The clash between the Cyclops and Odysseus is, in its unique way, the strongest analog to a cave painting that exists in the literature of the West, containing, as it does, a sacred space where indigenous vision is transcribed for future generations.
Indeed, in the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops, one touches the fire-blackened floor of the Paleolithic hunter’s cave, so primordial are its elements. Containing as it does a ritual blinding with a wooden hunting spear, a master of animals figure, and an underlying concern with the problem of eating and sacrifice, its provenance is clearly in the prehistoric storytelling repertoire.
Yet it is possible to discern the outlines of a fragment of myth, or mythologem, in the heart of the struggle between Odysseus and the blinded Cyclops. This struggle seemed to capture Western civilization’s emerging violent rupture with its native self—and, within the symbolic language of oral literature, to presage dire consequences. In short, it appeared to have all the characteristics of a prophecy, a vision much like the Hopi of the two roads of humanity: “those who know they belong to the Earth” and those who seek material, individual gain in a condition of spiritual disunity.
The uniqueness of the fragment of myth preserved in Homer’s Odyssey lies in its depiction of the break between the indigenous and newly emerging modern mind.
The tale is well known—Odysseus and his men, newly escaped from the Lotus Eaters and not yet arrived at Circe’s palace, land on the shore of another unknown island, this one inhabited by a Cyclopian race. Odysseus sets out with a handful of men to explore it, to probe its resources and inhabitants. Coming on the cave of one of the natives, he makes himself at home there—over the protests of his men—and then finds himself trapped by a monstrous, one-eyed giant who scorns his demand for hospitality and starts bolting down his men for dinner. Unable to simply overpower the brute, wily Odysseus stuns the Cyclops, called Polyphemus, with powerful drink and then drills out his eye with a wooden spear, escaping the next morning with his men tied to the underbellies of the Cyclops’s herd of goats. A taunting exchange follows between Odysseus and blinded Polyphemus. When Odysseus and his men regain their ships and reach some distance from shore the prophetic nature of the blinding, and the encoded message of the indigenous oral tradition, is revealed. As we shall see, there is good reason to interpret the Cyclops’s words to Odysseus as an invitation to Odysseus to return and heal his eye—in exchange for which Polyphemus will pray to Poseidon for a blessing on his journey home. Odysseus refuses and is cursed to a vexed, long-forestalled homecoming.
Walter Burkert, a German philologist and a scholar of Greek religion, cannily identified certain key indigenous, shamanic motifs in the tale. The first is the fire-hardened spear that Odysseus uses to gouge out the Cyclops’s eye. It is simply anomalous. Why should Odysseus and his men go through such trouble to fashion Polyphemus’s great club, big enough “to be the mast of a pitch-black ship with twenty oars” (Odyssey 9.360), into a weapon? Odysseus possesses a perfectly serviceable sword, one that he has already contemplated killing the Cyclops with. One clue is that the Cyclops’s club is made of olivewood, the tree sacred to Odysseus’s spirit ally, about whom he wonders, “Would Athena give me glory?” (Odyssey 9.355) if he strove against the Cyclops. The second is the spear, as the “the primordial weapon of man; during the Paleolithic period . . . the only effective weapon for hunting,” whose ritual function continued well into the Roman and medieval worlds, is fitting to their circumstances: Odysseus and his men have been cast back into aboriginal time.
While there is no documentation previous to Homer to indicate any actual historical connection to earlier ritual, it is clear that the use of fire as a way to escape danger is deeply ingrained in our species. Odysseus’s fashioning of the spear on the cave floor is a magical, invocative act of the appropriate shamanic medicine to confront the cannibalistic behavior of the Cyclops. Burkert has also shown how the Cyclops tale parallels accounts of other violent shamanic negotiations with the master of animals to release the bounty of animals, whose souls are kept within the master’s wilderness dwelling, to sustain the peoples. “We find the combat myth entailed in the quest for food,” he notes, especially regarding Odysseus’s theft of Polyphemus’s flock: “This sheds light on the curious detail of the escape from the cave; in many parallels this is done by putting on sheepskins, and this masquerade may well be original. To gain the edible animals, man has to assimilate himself to them.” Much as the Eskimo shaman triumphantly displays the blood of the mistress of animals on his harpoon, Odysseus triumphs in his goring of the Cyclops’s eye.
