Summary and Analysis
After identifying himself to the Phaeacians at the feast, Odysseus tells the story of his wanderings. Following the victory at Troy, he and his men sail to Ismarus, the stronghold of the Cicones. With apparent ease, they sack the city, kill the men, enslave the women, and enjoy a rich haul of plunder. Odysseus advises his men to leave immediately with their riches, but they ignore his warnings. The Cicones gather reinforcements, counterattack, and eventually rout the Greeks. Odysseus and his men retreat by sea. Storms blow the ships off course, but they finally arrive at the land of the Lotus-eaters. The inhabitants are not hostile; however, eating the lotus plant causes Odysseus' men to lose memory and all desire to return home. Odysseus barely gets them back to sea. The next stop is the land of the Cyclops, lawless one-eyed giants. One of them, Polyphemus, traps Odysseus and a scouting party in his cave. Only the Greek hero's wily plan allows escape.
Readers should not confuse Odysseus' pride in identifying himself to the Phaeacian hosts with vanity. One's name and reputation are crucial in the Homeric world. When Odysseus states that his "fame has reached the skies" (9.22), he is merely stating fact, identifying himself. Reputation is of paramount importance in this culture. But his pride in his name foreshadows Odysseus' questionable judgment in identifying himself during the escape from Polyphemus.
The next four books (Books 9-12) deal with the hero's wanderings and are the most widely known in the epic. Odysseus does not discuss, at this point, why he was blown off course and unable to return directly to Ithaca. Phemius, the renowned Ithacan bard, outlines the tale early in The Odyssey (1.375-76) when he performs "The Achaeans' Journey Home from Troy." The details are not articulated there either, but the story of Ajax's attempted rape of Cassandra in Athena's temple and the lack of punishment meted out to him by the Greeks would have been well known by Homer's audience.
Many critics see Odysseus' wanderings as a series of trials or tests through which the hero attains a certain wisdom and prepares to be a great king as well as a great warrior. If so, then judgment seems to be a key. If Odysseus is to survive, he must ultimately become wise as well as courageous and shrewd.
The first test is against the Cicones. Some scholars suggest that Odysseus raids Ismarus because the Cicones are allies of the Trojans. Others conclude that he sacks the city simply because it is there. Certainly piracy and marauding were legitimate professions for Ithacans. At question is not the raid but Odysseus' men's foolish disregard for his advice. Having gained victory and considerable plunder, Odysseus wants to be on his way. His men, on the other hand, drink and feast as the Cicones gather reinforcements, skilled warriors who eventually rout the Greeks. Odysseus loses six men from each of his ships and is lucky to get away by sea.
Odysseus escapes, but storms and a strong north wind drive his ships off course. As he rounds Cape Malea (near Cythera, north and slightly west of Crete), he needs only to swing north by northwest 300 miles or so to be home. The winds drive him away. Nine days later, he reaches the land of the Lotus-eaters. (Homeric geography is suspect, but some scholars place this at or near Libya.)
Students familiar with some of the legends of The Odyssey but new to the epic itself might be surprised to see that the section on the Lotus-eaters is only about twenty-five lines long (9.92-107). Homer has touched on a universal theme, the lure of oblivion through drugs. The Lotus-eaters have no interest in killing the Greeks; the danger is the lotus and the forgetfulness it causes. This time, Odysseus' judgment prevails, and he manages to get his men back to sea before too many are seduced by the honey-sweet fruit that wipes out ambition and memory.
The Cyclops, whom the wanderers visit next, contrast most vividly with the Phaeacians. The Phaeacians once lived near the Cyclops but moved to Scheria to avoid the lawless brutes. While the Phaeacians are civilized and peace loving, the Cyclops have no laws, no councils, and no interest in civility or hospitality. It is during this episode that Odysseus' judgment comes into question. Having feasted on goat meat on an offshore island, Odysseus and his men could move on. However, Odysseus is curious about who lives on the mainland. Taking a dozen of his best men, as well as a skin of extremely strong wine that he received from a priest of Apollo, Odysseus sets out to investigate a cavern near the mainland shore. It is the lair of Polyphemus, a Cyclops. Discovering abundant food in the cave, the men want to raid it and sail off, but Odysseus insists on staying to try the hospitality of the owner, who proves to be no charming host.
Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon and nearly as powerful as the gods himself, scoffs at the concept of hospitality and welcomes his guests by devouring two for supper and trapping the rest inside his cave for later meals. When the Cyclops leaves, Odysseus devises a plan. From an olivewood that the giant uses as a club, the Greeks fashion a pointed lance about a fathom (six feet) long and char the point to hardness. When Cyclops returns that night, he downs two more men for supper, and Odysseus offers him the skin's contents. The arrogant giant swills down three large bowls full.
As he is drinking, the Cyclops demands to know Odysseus' name. The wily hero says that it is "Nobody" (outis in the Greek). When the giant passes out, the Greeks immediately seize their opportunity and grind the lance into the Cyclops' single eye, blinding him. The monster screams with pain and cries for help, but when other Cyclops arrive outside and ask who is harming him, Polyphemus can only answer, "Nobody, . . . Nobody's killing me now by fraud and not by force!" (9.454-55). The next morning, when Polyphemus, blind, lets his rams out in the morning, Odysseus and his men ride out with them, tucked under their bellies and using the animals as shields.
As Odysseus and his men sail away, however, Odysseus again employs questionable judgment, shouting taunts at the wounded monster. Using the Greek's voice to direct his aim, Polyphemus hurls giant boulders after the ship, barely missing. Then Odysseus assures that his trials will continue by boasting to Polyphemus that it was he, Odysseus of Ithaca, not a "Nobody," who gouged out the giant's eye. In this instance, Odysseus is not simply showing pride in his good name, but foolish arrogance that allows the monster to identify him. Polyphemus then calls on his father, Poseidon, god of the sea, to avenge him. In a curse repeated by Tiresias as a prophecy (11.125-35) and by Circe as a warning (12.148-53), Polyphemus asks Poseidon to see that Odysseus never makes it home. Or, if the Fates have already determined that he must, then may he arrive late, broken, and alone, finding great troubles in his household (9.590-95). With nothing but oceans between him and Ithaca and the god of the sea as his new enemy, Odysseus has paid a hefty price for his pride.
Ismarus an ancient seaport on the Aegean Sea, north and slightly west of Troy, home of the Cicones.
Malea southeastern cape of the Peloponnesus.
Cythera a Greek island located between the Peloponnesus and Crete.
fathom a unit of length equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water.
dam the female parent of any four-legged animal.
bellwether a ram, usually castrated, that wears a bell around its neck and is followed by the other sheep.