Tag Archives: Polyphemus

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XI – A Gathering of the Shades

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

In this book, Odysseus describes how he performed the ritual that Circe instructed him to do. He raises the spirit of Tiresias who tells Odysseus that he is being punished by Poseidon for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He then describes the other spirits he encountered, specifically the warriors that died at the battle of Troy. He also sees the punishment of Sisyphus.

The section that stood out the most for me in this book is when Alkinoos praises Odysseus for his honesty.

As to that, one word, Odysseus:
from all we see, we take you for no swindler—
though the dark earth be patient of so many,
scattered everywhere, baiting their traps with lies
of old times and of places no one knows.
You speak with art, but your intent is honest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 197)

We have some serious irony here. Odysseus is not really an honest person. He’s the Trickster. I’m starting to think that he is making all this up, that the odyssey is really a mental construct in Odysseus’ mind. I am going to have to start reading a little closer to see if I can uncover any more clues to support the assertion that Odysseus is really full of it and just making up a story. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Read on, friends!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IX – New Coasts and Poseidon’s Son

CyclopsPolyphemus

In this book, Odysseus begins telling the tale of his journey to the Phaeacians. He first tells them of his encounter with the Lotus-eaters. The lotus fruit is an intoxicant and as soon as Odysseus’ crew eats it, they lose touch with reality and only want to continue eating the fruit. After escaping from the island of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus and his men are captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus who starts eating the men. Odysseus eventually blinds the Cyclops and escapes through trickery, causing Polyphemus to pray to his father, Poseidon, for revenge upon Odysseus.

For this post, I want to focus on the Polyphemus section. When Odysseus first encounters the Cyclops, Odysseus entreats him to show them hospitality in the name of the gods. Polyphemus’ response demonstrates a disdain for the gods, which I found interesting.

You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.
I would not let you go for fear of Zeus—
you or your friends—unless I had a whim to.
Tell me, where was it, now, you left your ship—
around the point, or down the shore, I wonder?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 153)

I consider the Cyclops to be a symbol of a myopic person, someone who can only see one side of something, usually their own. So here the Cyclops has a singular, self-centered view. He is blind to his connection with the Divine and does not see or care about how others are also connected with the Divine. He cares only about himself and satisfying his basic urges and desires. What I found ironic, though, is that after Polyphemus is blinded, then he calls upon Poseidon, his father. I find two interpretations of this. From a cynical perspective, we have the self-centered person who disregards his spiritual connection with god praying and suddenly becoming “religious” when things go awry. We have all known people like this, who claim to not care about the Divine but immediately begin to pray when faced with adversity. But I also see a more spiritual interpretation. Once Polyphemus is blinded, he no longer sees the physical world. Instead, his vision is turned within and he recognizes his connection to the world of the Divine.

I mentioned before that one of the archetypes that Odysseus represents is the Trickster. In this part of the tale, he establishes himself as the Trickster. He begins his ruse by telling Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody.”

Kyklops,
you ask my honorable name? Remember
the gift you promised me, and I shall tell you.
My name is Nohbdy: mother, father, and friends,
everyone calls me Nohbdy.

(ibid: pp. 155 – 156)

After Odysseus and his men drive the stake into the Cyclops’ eye, Polyphemus calls out to the other Cyclopes for help.

‘What ails you,
Polyphemos? Why do you cry so sore
in the starry night? You will not let us sleep.
Sure no man’s driving off your flock? No man
has tricked you, ruined you?’

Out of the cave
the mammoth Polyphemos roared in answer:

‘Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!’

To this rough shout they made a sage reply:

‘Ah well, if nobody has played you foul
there in your lonely bed, we are no use in pain
given by great Zeus. Let it be your father,
Poseidon Lord, to whom you pray.’

(ibid: p. 157)

Odysseus responds to the events as the Trickster would, showing delight in his craft and deception.

So saying
they trailed away. And I was filled with laughter
to see how like a charm the name deceived them.

(ibid: p. 157)

As Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus begins to take on characteristics of the hero archetype. A hero has a flaw, which ultimately leads to the hero’s fall. Frequently, hubris is the flaw which heroes exhibit, and this is the case with Odysseus. He acts out of hubris and this ultimately allows Polyphemus to summon Poseidon’s wrath upon Odysseus.