We can say with some confidence that the blinding of Polyphemus is rooted in a ritual, sacrificial act. If we widen the scope of Burkert’s investigation, we can also detect a mythologem within its narrative, an Indo-European variation on the Expulsion from Eden motif, which preserves a memory of humankind’s rupture with its indigenous roots. As we have seen, one of the characteristics of modern consciousness is deafness to the sentience of the natural world. One of the consequences of this rupture with the cosmos is the distortion filter that lies like a dirty film over both the ancient Greek and the modern capacity to accurately perceive indigenous cultures. Through this remarkable feature of perception, perfectly clear communications emerging from the natural world, including from human beings still immersed in the matrix of nature, arrive in such garbled form that they are unintelligible to the modern ear and eye, and often take on monstrous forms—as illustrated by the figure of the Cyclops.
No longer sharing in the primal experience of indigenous peoples, we literally cannot hear or see them accurately. This deafness had already emerged in the ancient Greeks, whose word for indigenous peoples, barbaros, meaning “foreign, strange,” was onomatopoeic of the “blah blah blah” sound they heard emerging from their throats—a mimicry of the incomprehensible sound of their language, just as we use bark or meow for the vocalizations of dogs and cats. In a similar vein, indigenous peoples have often been depicted as untamed animals, much as did an early Jesuit observer of the “tribes of America,” who reported, “All these barbarians have the law of wild asses—they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit.”
Yet the Odyssey, facing back into the prehistoric bardic repertoire as well as forward into our own time, offers us an opportunity to bridge that abyss by adopting a panoptic perspective. That is, in order to comprehend the message of the oral tradition embedded within the tale, we must learn to see through the eye of the Cyclops as well as through the eyes of Odysseus. Odysseus, while negotiating his way through an indigenous cosmos, is also a modern in his cunning and technique. He fits the profile of the “new sort of nature traveler” poet Gary Snyder describes, who upon the exhaustion of the natural systems of Europe went forth “as resource scouts, financed by companies or aristocratic families, penetrating the lightly populated lands of people who lived in and with the wilderness. Conquistadores and priests.” As well, we detect in these nature travelers, as in Shakespeare’s dramatic creation of the half-man, half-monster Caliban, an “ambivalence of savagery,” which simultaneously perceives a blessed innocence and arrested development in native peoples, thus requiring, as does the Odyssey, “the idyll as a contrasting background for cannibalism.” As a mix of shaman and conquistador, Odysseus beholds the lands of the Cyclops as did many of the early invaders of the American continent, as empty wilderness, occupied by savages ignorant of land husbandry or the rudiments of civilization.
Lawless brutes, who trust so to the everlasting gods they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil. Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need, wheat, barley and vines, swelled by the rains of Zeus to yield a big, full-bodied wine from clustered grapes. They have no meeting place for council, no laws either, no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns— each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor . . . No flocks browse, no plowlands roll with wheat: unplowed, unsown forever—empty of humankind— the island just breeds droves of bleating goats (Odyssey 9.120–27, 9.135–37).
Odysseus’s views have a long trajectory. Centuries later, he is echoed by figures as diverse as the Capuchin priest Gaspar de Pinell, who described the Amazon as filled with “tall trees covered with growths and funeral mosses [which] create a crypt so saddening that to the traveler it appears like walking through a tunnel of ghosts and witches. There [one is] surrounded by Indians who could at any moment kill and serve us up as tender morsels in one of their macabre feasts;” or the immanent U.S. historian George Bancroft, who wrote in 1834 that before Europeans arrived North America was “an unproductive waste. Throughout its wide extent the arts had no erected monument. Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and political connection. . . . In the view of civilization the immense domain was a solitude.” Yet Odysseus’s and his successor’s reports are now being overturned as untrustworthy—on almost all fronts. In a stunning reversal of conventional thinking about the nature of indigenous interaction with the natural habitat, it has recently emerged, for example, that the Amazon rain forest is neither the ecologist’s pristine, untouched expression of wild nature, nor the priest’s and conquistador’s howling wilderness. Giant swaths of the forest (a recent estimate is an eighth of the nonflooded Amazon forest is anthropogenic; that is, directly or indirectly created by humans) could be better characterized as a great, cultivated garden, one gradually shaped over millennia by the native peoples with domesticated species of fruit-bearing trees and other plants.
