| Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |
I. THE CURSE OF POLYPHEMUS.
Of all the heroes that wandered far and wide before they came to their
homes again after the fall of Troy, none suffered so many hardships as
There was, indeed, one other man whose adventures have been likened to
his, and this was Aeneas, a Trojan hero. He escaped from the burning
city with a band of fugitives, his countrymen; and after years of peril
and wandering he came to found a famous race in Italy. On the way, he
found one hospitable resting-place in Carthage, where Queen Dido
received him with great kindliness; and when he left her she took her
own life, out of very grief.
But there were no other hardships such as beset Odysseus, between the
burning of Troy and his return to Ithaca, west of the land of Greece.
Ten years did he fight against Troy, but it was ten years more before
he came to his home and his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.
Now all these latter years of wandering fell to his lot because of
Poseidon's anger against him. For Poseidon had favored the Grecian
cause, and might well have sped home this man who had done so much to
win the Grecian victory. But as evil destiny would have it, Odysseus
mortally angered the god of the sea by blinding his son, the Cyclops
Polyphemus. And thus it came to pass.
Odysseus set out from Troy with twelve good ships. He touched first at
Ismarus, where his first misfortune took place, and in a skirmish with
the natives he lost a number of men from each ship's crew. A storm then
drove them to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, a wondrous people, kindly
and content, who spend their lives in a day-dream and care for nothing
else under the sun. No sooner had the sailors eaten of this magical
lotus than they lost all their wish to go home, or to see their wives
and children again. By main force, Odysseus drove them back to the
ships and saved them from the spell.
Thence they came one day to a beautiful strange island, a verdant place
to see, deep with soft grass and well watered with springs. Here they
ran the ships ashore, and took their rest and feasted for a day. But
Odysseus looked across to the mainland, where he saw flocks and herds,
and smoke going up softly from the homes of men; and he resolved to go
across and find out what manner of people lived there. Accordingly,
next morning, he took his own ship's company and they rowed across to
Now, fair as the place was, there dwelt in it a race of giants, the
Cyclopes, great rude creatures, having each but one eye, and that in
the middle of his forehead. One of them was Polyphemus, the son of
Poseidon. He lived by himself as a shepherd, and it was to his cave
that Odysseus came, by some evil chance. It was an enormous grotto, big
enough to house the giant and all his flocks, and it had a great
courtyard without. But Odysseus, knowing nought of all this, chose out
twelve men, and with a wallet of corn and a goatskin full of wine they
left the ship and made a way to the cave, which they had seen from the
Much they wondered who might be the master of this strange house.
Polyphemus was away with his sheep, but many lambs and kids were penned
there, and the cavern was well stored with goodly cheeses and cream and
Without delay, the wearied men kindled a fire and sat down to eat such
things as they found, till a great shadow came dark against the
doorway, and they saw the Cyclops near at hand, returning with his
flocks. In an instant they fled into the darkest corner of the cavern.
Polyphemus drove his flocks into the place and cast off from his
shoulders a load of young trees for firewood. Then he lifted and set in
the entrance of the cave a gigantic boulder of a door-stone. Not until
he had milked the goats and ewes and stirred up the fire did his
terrible one eye light upon the strangers.
"What are ye?" he roared then, "robbers or rovers?" And Odysseus alone
had heart to answer.
"We are Achaeans of the army of Agamemnon," said he. "And by the will
of Zeus we have lost our course, and are come to you as strangers.
Forget not that Zeus has a care for such as we, strangers and
Loud laughed the Cyclops at this. "You are a witless churl to bid me
heed the gods!" said he. "I spare or kill to please myself and none
other. But where is your cockle-shell that brought you hither?"
Then Odysseus answered craftily: "Alas, my ship is gone! Only I and my
men escaped alive from the sea."
But Polyphemus, who had been looking them over with his one eye, seized
two of the mariners and dashed them against the wall and made his
evening meal of them, while their comrades stood by helpless. This
done, he stretched himself through the cavern and slept all night long,
taking no more heed of them than if they had been flies. No sleep came
to the wretched seamen, for, even had they been able to slay him, they
were powerless to move away the boulder from the door. So all night
long Odysseus took thought how they might possibly escape.
At dawn the Cyclops woke, and his awakening was like a thunderstorm.
Again he kindled the fire, again he milked the goats and ewes, and
again he seized two of the king's comrades and served them up for his
terrible repast. Then the savage shepherd drove his flocks out of the
cave, only turning back to set the boulder in the doorway and pen up
Odysseus and his men in their dismal lodging.
