Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Cyclops Factor

Cyclopes as a race have always had a bad name. In fact, they are probably the first race in history used to embody evil. Monsters. Cannibals. Freaks. Fiends. In ancient times there wasn't a more terrible figure to scare and delight children than the legendary Cyclops, Polyphemus (meaning "famous"). Polyphemus, or Poly to his friends, was son of Poseidon (god of the sea and brother of Zeus and Hades) and Thoosa (a Nereid, or sea nymph). Not sure how that worked with gods and nymphs exactly, but how cool is that? He has been painted by Poussin, sculpted by Rodin, battled Wonder Woman and Homer Simpson, was portrayed in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and honored as the name of the planet which the moon Pandora orbits in James Cameron's Avatar.

But were these monsters really all that bad? Or were they branded as deranged brutes and misunderstood? Surely there was more to them than that. Let's give the story a shake.

We all know Cyclopes as giants with one large eye in the center of their foreheads. They lived on the mythological Island of Cyclops which made their address both easy to remember and, being mythological, difficult to find. And Polyphemus, the most famous of all, lead a tranquil life living in his cave condo on the coast, strutting about with his stylish, custom-made pine tree walking staff and flock of prize sheep. We know he lived alone (with his sheep; which was perfectly acceptable in those days) and harbored affections for a sea nymph named Galatea, who I suppose reminded him of his mother. I can't see him as a partier but the "famous" thing says to me that he was quite in demand at Cyclopes social events. In short: so suave and debonair that when he entered a room everyone's eye was on him.

It was a pretty cool life and their existence probably would have gone down as a curious, but harmless anecdote until, as recorded in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus and 12 of his men, returning from the Trojan War with the spoils of war, inflated egos and pockets full of condoms (this becomes important later), stumble across the island and pull a home invasion on Polyphemus' place while he was at work.

When he returns home with his flock to find all these strangers poking through his stash, Polyphemus gets pissed. Feeling personally violated, he goes a bit Rambo and traps Odysseus and his men in his man cave with a big boulder. Several soldiers are caught by the boulder and crushed in the melee. Outrage dizzies the giant and he sits to straighten out his head, absentmindedly eating two of the crushed soldiers. Having never eaten a man before, he finds they taste a bit like chicken. Breakfast the next morning consists of two more leftover crushed Odysseus' men, one of which tasted a bit more Feta than the other, and he then locks up and goes out to work. When he returns that evening he eats two more soldiers. Finally, Odysseus, alarmed by the meal plan and finding his troop alarmingly reduced in number, tricks Polyphemus by acting all friendly and brings out the Ouzo cocktails. After a Greek Matter Scatter or two Polyphemus asks the soldier his name and, thinking himself very clever, Odysseus lies and tells the giant his name is "μή τις," which literally means "nobody." I've tried that pseudonym myself and it doesn't work but Polyphemus, half drunk, believes him.

One more cocktail and Polyphemus conks out. While the giant is passed out the floor, Odysseus pokes him in the eye with a sharpened pole and the giant wakes up screaming that "nobody" has hurt him. You can well imagine this cry doesn't exactly elicit an immediate call-to-arms from his fellow Cyclopes. In fact, they grunt and go "Yeah, right" and fall back asleep. While Polyphemus is down at the sea bathing his eye, Odysseus and his remaining men tie themselves to the underside of the sheep with prophylactics so when Polyphemus, blind and hung over the next morning, lets his flock out and checks their backs with his hands as they pass by, the giant doesn't realize they are escaping.

Too late, blind Polyphemus finally understands the soldiers are gone and runs down to the shore. Odysseus taunts him from the safety of his ship as he sails away, boasting that "I am not nobody; I am Odysseus, Son of Laertes, King of Ithaca," which was a pretty stupid thing to do because immediately Polyphemus texts his dad Poseidon for revenge, who curses Odysseus, sending enough bad winds and storms for a tumultuous and perilous return home.

Four things I get from this story: 1) The phrase, "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," is made even more poignant when one only has one eye, 2) If you're going to mess around with the son of a powerful god, don't be ruining a perfectly good alias by boasting, 3) The next time you see a blind Cyclops groping sheep, you'll know he's just looking for Greek soldiers, and 4) Maybe those subject to the Cyclops Factor, or judged automatically bad because of race, presentation and persona, (like kids in hoodies carrying bags of Skittles) shouldn't summarily be condemned.

Have a great week everyone!

(With apologies to Homer, Theocritus, Virgil and Ovid.)

6 comments:

  1. This is a great story, Rand. Did you (can you? will you?) draw a comic strip to go with that?

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    1. No, but the film rights are available. James Cameron has been trying to get through all morning.

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  2. Greek tragedy made relevant. Great job! Personally, I always felt like Medusa got a bad rap too. Thoroughly entertaining. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you Linda. Your comments made my day (agree with the Medusa thing).

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  3. The phone is such an impediment and so impersonal!

    I'm connected (it's that LinkedIn thing). Let me see how many degrees away from him I am (can't be more than 6), then give me a few days to have him just show up at your place...

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    1. It's okay, he's at the bottom of the ocean in the Marianas Trench (http://www.longislandpress.com/2012/03/26/mariana-trench-james-cameron-dives-to-the-bottom-of-mariana-trench/).

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