9. The prayer he offers to his father Poseidon is full of pity. Polyphemus is very tender towards his sheep, which are soon to be devoured by Odysseus and his men. He caresses each sheep's back as it passes out of his cave. He reserves a special treatment for his faithful lead ram. Homer notes that, “stroking him gently, powerful Polyphemus murmured, / ‘Dear old ram, why last of the flock to quit the cave?’” (9.497–498). The combination of “gently”, “powerful” and the poetically stated question shows that despite his monstrousness Polyphemus is tender-hearted.

Wondering why the ram is the last to leave the cave, Polyphemus attributes a human capacity for sympathy to him (“Sick at heart for your master’s eye” [9.505]). His caring attitude is endearing especially when it is known that he is totally unaware of Odysseus’ cunning. In Homeric culture, Odysseus has been eulogised for his characteristic cunning but others have criticised him for this quality, branding his tactics as conniving, underhanded, dishonest, and to some extent cowardly. In the Inferno, Dante relegates Odysseus to the eighth pouch of the eighth circle of hell. It is the realm for those guilty of spiritual theft because of Odysseus' treachery in the Trojan horse episode that enabled him to slaughter the unwitting Trojans.

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