But the wise king had pondered well. In the sheepfold he had seen a
mighty club of olive-wood, in size like the mast of a ship. As soon as
the Cyclops was gone, Odysseus bade his men cut off a length of this
club and sharpen it down to a point. This done, they hid it away under
the earth that heaped the floor; and they waited in fear and torment
for their chance of escape.
At sundown, home came the Cyclops. Just as he had done before, he drove
in his flocks, barred the entrance, milked the goats and ewes, and made
his meal of two more hapless men, while their fellows looked on with
burning eyes. Then Odysseus stood forth, holding a bowl of the wine
that he had brought with him; and, curbing his horror of Polyphemus, he
spoke in friendly fashion: "Drink, Cyclops, and prove our wine, such as
it was, for all was lost with our ship save this. And no other man will
ever bring you more, since you are such an ungentle host."
The Cyclops tasted the wine and laughed with delight so that the cave
shook. "Ho, this is a rare drink!" said he. "I never tasted milk so
good, nor whey, nor grape-juice either. Give me the rest, and tell me
your name, that I may thank you for it."
Twice and thrice Odysseus poured the wine and the Cyclops drank it off;
then he answered: "Since you ask it, Cyclops, my name is Noman."
"And I will give you this for your wine, Noman," said the Cyclops; "you
shall be eaten last of all!"
As he spoke his head drooped, for his wits were clouded with drink, and
he sank heavily out of his seat and lay prone, stretched along the
floor of the cavern. His great eye shut and he fell asleep.
Odysseus thrust the stake under the ashes till it was glowing hot; and
his fellows stood by him, ready to venture all. Then together they
lifted the club and drove it straight into the eye of Polyphemus and
turned it around and about.
The Cyclops gave a horrible cry, and, thrusting away the brand, he
called on all his fellow-giants near and far. Odysseus and his men hid
in the uttermost corners of the cave, but they heard the resounding
steps of the Cyclopes who were roused, and their shouts as they called,
"What ails thee, Polyphemus? Art thou slain? Who has done thee any
"Noman!" roared the blinded Cyclops; "Noman is here to slay me by
"Then if no man hath hurt thee," they called again, "let us sleep." And
away they went to their homes once more.
But Polyphemus lifted away the boulder from the door and sat there in
the entrance, groaning with pain and stretching forth his hands to feel
if any one were near. Then, while he sat in double darkness, with the
light of his eye gone out, Odysseus bound together the rams of the
flock, three by three, in such wise that every three should save one of
his comrades. For underneath the mid ram of each group a man clung,
grasping his shaggy fleece; and the rams on each side guarded him from
discovery. Odysseus himself chose out the greatest ram and laid hold of
his fleece and clung beneath his shaggy body, face upward.
Now, when dawn came, the rams hastened out to pasture, and Polyphemus
felt of their backs as they huddled along together; but he knew not
that every three held a man bound securely. Last of all came the kingly
ram that was dearest to his rude heart, and he bore the King of Ithaca.
Once free of the cave, Odysseus and his fellows loosed their hold and
took flight, driving the rams in haste to the ship, where, without
delay, they greeted their comrades and went aboard.
But as they pushed from shore, Odysseus could not refrain from hailing
the Cyclops with taunts, and at the sound of that voice Polyphemus came
forth from his cave and hurled a great rock after the ship. It missed
and upheaved the water like an earthquake. Again Odysseus called,
saying: "Cyclops, if any shall ask who blinded thine eye, say that it
was Odysseus, son of Laertes of Ithaca."
Then Polyphemus groaned and cried: "An Oracle foretold it, but I waited
for some man of might who should overcome me by his valor,--not a
weakling! And now"--he lifted his hands and prayed,--"Father Poseidon,
my father, look upon Odysseus, the son of Laertes of Ithaca, and grant
me this revenge,--let him never see Ithaca again! Yet, if he must, may
he come late, without a friend, after long wandering, to find evil
abiding by his hearth!"
So he spoke and hurled another rock after them, but the ship
outstripped it, and sped by to the island where the other good ships
waited for Odysseus. Together they put out from land and hastened on
their homeward voyage.
But Poseidon, who is lord of the sea, had heard the prayer of his son,
and that homeward voyage was to wear through ten years more, with storm
and irksome calms and misadventure.
| Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |