Polyphemus (English launguage: fvmdkofmsdk, transliterated as Polyphemos in Robert Fitzgerald's translation) is a character in Greek mythology, one of the Cyclops. The one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa, his name means "famous" [Πολύφημος, "famous".] . Polyphemus plays a pivotal role in Homer's "Odyssey".

Polyphemus in Homer's "Odyssey"

In Homer's "Odyssey" (Book 9), Odysseus lands on the Island of the Cyclopes during his journey home from the Trojan War. He then takes twelve men and sets out to find supplies. The Greeks find and enter a large cave, the home of the great Cyclops Polyphemus. When Polyphemus returns home with his flocks and finds Odysseus and his men, he blocks the cave entrance with a great stone, trapping the remaining Greeks inside. The Cyclops then crushes and devours several of the men. It is said that "rapping them on the ground, he knocked them dead like pups". [Robert Fagles' translation.]

The desperate Odysseus devises a clever escape plan. To make Polyphemus unwary, Odysseus gives the Cyclops very strong unwatered wine. When Polyphemus asks for Odysseus' name, Odysseus tells him "ουτις," (translated as "no man"). Being drunk, Polyphemus thinks of it as a real, legit name. Once the Cyclops passes out from the wine, Odysseus and his men sharpen the giant's huge olive club to a point and harden its tip in the embers of a fire. The men lift the stake and drive it into Polyphemus' eye, blinding him. Polyphemus yells for help from his fellow cyclopes that "no man" has hurt him. The other cyclopes take this to mean that Polyphemus has lost his mind, because he was saying "nobody" attacked him. They conclude his condition is a curse from a god, so they do not intervene.

In the morning, Odysseus and his men tie themselves to the undersides of Polyphemus' sheep. When the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, he feels their backs to ensure the men aren't riding out, but doesn't feel the men underneath. Odysseus leaves last, riding beneath the belly of the biggest ram. Polyphemus doesn't realize that the men are no longer in his cave until the sheep (and men) are safely out.

As Odysseus and his men sail away, he boasts to Polyphemus that "Nobody didn't hurt you, Odysseus did!" This act of hubris causes problems for Odysseus later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon for revenge. Even though Poseidon fought on the side of the Greeks during the "Iliad", he bore Odysseus a grudge for not giving him a sacrifice when Poseidon prevented them from being discovered inside of the Trojan Horse. Poseidon curses Odysseus, sending storms and contrary winds to inhibit his homeward journey.

The episode in "Odyssey" is the oldest testament to cannibalism in ancient Greek literature. Walter Burkert detects in the Polyphemus episode a subtext that "seems to offer us something more ancient: threatened by the man-eater, men conceal themselves in the skins of slaughtered animals, and thus, disguised as animals, escape the groping hands of the blinded monster." [Burkert, "Homo Necans" (1982) translated by Peter Bing (University of California Press) 1983, p. 131.]

Polyphemus in Theocritus

The Hellenistic poet Theocritus painted a more sympathetic picture of Polyphemus. The Cyclops of the Odyssey has been recast in the poet's bucolic style which idealized the simple farming life. Polyphemus becomes a gentle simpleminded shepherd in love with the sea-nymph Galatea, finding solace in song.

Polyphemus in Ovid's Metamorphoses

The Cyclops also appears in the story of Acis and Galatea. As a jealous suitor of the sea nymph, Galatea, he kills his rival Acis with a rock. Rather than telling the love stories of Odysseus and Aeneas Ovid choses here to tell love stories about the monsters that those heroes experienced. Ovid's first century Roman audience would surely have had a basic knowledge of Polyphemus' role as an uncivilized cannibal in Book IX of the Odyssey, and this episode gives an amusing contrast to that characterization. Polyphemus is shown doing all of the things that a proper Roman suitor would do - trims his beard, composes a poem etc. - which implores the reader to cheer for him, even though his courtship is doomed to fail. Ovid tells this story shortly after the Judgement of Arms, where he shows how perceptions of Odysseus in Ovid's time were very different from the Archaic Period. Ovid appears to be suggesting in his uncharacteristic depiction of Polyphemus that it is possible for the way that readers view a character to drastically change over time.

Although the full story was described by Ovid, it was also mentioned by Philoxenus and Theocritus, and in Valerius Flaccus' version of "Argonautica", among the themes painted on the Argos, "Cyclops from the Sicilian shore calls Galatea back." [J.H. Mozley translation, Book I.]

Other mythological figures

Additionally, one of the Argonauts was named Polyphemus, "famous". He was the son of Elatus and Hippea, and when he helped Heracles search for Hylas, both were left behind by the Argo. In "Iliad" I, Nestor numbers "the godlike Polyphemus" among an earlier generation of heroes of his youth, "the strongest men that Earth has bred, the strongest men against the strongest enemies, a savage mountain-dwelling tribe whom they utterly destroyed." No trace of such an oral tradition, which Homer's listeners would have recognized in Nestor's allusion, survived in literary epic.

In Shrek 2, Polyphemus is the Poison Apple Bar's doorman; in Shrek 3, he joins Prince Charming's villain army.

Cultural references

Polyphemus has been repeatedly portrayed in post-classical art and literature. Nicholas Poussin's painting "Landscape with Polyphemus" was the subject of a famous essay by William Hazlitt. [Frederick Cummings, "Poussin, Haydon, and The Judgement of Solomon", "The Burlington Magazine" Publications, 1962. ]

In music, the story of Polyphemus and Galatea was the basis for Lully's "Acis et Galatée", Handel's "Acis and Galatea" and Antonio de Literes' zarzuela "Acis y Galatea". Jean Cras's opera "Polyphème" is also based on the story.

The Coen brothers' film "O Brother Where Art Thou?", is based on the Odyssey, and John Goodman plays the eyepatch-wearing Big Dan Teague, a reinterpretation of Polyphemus.

The Radio Tales drama "" is a dramatic retelling of the portion of Homer's epic poem featuring the cyclops Polyphemus. The drama first aired via National Public Radio on January 4, 2000. There have been several Royal Navy ships with the name "Polyphemus" - see HMS "Polyphemus".

Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs have the species name "polyphemus" in reference to their having eyes centered in the middle of their prosomas.

See also

*"Antheraea polyphemus"
*"La Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea" by Luis de Góngora


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