The oft-cited biodiversity of the Amazon rain forest is, therefore, partially attributable to the fact that we are wandering through pre-Colombian orchards! The natives of the rain forest also discovered how to put, and keep, nutrients in the ground in a region normally characterized as “wet desert”—an ecosystem where all the nutrients are locked into the organic life of the forest and not deposited into the sandy, ancient soils. Unlike the slash-and-burn agriculture currently practiced in the Amazon (a consequence of European intrusion into the rain forest), which can only use cleared areas for a couple of seasons before the fields are leeched of nutrients, the pre-Colombian natives learned how to significantly improve their soils. Very large swaths of terra preta do Índio, “Indian dark earth,” have recently been discovered that indicate intense cultivation of the landscape, capable of feeding millions. Such regions, unlike those under European influenced management, are fertile even today, with “more ‘plant available’ phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, and nitrogen than is common in the rain forest; it also has much more organic matter, better retains moisture and nutrients, and is not rapidly exhausted by agricultural use when managed well.” It turns out the reports of the earliest Spanish explorers of highly developed, populous Amazonian cultures—dismissed by subsequent generations as preposterous exaggerations—may have been faithful to what the conquistadores actually beheld.
What Odysseus-minded observers have been unable to see, however, is this: the Amazon rain forest itself is one of the greatest monuments to human ingenuity and art on the planet. Abiding lightly on the earth, the pre-Colombian cultures shaped it for their uses in ways unperceived by the heavy-handed nonindigenous invaders with their Mediterranean-derived styles of agriculture. It was an Eden, in short, whose native inhabitants, as science journalist Charles Mann puts it, “rather than adapt to Nature, created it. They were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything.”
As well, it is generally true that indigenous cultures, far from being “lawless” with “no meeting place for council,” guide themselves by custom and are less afflicted by disparities of wealth and hierarchy—what an early American colonist called the three curses of civilization: doctors, lawyers, and priests. For example, archaeology has now established that the great, indigenous ritual centers of northwestern Europe, dating back to 3500 BCE, were built without the extremes in hierarchical status and privilege that were to characterize the building of the Egyptian pyramids centuries later. Stonehenge, whose stones were transported from the Preseli Mountains of South Wales, an astonishing two hundred miles to the west, needed tens of millions of work hours to construct, yet these societies “were certainly not state societies. They are not accompanied by rich burials, nor any kind of finery. Prestige goods, such as polished stone axes of attractive materials, are not in general found associated with burials.” The fact is, the archaeological record of the indigenous culture of the British Isles, whose achievements amply demonstrate “considerable managerial resources,” gives no evidence of an elite ruler class. Instead, “the term ‘group-oriented’ is appropriate for such societies.”
Group oriented, with its corollary, freedom loving, equally applies to the Native American tribes encountered by the early colonists. “Every man is free,” the frontiersman Robert Rogers told a disbelieving English audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no other person, white or Indian, sachem or slave, has any right to deprive [anyone] of his freedom.”12 In the late 1600s, the French adventurer Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce reported how the Huron could not comprehend why
One Man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more Respect than the Poor. . . . They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alleging, That we degrade ourselves in subjecting our selves to one Man who possesses the whole Power, and is bound by no Law but his own Will. . . . [Individual Indians] value themselves above anything that you can imagine, and this is the reason why they always give for’t, That one’s as much Master as another, and since Men are all made of the same Clay there should be no Distinction or Superiority among them.