I would not heed them in my glorying spirit,
but let my anger flare and yelled:

‘Kyklops,
if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!’

(ibid: p. 160)

This is a great book in the epic and truly demonstrates the complexity of Odysseus as a character. I hope you found my thoughts interesting and be sure to check back for my thoughts on Book X soon.

Cheers!

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Symbols in “Hansel & Gretel” by Neil Gaiman: The Forest, Hunger, and the Trickster

GaimanHanselGretel

I first heard about this book in an article published by Brain Pickings and knew I would have to read it soon. I am a big fan of Gaiman’s work and I was very interested in discovering how he would rewrite the classic fairy tale. My expectations were high, but I was certainly not disappointed. I was hooked at the opening paragraph.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

(p. 8)

The forest or wilderness is a symbol that has always fascinated me, probably because as a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. It was a place of mystery, adventure, and danger. As I got older, I began to understand the forest as a symbol for the darker, uncivilized regions of the human consciousness.

When Hansel and Gretel’s parents decide to abandon them because they can no longer feed them, it is very symbolic that the children are abandoned in the forest. They are thrust deep into the woods and left alone. Essentially, this signifies a sort of rite of passage to adulthood, where they are forced to face the shadowy aspects of themselves and human nature, which can be dark and terrifying.

Gretel woke Hansel the next morning. “It is going to be a good day,” she said. “Our father is going to take us into the forest with him, and he will teach us to cut wood.” Their father would not ordinarily take them with him deep into the forest. He said it was too dangerous for children.

(pp. 16 – 17)

After they are abandoned in the woods, they succumb to the darkness which lies hidden in the subconscious. This is represented by shadows which grow and overwhelm the senses.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddle and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

(p. 20)

Another symbol that figures prominently in the tale is hunger. Hunger is the most basic of instincts and drives the actions of all living things, even more so than sexual desire. Hansel and Gretel’s parents forsake their children because of hunger. It is a primordial need that can overpower all sense of reason and humanity. When the children discover that the breadcrumb trail is gone because the animals of the forest have eaten the crumbs, Gretel comments that “The creatures of the forest are hungry too.” (p. 28) And of course, it is hunger that drives the children to the old woman’s house in the woods.

They walked towards the smell: honey cake, and ginger and spices, a glorious sweetness that stole over them. Now the children ran toward the source of the smell, impelled by hunger, going in a direction they had never been before, unitl, in a clearing, they saw a tiny house, even smaller than their own.

(p. 29)

They are then captured and are faced with the terrible realization that humans, like animals, are meat and can be eaten. Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of the dark, primordial state. It represents the animal instinct taking complete control of one’s psyche, where hunger overpowers all human reason.

The old woman was stronger than she looked—a sinewy, gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars. She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.

“Meat,” she said, happily.

(p. 36)

The last symbol I would like to look at in this tale is the trickster. Hansel and Gretel embody the archetype of the trickster as symbolized by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus, who also plans on eating all of them. Odysseus uses trickery to outwit the Cyclops and escape. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel do the same. First, Hansel uses a bone to trick the old woman into thinking he has not gotten fat enough to cook yet.

In truth, Hansel grew fat, but the old woman was too blind to see it. Each day, she reached for his finger, but instead he would hold out a bone he had found in the straw. She felt the bone and, thinking it was the boy’s finger, left him for another day.

(p. 40)

Finally, Gretel also uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not to understand the woman’s instructions. This leads the old woman to open the oven door and lean inside in an attempt to show Gretel how it is done, providing the opportunity for Gretel to shove her captor inside.

“See if it is hot enough to roast your brother yet,” said the old woman. “Climb inside and tell me.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel, and she stood where she was, making no move to open the oven door.

“It is easy. Simply open the door, and lean in, and feel if it is hot enough yet to roast flesh.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel again.

“You are a slattern and a dolt!” exclaimed the old woman. “Idiot child. I will show you.” The old woman hobbled over to the oven, leaning on her stick. “Learn from me.” The old woman opened the oven door.

