Ithacans and Cyclopes: Homer, Odyssey 2 and 9
Rick M. Newton (Kent State University)
A comparative reading of Homer, Odyssey 2 and 9 (the Ithacan assembly and the Cyclopeia) suggests that Polyphemus and his neighbors have much in common with the Ithacans. Odysseus’ account of the one-eyed monsters and their way of life suggests that his success in overpowering Polyphemus is due not only to his heroic cleverness but also to his experience in dealing with the lawless residents of his own homeland and to his own genuinely “Ithacan” nature.
The association between Ithacans and Cyclopes is introduced in 2.19-32, when the father of Antiphus (one of the six devoured in the cave) responds to Telemachus’ call for an assembly by remarking that the townsmen have not dealt with “any public matter” since Odysseus left for Troy. Similarly, Odysseus describes the Cyclopes as holding no assemblies (9.112). Ithacans and Cyclopes alike take no interest in their neighbors (2.239-241; 9.115, 189). Both groups, furthermore, are prone to laziness: the Cyclopes neither plant nor reap, but rely on the gods, while the young noblemen who have invaded Odysseus’ house live shamelessly off the absent master’s estate (1.225-226; 2.139-140; 9.108-111). Polyphemus openly proclaims his disregard of Zeus and the other Olympians, just as the Ithacans arrogantly dismiss the ominous flight of Zeus’ eagles over the square (2.201; 9.275-276). When the Cyclopes respond to Polyphemus’ cries for help only to walk away (9.413), they resemble the Ithacans who disperse to their separate homes after the assembly and leave Telemachus to fend for himself (2.257-259). The young hero’s tears, as he dashes his scepter to the ground in frustration, find a parallel in the cries of the giant as he wrenches the stake from his eye and throws it far off (2.80-84; 9.396-402).
Although Telemachus is unable to handle his unruly townsmen, his father proves himself an accomplished Ithacan. Odysseus’ disregard of his comrades’ (i.e., neighbors’) pleas to leave the cave (9.224-230) is typical of an Ithacan in that it places the personal acquisition of gifts above the welfare of the group. The sailors themselves, when separated from Odysseus, quickly lapse into lawlessness for the same reasons (cf. 10.38-45). Odysseus’ use of the “Outis” trick succeeds, in part, because he knows that the Cyclopes, like the Ithacans, are indifferent to their neighbors’ well-being. Similarly, Odysseus will succeed in violently restoring order to his own house at the end of the poem because he knows that no neighbors will rush to help the suitors (cf. 23.149-151). Odysseus succeeds in overcoming Polyphemus (as well as the suitors), therefore, not only because he is the most heroically clever of the Achaeans; he is also the most Ithacan of the Ithacans.
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