Through the eye of the Cyclops, then, we can begin to see an egalitarian culture, without the cruel refinements of hierarchy, living lightly and skillfully on the land. Adjusting for the distortion filter, in Cyclopian lifeways we can make out an echo in Odysseus’s account of Hesiod’s Golden Age:
“They lived like gods, carefree in their hearts, they enjoyed the delights of feasts, out of evil’s reach. The barley-giving earth asked for no toil to bring forth, a rich and plentiful harvest. They knew no constraint and lived in peace and abundance as lords of their lands, Rich in flocks and dear to the blessed gods” (Hesiod 113–21).
Both accounts, of course, hearken back to an age before the spread of Mediterranean-style agriculture, which for most societies was not taken up by choice any more than it was by poor Adam and Eve, whom Yahweh informed as he expelled them Eden, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb off the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3:17–19). Hunting and gathering is far less labor intensive, and studies have shown that, in general, hunter-gatherers “are healthy, suffer from little disease, enjoy a very diverse diet, and do not experience the periodic famines that befall farmers.” As we have seen, they enjoy more freedom, too. Hunter-gatherer “societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band or tribe.” Farmers, on the other hand, are malnourished, vulnerable to hunger, and politically and socially repressed in comparison. Graphic evidence is given by the fact that paleopathologists studying ancient skeletons from Greece and Turkey found . . . the average height of hunter-gatherers in that region toward the end of the Ice Age was a generous five feet ten inches for men, five feet six inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, reaching by 4000 BCE a low value of only five feet three for men, five feet one for women.16
Odysseus, however, is blind to the virtues of such cultivated wilderness and free people. He belongs to that “healthy, nonproducing elite” whose skeletons, excavated from Greek Mycenaean tombs from 1500 BCE, demonstrate that they “enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth.” It is no surprise then, that as a resource scout, Odysseus’s description of the Cyclops’s so-called empty island reads like an early American prospectus for selling off ancestral Native lands to invading settlers.
Artisans would have made this island too a decent place to live in. . . . No mean spot, it could bear you any crop you like in season. The water-meadows along the low foaming shore run soft and moist, and your vines would never flag. The land’s clear for plowing. Harvest on harvest, a man could reap a healthy stand of grain— the subsoil’s dark and rich. There’s a snug deep-water harbor there, what’s more, no need for mooring-gear, no anchor-stones to heave, no cables to make fast. Just beach your keels, ride out the days till your shipmates’ spirit stirs for open sea and a fair wind blows. And last, at the harbor’s head there’s a spring that rushes fresh from beneath a cave and black poplars flourish round its mouth (Odyssey 9.142–56).
Yet wild nature still looms as a threat, as well as an investment opportunity. When Odysseus sets off to “probe the natives living over there” to discover if they are “violent, savage, lawless” (Here Odysseus anticipates political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s view that life in nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” ) or “friendly to strangers, god-fearing men” (Odyssey 9.194–96), he chooses to arm himself in advance with an unusual weapon: “I took a skin of wine along, the ruddy, irresistible wine that Maron gave me once, a priest of Apollo; he lived in Apollo’s holy grove. He drew it off, all unmixed—and such a bouquet, a drink fit for the gods. Whenever they’d drink the deep red mellow vintage, twenty cups of water he’d stir in one of wine and what an aroma wafted from the bowl—what magic, what a godsend!” (Odyssey 9.218–34). This magic is “the very same Greek word used to describe the songs of the Sirens.”
As we have already seen, Greek wine could be mixed with potent psychotropic and narcotic plants, such as opium or mandrake, and was normally mixed in a proportion of two or three parts water to one part wine. This vintage is a cutting-edge product, a technological advance under the auspices of a god. That this wine is from a priest of Apollo, the god whose epithets include the “road builder” and who was a special protector of colonists (as he was in the American space program), is not an accident. The Cyclops, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, will find its intoxication a deadly foe when it is turned as a weapon against him. The stage is set, then, for a showdown between the indigenous world and those upstart new arrivals, the proto-rationalist, invading Greeks. To return to the story, Odysseus, making his way to the Cyclops’s cave, against the urging of his comrades who want to simply loot and run, builds a fire, eats the Cyclops’s food, and settles down to await the creature’s return in order to receive a “guest gift.”