(p. 41)

There is a bit of irony here. Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house.

I’d like to close with a little bit about the artwork in this book. All the illustrations are done by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and seem like they have been carved out of the darkest reaches of the mind. The black and white prints are so dark and shadowy, just looking at them gives you anxiety. It is the perfect visual representation of exploring the darker regions of the subconscious, of getting lost in the forest of shadows that symbolizes our hidden animalistic urges.

GaimanHanselGretel2

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 12

CyclopsPolyphemus

This episode corresponds to the section of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclopes (Sicily) during his journey home from the Trojan War and enters a cave filled with provisions with some of his men. When the giant Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, he blocks the entrance with a great stone and, scoffing at the usual custom of hospitality, eats two of the men. Next morning, the giant kills and eats two more and leaves the cave to graze his sheep.

After the giant returns in the evening and kills two more of the men, Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong and undiluted wine given to him earlier on his journey. Drunk and unwary, the giant asks Odysseus his name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers. Odysseus tells him “Οὖτις”, which means “no one” and Polyphemus promises to eat this “Nobody” last of all. With that, he falls into a drunken sleep. Odysseus had meanwhile hardened a wooden stake in the fire and now drives it into Polyphemus’ eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help from his fellow giants, saying that “Nobody” has hurt him, they think Polyphemus is being afflicted by divine power and recommend prayer as the answer.

In the morning, the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, feeling their backs to ensure that the men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves to the undersides of the animals and so get away. As he sails off with his men, Odysseus boastfully reveals his real name, an act of hubris that was to cause problems for him later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon, for revenge and casts huge rocks towards the ship, which barely escapes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, the Cyclops is represented by an unnamed person who is presented in this section as a first-person narrator. It is therefore from the “I” perspective, a singular and myopic view of the events that unfold. The events take place within a pub, the Dublin equivalent of a cave, dark and enclosed. Throughout the episode, there are lots of puns and wordplay associated with the word “eye.”

—Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I’m hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can’t get a penny out of him.

(p. 292)

The narrator is not a pleasant person. He seems to have an issue with everyone. He is totally self-centered (focused on his I) and, in my humble opinion, kind of a jerk. But then again, we all have our own egos inside and often think things about others which we keep to ourselves.

Since Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the metaphor of blindness appears throughout the chapter.

—Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others’ eyes but they can’t see the beam in their own.

Raimeis, says the citizen. There’s no-one as blind as the fellow that won’t see, if you know what that means.

(p. 326)

There is a lot of symbolism tied in to this short quote. On one hand, the narrator is blind to the opinions of others. He is solely concerned with his own opinions. Bloom is blind to the hostile anti-Semitic feelings that the people around him are feeling towards him. The people of Ireland, represented by the citizen, are blinded by their intense desire to establish a national identity. Finally, the mention by the citizen of “no-one” is an allusion to the name that Odysseus used when he fooled the Cyclops.

As the episode continues, the environment becomes more and more hostile towards Bloom. This is especially evident through the citizen, who gets so worked up he starts verbally attacking Bloom as he makes his exit from the pub with Martin Cunningham. The citizen follows him out to the street, hurling anti-Semitic insults at Bloom, who responds by naming famous Jews from history, including Jesus, which enrages the citizen even more.

—Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

—He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.

—Whose God? says the citizen.

—Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

—By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain the bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us the biscuitbox here.

(p. 342)

The episode concludes in a similar manner to the corresponding section in the Odyssey. As Bloom is escaping in the carriage (symbolic of Odysseus’ ship), the citizen, who is blinded by rage, throws the biscuit tin (symbolic of the boulder) at Bloom, but misses his mark.

Begob he drew his hand and made a swipe and let fly. Mercy of God the sun was in his eyes or he’d have left him for dead. Gob, he near sent it into county Longford. The bloody nag took fright and the old mongrel after the car like bloody hell and all the populace shouting and laughing and the old tinbox clattering along the street.

(pp. 343 – 344)

We are nearing the halfway mark in the novel. My next post will cover Episode 13 which in my book ends on page 382 with the word “Cuckoo.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11


 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphemus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section12.rhtml

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