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The foreboding dark mist in the gloom of the night (141) shadowing Odysseus arrival to the island of the Cyclopes suggests a sinister and frightening site. Recounting the unnaturalness of the occupants and the horror of the ensuing events, Odysseus narration seemingly confirms this interpretation. However, an attentive perusal of the island’s description, presented from lines 105 to 192 of chapter nine in Homer’s Odyssey, reveals that Odysseus judgement of the island begins before his terrifying encounter with the Cyclopes. Does this suggest that Odysseus negative sentiments towards the Cyclopes derive from a staunch belief in the superiority of Greeks? Since Odysseus narrates this story after the fact, however, he could instead be ascribing his anger towards the Cyclopes onto his account of the island’s people. In this essay, I propose that Odysseus true motives actually form a nuanced junction of the two hypotheses.
Odysseus incessant criticism of the Cyclopes suggests that he views those who are different to be inhuman. The first adjectives he employs to describe the Cyclopes are lawless and outrageous (14), suggesting people who are wild since they live outside the law. While his emphasis on the fact they possess no institutions or council meetings does not intrinsically imply immorality, Odysseus believes that this represents creatures who care nothing about the others (140). Thus, not only do they lack the structure of typical Greek institutions, this dearth shows an utter lack of concern for the wellbeing of others. He subsequently narrows his discussion to a description of a single subject whom, like his fellow Cyclopes, has a lawless mind. Odysseus then boldly accuses him of being a monster of a man that was a monstrous wonder and not like a man (142). The repetition of the monster metaphor insists on Odysseus view that the Cyclopes are inhuman and grotesque creatures, confirmed by his direct accusation of him being not like a man.
Odysseus proves the Cyclopes inhumanity by juxtaposing their immorality with their lack of land cultivation. He believes that these two qualities are closely related, describing how the lawless outrageous Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anything (140). This is Odysseus first discussion of the Cyclopes, and thus his first proof of their immorality lies in their agricultural practices. He further defines a man as a cultivator of the land, as he tells how the Cyclops is, not like a man, an eater of bread (142). Bread is a food that comes from toiling and harvesting the land, showing that Odysseus believes that cultivation is a compulsory practice for men.
Odysseus condemnation of the Cyclopes is based mostly on the fact that they are unlike the Greeks, suggesting a predisposed bias against all foreigners. Odysseus criticisms of the Cyclopes are constructed by a series of oppositions, of describing what they do not do, such as planting or plowing. The unmentioned yet clear object of comparison is the Greek system. The Greeks are workers of the land and eaters of bread. While he never pronounces the Greeks to be inherently superior, his bias becomes clear through his assumption that those who do not follow the Greek practices are inhuman. Thus, when encountering foreigners Odysseus carries his predisposed confidence in the normality of the Greeks, causing him to be immediately suspicious of outsiders. Before exploring their island, Odysseus says that he seeks to discover whether they are savage and violent, and without justice (141). Odysseus already assumes the likelihood of their inhumanity before encountering them. By prematurely judging the Cyclopes, Odysseus appears to be a cultural supremacist who is so convinced of the rightness of his people that he immediately doubts all outsiders sense of humanity.
However, the retrospective element of this narration complicates the depiction of Odysseus as the judgmental visitor convinced of his nation’s superiority. Although Odysseus describes the events as they unfold, the reader cannot assume that his account accurately reflects his state of mind at the time. Intentionally or not, Odysseus later negative experiences with the Cyclops inform his narration. From a practical standpoint, it is impossible for Odysseus to immediately describe the Cyclopes as lawless and outrageous if he truly narrates his feelings and impressions as the scene progresses. Although Odysseus could speculate that these alien beings are immoral before meeting them, he could not immediately deduce such strong attributes as his initial impression. After losing a great deal of his men to the Cyclops cannibalism and almost being consumed himself, it is not at all surprising that Odysseus questions the morality of the Cyclopes. However, his opinion stems from his own subjective negative experience. Perhaps his later condemnations of their society and practices come from his trying to understand and explain the behavior of these people. Seeing how they are so morally different from the Greeks might cause him to retrospectively view everything that differentiates these two cultures as reflecting upon not only their morality, but their humanness as well.
In trying to reconcile the view of an Odysseus who judges the Cyclopes for their difference from the Greeks with an Odysseus whose projection of his subsequent negative experiences causes his estimation, the truth is that Odysseus represents a combination of these two interpretations. By contrasting his assessment of other cultures with his judgement of the Cyclopes, one realizes that Odysseus uses very similar methods of appraisal. When presenting the Lotus-Eaters, his first description of them is how they live on a flowering food (139). He shows his view that this is an unnatural, inhuman practice by requesting his men to seek out any men, eaters of bread (139) might be in the vicinity. Again, he asserts than to be a man one must be an eater of bread, a cultivator of the land. The fact that these creatures are forgetful and dreamy might suggest a negative, lazy comportment, but these traits would not seem to immediately imply inhumanity. Odysseus judges these people as being not like men since they are not bread eaters. Although the incestuous inhabitants of Aiolians consumption of bread is not discussed, they too are marked as alien in that good things beyond number are set before them (152). Bread, of course, represents land cultivation, and thus those who do not work the land and merely have unlimited stores of food are similarly inhuman. Odysseus judges other cultures by the same standards that he applies to the Cyclopes in determining every practice that is not Greek to be an example of inhumanity. Thus, Odysseus negative assessment of the Cyclopes could represent that he is merely a cultural elitist, and that his condescension would apply regardless of his later experiences.
The comparative extremeness of his description of the Cyclopes, however, indicates a specific bias not expressed towards the other foreigners. Even the deadly deceptive Sirens are modified only with the adjective magical (189). The equally formidable Charybdis and Skylla are quantified by the term dreaded (192). Odysseus reserves his most lavish insults for his deplorment of the Cyclopes. In addition to being lawless, outrageous, and monstrous, his deep voice inspires terror, his spirit is pitiless, and yet he deigns to believe that his people to be far better than the gods. When Odysseus himself proclaims that the greatest evil that he and his men have experienced is when the Cyclops had [them] cooped in his hollow cave by force and violence (190), he seems to confirm that the Cyclopes merit his most vicious defilement. His strong characterization of the inhumanity of the Cyclopes then derives from his subsequent horrifying experiences. However, given that his judgement of cultures is strongly influenced by their difference from the Greeks, Odysseus disparagement of the Cyclopes proves to be a combination of cultural supremacy and extremely negative associations.
Odysseus evaluation of the Cyclopes provides an opportunity to explore several themes relevant to the epic as a whole. His definition of the Greek system as the measuring stick against which a nation’s humanity can be assessed prompts a larger examination of the issue of cultural elitism. While this initially appears to be a negative and prejudiced quality, it could be considered an important characteristic in other contexts, as this fierce nationalism allies him with his fellow Greeks and helps them to wage successful battles. It is difficult to discern at what point national pride is necessary, and at what point it engenders an inability to understand societies other than one’s own. The issue of narrating a story with the benefit of knowing its entire course is equally problematic. Does Odysseus hindsight provide a more nuanced understanding of his adventures, or does it preclude an objective narrative? As great portions of this epic consist of various characters describing events after they have occurred, this is a provocative inquiry to pursue. The Odyssey presents complicated issues and questions that cannot easily be classified or resolved, forming instead an obscure, dark mist similar to the one that greets Odysseus as he approaches the Cyclopes island.
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