When Polyphemus enters like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, however, Odysseus suddenly recalls the power of wild nature and “scuttled in panic into the deepest dark recess” of the cave with the rest of his men (Odyssey 9.267). There he hides until the light cast by the Cyclops’s fire reveals the little men peering out fearfully. Polyphemus immediately pegs them as soldiers of fortune out “roving the waves like pirates, sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives to plunder other men” (Odyssey 9.286–89). Nor is Polyphemus, belonging to a more ancient culture, impressed by Odysseus’s invocation of Zeus who guards guests and suppliants. “We Cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus’s shield of storm and thunder,” he grumbles, whereupon he eats a couple of Odysseus’s men (Odyssey 9.309–10). Things look bleak for Odysseus, rather as they did for the later conquistadores when their greed and arrogance got them in some tight spots, but Odysseus rises to the occasion when he comes forward and offers Polyphemus the wine of Apollo, “to top off the banquet of human flesh you’ve bolted down” (Odyssey 9.388–89). Polyphemus seizes the bowl and tosses it off, declaring, “Our soil yields the Cyclops powerful, fullbodied wine. . . . But this, this is nectar, ambrosia—this flows from heaven!” (Odyssey 9.401–3). Incredibly, the words used by Polyphemus to describe it—nectar and ambrosia—are repeated centuries later by Plato as the food given to the two horses that pull the chariot of the human soul.
After draining three fiery bowls, the Cyclops asks Odysseus’s name and then topples over in a profound, drunken (or drugged) stupor. Odysseus and his men then go to work, lighting a fire to heat the tip of the spear they so meticulously fashioned to a red-hot glow and then drilling out Polyphemus’s eye, this time, curiously, with a well-developed metallurgical simile to describe the effect: “As a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam and its temper hardens—that’s the iron’s strength—so the eye of the Cyclops sizzled round that stake!” (Odyssey 9.438–41). It’s easy for an audience to feel sympathy for Odysseus’s plight and applaud his heroism here. Yet one’s sympathy diminishes upon recognizing a fundamental pattern in the Homeric encounter that was to repeat itself over and over again in the spreading clash between indigenous cultures (whether hierarchical and urban like the Inca and Aztec Empires or egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures like the North American tribes) and civilized Europeans armed with liquor, steel weaponry, deadly diseases, and abstract forms of information gathering and storage.
As with the conquistadores, Odysseus and his crew had a blend of advanced magic and technology up their sleeve that Polyphemus could not imagine. Thus we have the image of puny Odysseus with his cunning, or mêtis, heroically overcoming wildness. Yet while technology allows even the dullest conquistador or corporate executive to remain safe while ravaging the natural world and its inhabitants—a terrible worm in an iron cocoon—Odysseus, for all his Machiavellian cunning, is still, in the main, indigenous himself. This is what makes his capacity to use the emerging new technologies in his desperate scramble for an edge over raw nature all the more engaging and heroic.
Homer makes brilliant use of wordplay to illustrate just that point, which a Greek audience of his time, sitting around fires in stone or wood structures with wild nature pulsing just outside the boundaries of their settlements, would have deeply savored. Polyphemus, immensely pleased by the wine of Apollo, offers Odysseus a guest gift in exchange for his name. Odysseus gives him the name ou tis, “Nobody,” a deceit that comes in useful after they’ve burned out his eye and the neighboring Cyclopes come to investigate Polyphemus’s cries of distress, asking him, “Surely no one’s rustling your flocks against your will—surely no one’s trying to kill you now by fraud or force!” Polyphemus cries out, “Ou tis, friends. Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” At that, the Cyclopes shrug and say, “If you’re alone, and nobody’s trying to overpower you, you’d better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon,” and lumber off home. The Greek in their reply, however, has a different form for “nobody” than Polyphemus uses: it is not ou tis, but mê tis, the usual form for use after the word if. The linguistic wordplay lies in the fact that mê tis, “not anyone,” happens to sound exactly the same as mêtis, a key word of the Odyssey, the main character trait of its hero—craft, cunning! “And Polyphemus is in fact being overpowered by the mêtis, the craft and cunning, of Odysseus.”
