The Reading Room
Symbolism in Homer’s Odyssey: On the Blindness of Polyphemos
During Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tells the so-called “cyclops episode.” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a "guest-gift" from a man with a savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops named Polyphemos. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus' men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis* or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after Odysseus reveals his name in a fit of hubris.
In this brief treatment, we will consider the ways in which Polyphemos is illustrated as truly blind, regardless of whether he has his physical sight, and that in fact he only "sees" after he loses his capacity for physical sight. These layers of seeing also apply to the illuminated poet of the Phaeacian, Demodocos, who cannot physically see anything but the truth of stories, and the blind prophet Teiresias, who cannot physically see, though he can see the truth of the future.
The four examples of Polyphemos' blindness to intangible truths are illustrated by four events in the text, sequentially arranged: 1) his blindness to being deceived about Odysseus' "given" name, Nobody; 2) his blindness to the fact that Odysseus would dare injure or kill him; 3) his blindness to seeing the path beneath his rams as a means of escape; and 4) his blindness to the fact that a small and insignificant appearing man might be the very man of prophecy who was sent to bring about his blindness. Let us now consider what these illustrative examples teach us about the true nature of the cyclops' vision.
First, one’s attention may be drawn to the theme of sight by the fact that Polyphemos is a cyclops or a Kuklos+ops=Circle-eye. Though he is reported to have "brows" which are singed by Odysseus' olive-brand, the cyclops is known to have one eye by nature or due to some injury at another time. The point, however, is to note that a creature with one eye lacks depth-perspective in the natural world, but in this world of epic imagination, his one eye indicates his lack of perspective** in general. First, Odysseus lies to him multiple times. The initial time, Polyphemos asks after Odysseus' ship's location, and though Odysseus has twelve ships docked at the island, he intelligently responds that Poseidon had destroyed his ship and that only he and his twelve companions remained. Later, while Odysseus is ingratiating himself to the cyclops and while that very cyclops is consuming unmixed wine, Polyphemos asks Odysseus to name himself. To this request Odysseus famously responds: Nobody. Polyphemos does not see through the words and intentions of Odysseus, whereas Odysseus in his responses to Polyphemos, clearly sees what the monster is envisioning. Therefore, if Odysseus happens to defeat the monster, who is much stronger and larger than Odysseus, the reason would be that seeing through, or having perspective, or cunning, is a more valuable skill than brute and blind strength. Odysseus, of course, does escape and then eats Polyphemos’ favorite ram in celebration.
Next, the foolish cyclops assumes or does not see the threat posed by Odysseus. He falls asleep drunk, vomits up both wine and human remains, and leaves himself open to attack. The cyclops believes that Odysseus would not dare attack him because only the cyclops can move the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave. The cyclops has miscalculated, or failed to see, that Odysseus might come up with a circuitous and complex plan of escape which involves physically blinding the cyclops himself. The cyclops fails to account for a threat precisely because he does not see Odysseus as one. He pays with his physical sight for this. And as Polyphemos yells out that "nobody is hurting me by force or violence," of course nobody helps him!
After losing his sight, Polyphemos then hatches a plot to catch Odysseus. He opens the cavern and sits at the entrance so that he can inspect the backs of his goats, sheep, and rams as they exit. He fails to see that Odysseus and his men might lash themselves beneath the rams and escape his clutches. He even fails to see, while wishing that his favorite ram could speak, that it could tell him where Odysseus was. But since it always leads the pack, and on that say it was so clearly weighed down, Polyphemos fails to see that the ram has told him where Odysseus/Nobody is! Though his plan takes account of part of the whole situation, again he lacks the perspective necessary to see the situation correctly. It is as if he is blinded by his own presuppositions.
Lastly, as Odysseus and his men escape on their ships, Odysseus himself loses perspective and yells out to the cyclops, not once, but twice. Both times that Odysseus hubristically vaunts he is risking disaster as the cyclops slightly misses the mark (hamartia***) throwing large boulders close enough to Odysseus' ship to wash it back ashore. The blindness, however, is even more lucidly illustrated by the fact that when Polyphemos learns Odysseus’ true name, he recalls a prophecy by a former prophet named Telemos who said that one day some Odysseus would blind Polyphemos. Polyphemos, however, trenchant in his blinding arrogance had expected a bigger and more exceptional man to fulfill this prophecy! So, he tragically failed to see that a man who seemed to be weak and of no account, could be the one who would fulfill this destiny. Like Teiresias and Demodokos, the cyclops loses his physical sight, but in this moment of realization he finally sees what has happened to him, and how symbolically fate tends to work! His physical sight blinds him to what is real, but ultimately, only through losing his physical sight does he acquire the insight or the hindsight that the prophecy about his blindness had already been fulfilled!
*The unreal negator for “no one” is mê tis, which sounds just like the Ancient Greek word for cleverness which is mêtis. As it happens, one of Odysseus’ epithets is polymêtis (very clever). In the dialog at 9.405-410, they repeat mê tis for “no one” three times (405, 406, 410). **The word perspective comes from the Latin word Perspectivum, or an optical glass through one sees. Perspectivum derives from perspicere: to look closely.
***Hamartia comes from the Greek alpha-privative and marturos (seer/witness), so "not-witness", or one who errs by failing to see the truth.