Such a narrative, while quaint and entertaining for us, would have had a much stronger resonance for the cultures of ancient Greece, who could celebrate Odysseus as a cultural hero, a bringer of the fire of technique and linguistic agility into their inheritance. In Odysseus, then, we can see the archetype of humanity separating itself from nature, carving out the emerging individuality from the primal mind and wielding the power that comes from treating the world as an object, rather than a subject. The Cyclops, in turn, is a force of nature to be mastered, a monster, rather than a being to hold communion with. The tale is, in that sense, a celebration of “Homo sapiens, with its novel capacity and impulse to consciously plan rather than act automatically on instinct, to rely on one’s own wits and will to make one’s way in the world, to manipulate and control nature.” Yet, as we have seen through a multitude of indigenous examples, conscious capacity to negotiate with and direct the course of wild nature does not entail a break with it. Indeed, the Celtic “passion for the wild and elemental, coupled with a gentle human love for all creation” that Tolkien advanced throughout his work is only reduced to “fantasy” by rupture with a meaningful cosmos, where, “Whatever beauty and value that human beings may perceive in the universe, that universe is in itself mere matter in motion, mechanistic and purposeless, ruled by chance and necessity.”
Having finally seen the outcome of the potentially fatal antithesis of nature and culture, both as embodied in the oral tradition by Odysseus and in print in our daily newspapers, we can now suspect his dolos spirit of trickery and cunning manipulation that runs the present world. While the capacity to rely on one’s wits and control nature are the very virtues for which Odysseus is celebrated, his Machiavellian objectivity has cast a deep shadow. A poisoned, species-impoverished, genetically modified earth, sea, and sky are emerging as a consequence of our break with the living pulse of nature.
Yet the oral tradition underlying the tale, which Homer imports into his account without, perhaps, recognizing its encoded message, holds out a possibility of mending this break, of achieving an integration of modern and indigenous lifeways. Odysseus, having rustled the Cyclops’s herd, boarded his ship, and put out some distance from shore, taunts the Cyclops, revealing his name: “Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!” (Odyssey 9.558–62). Not only has Odysseus staked his claim for individual fame, but he has also, inadvertently, revealed the deeper significance of his encounter with Polyphemus, who groans back, “Oh no, no—that prophecy years ago . . . It all comes home to me with a vengeance now! . . . Telemus, Eurymus’ son, a master at reading signs . . . All this, he warned me, would come to pass someday—that I’d be blinded here at the hands of one Odysseus” (Odyssey 9.564–70).
The indigenous Cyclops, like the Incan emperor Atahualpa two thousand years later at the hands of Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores, could not imagine that his overthrow would happen through the clever use of technology: “I always looked for a handsome giant man to cross my path, some fighter clad in power like armor-plate, but now, look what a dwarf, a spineless good-for-nothing, stuns me with wine, then gouges out my eye!” (Odyssey 9.571–74). The Cyclops then abruptly shifts his ground and begins to speak in the formulaic language of hospitality and gift exchange familiar to the rest of the Odyssey—he invites Odysseus to return to shore in the spirit of xenia, the exchange of friendship gifts and establishing relationship of host and guest. Polyphemus also offers pompē, a prayer to “Poseidon the earthquake god to speed you home. I am his son and he claims to be my father, true” (Odyssey 9.576–77). He then reveals that Poseidon can heal his eye: “He himself will heal me if he pleases—no other blessed god, no man can do the work!” (Odyssey 9.578–79), but this healing somehow hinges on Odysseus’s returning to shore and joining the Cyclops in this ceremonial exchange.
If we take the Cyclops’s words seriously, restitution can be made on both sides, good relations established, and Odysseus can perform a healing under the auspices of Poseidon. How this healing is to occur is not made clear, in part due to Homer’s use of parataxis, where instead of supplying subordinators to weave together the meaning of the short, simple sentences the style favors, we are left with a kind of list: we must fill in the meaning ourselves.
The way the meaning has usually been supplied is this rustic Polyphemus is trying to dupe Odysseus with a transparent ploy, and when Odysseus returns to shore, the enraged Cyclops will dash out his brains on a rock.
The other, far less considered interpretation is that Polyphemus is perfectly in earnest. And why should we not give the Cyclops credit? After all, Polyphemus’s invitation comes hard on the heels of his recognition of the divinely woven web he has been caught in. The Cyclops now knows his guest was no mere roving sea pirate, but a person of deadly consequence, who possesses a novel power now stirring and beginning to circulate through the world. From a mythic perspective, Odysseus represents the new upstart, the hyperactive polymachinos, the busy man, who is setting out in an unknown and perilous cultural direction. From an indigenous perspective, who knows what additional monstrosities may come from this cunning weakling? A blessing must be put on the hands that have gouged out the wholeness of the aboriginal eye, so that the journey of this new type of human into individuality is not alienated from its origins.
Odysseus takes the invitation seriously. He recognizes his potential instrumentality in healing the Cyclops, but his response is a curse: “Heal you! Would to god I could strip you of life and breath and ship you down to the House of Death, as surely as no one will ever heal your eyes” (Odyssey 9.579–82). Enraged, the Cyclops responds with a curse of his own. He bellows out to Lord Poseidon, . . . thrusting his arms to the starry skies, and prayed, “Hear me— Poseidon, god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth! Come, grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, never reaches home. Or if he’s fated to see his people once again and reach his well-built house and his native country, let him come home late and come a broken man—all shipmates lost alone in a stranger’s ship— and let him find a world of pain at home!” (Odyssey 9.584–95)
Here we have, then, delineated with a deft hand within this mythic narrative, the entire tragic history of the encounter between indigenous and modern cultures: mutual incomprehension, horrific wounding, and lingering curses. As indigenous peoples have suffered dislocation, massacre, enslavement, and wholesale genocide at the hands of European invaders and their transmitted diseases, modern culture has come home a “broken man” into the twenty-first century, racked by agonies of weapons of mass destruction, terrorist attacks, holocausts, nuclear meltdowns, an existential void leeching our bones, alone in a stranger’s ship our ancestors would not recognize. We have, indeed, a world of pain at home.
Given the oral tradition’s penchant for transmitting its knowledge through “lively, dynamic, often violent, characters and encounters,” where its encoded information will often be cast in a fully animate form, can we not read the Cyclops’s tale as addressing humanity’s evolution from the same indigenous perspective as do the Hopi and Mayan prophecies? For in the tale we have arrived at that juncture of mythic time, as in the South American prophecy of the Eagle and Condor, where humanity’s paths divided, where the path of the Eagle—as represented by Odysseus, which glorifies mind, the material world, and control over nature through technology—diverges from the indigenous path of the Condor, with its connection to the Earth through ritual, spirituality, and intuition, as represented by the Cyclops.
Odysseus’s refusal to heal Polyphemus’s eye may preserve in dramatic form the time of discord described in Hopi prophecy, where the two roads of the prophecy stone embark from original wholeness, the upper taken by those of “two hearts,” who seek material, individual gain in a condition of spiritual disunity, the lower by those of “one heart,” who know they belong to the Earth.
As the Hopi prophecy depicts a bridge between the two roads that can be traversed at certain junctures, allowing those following one path to enter another, the Odyssey also offers a way of restitution to the enraged Poseidon. In Hades, the prophet Tiresias offers Odysseus a curious remedy for his alienation from the Earth.
“Carry your well-planed oar until you come to a people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign— unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea . . .
And at last your own death will steal upon you . . .a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you” (Odyssey 9.139–48, 9.153–56).
Odysseus’s advanced technology was laid aside for this primal sacrifice: the blade of the oar planted in the earth irresistibly evokes the planting of a tree, the miracle of fashioned wood bursting into bloom. The sacred hoop restored, blessed peace may come upon his people and Odysseus may be carried back to his ancestral home.
“The unsettling vision of a natural self has haunted the Euro-American peoples,” poet Gary Snyder has written, claiming, “there is an almost visible line that a person could walk across: out of history and into the perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature. The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten” when the European invasion of the American continent began. Yet it may be that we are living through a greater cycle than our historical perspectives can yet encompass, one that we, like Odysseus and the Cyclops, are caught in, all unawares.
Adapted from Robert Tindall’s The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.