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The Odyssey is a tale that is told in such a way that is supposed to make the reader believe in the hero Odysseus' perspective. For the most part, this is done without fail. Odysseus is perceived as an almost infallible hero. Because of all he had seen and done, he is believed to be the closest to immortal that a human could ever be. Throughout most of The Odyssey, however, the story is being told through the eyes of Odysseus. The events that the hero is describing are all truthful, but they are only one man's perspective. There is a viewpoint that Odysseus adds to his story that may make him seem like more of a hero than he really is. He speaks in a way that gives the impression that everything he has done is justified and right, when that may not be so. It is not to be discounted, of course, that Odysseus has faced countless different types of adversity and overcome each and every one, a feat that no other man in his land could conquer, but, he also has a unique way of persuading people to believe his every word. But while he may be a god-like, cunning, ambitious leader and hero, he is still flawed, as all human beings are.
There are several instances where Odysseus displays traits that are not so admirable in modern-day society, making his overall perspective less credible. When Odysseus arrives in the Cyclopes' land, he shows lack of open-mindedness and is quick to act violently when the opportunity presents itself. This becomes apparent throughout book 9 as Odysseus encounters Polyphemus in his cave. For a man of such experience and wisdom, Odysseus seems like he sets that aside and becomes a slightly different person when dealing with the Cyclops. Odysseus tells the story of how he blinded the Cyclops with absolute certainty that what he has done is justified. Throughout book 9, there are many instances of Odysseus displaying some distasteful qualities such as prejudice, deceit and getting pleasure out of hurting someone. These qualities that beg the question: Is Odysseus really justified in his actions?
From the moment Odysseus comes to the land of the Cyclopes, he expresses his dislike for them. "And we came to the land of the Cyclopes, /Lawless savages who leave everything/Up to the gods...These people have no assemblies or laws but live/In high mountain caves, ruling their own/Children and wives and ignoring each other." (104-112) Here, Odysseus shows a blatant disrespect for these people simply because of the way they live. He goes on to tell of how the Cyclopes grossly underutilize their resources and are generally a simple folk. He speaks of how "they have no craftsmen/To build them benched, red-prowed ships/That could supply all their wants, crossing the sea/To other cities, visiting each other as men do." (122-125) Because these people have a different lifestyle than himself and choose to not have many of the luxuries that most men want, Odysseus sees them as savage monsters, unworthy of the land they live on. This immediate hatred he expresses for the Cyclops is a blind intolerance that would not be looked fondly upon in modern-day society. This kind of prejudice has caused the invasion and destruction of countless societies, including the European conquest over the Native Americans, and is certainly not a trait to be considered heroic by any stretch of the imagination.
Once Odysseus has expressed his feelings about the Cyclopes, he speaks of turning to his men and saying "I want to find out what these men are like, /Wild savages with no sense of right and wrong/Or hospitable folk who fear the gods." (169-171) Since it has already become apparent that he believes these people to be wild savages, this is just a ploy to get some men on his side so he can go impose his will on the Cyclops. It is never made clear why he wants to go see them, besides claiming to want to see what kind of people they are. Odysseus and his men were not forced onto this land, nor did it seem necessary to their survival to stop somewhere and get food, as they feasted on meat and sweet wine the night before they went to visit Polyphemus. The only real reason they came there was to fulfill Odysseus' curiosity and possibly, bloodlust.
On the morning of the visit to Polyphemus' humble abode, Odysseus picked 12 of his best men, then prepared a skin full of sweet, irresistible red wine for the Cyclops because of "a strong premonition/That [they] had a rendezvous with a man of great might/A savage with no notion of right and wrong." (204-206). Why would Odysseus do this? What does he stand to gain from this trip to a giant savage's home unless it is for his own pleasure? As they sit and wait for Polyphemus, they light a fire and offer sacrifice. While doing this, they help themselves to some of the Cyclops' cheese, a rather impolite gesture. When Polyphemus gets back, he is obviously unhappy with the situation. There are a bunch of men in his home, who have been eating his food and have lit a fire. What is Odysseus to expect, a humble beast who takes kindly to intruders who have invaded his home? Certainly not, one would think. If someone had invaded Odysseus' home, there is no doubt he would immediately execute any and all who dared enter without permission. In this scene, Odysseus is being a careless leader, bringing his men into a dangerous beast's home, then stealing from him and expecting nothing bad to happen. At this point, Odysseus' credibility has been shaken because of his questionable actions, and it makes one wonder what Odysseus' intentions actually are in the Cyclopes' land.
After the initial confrontation between Odysseus and Polyphemus, the Cyclops proceeds to kill and devour two of Odysseus' men:
[He] smashed them/To the ground like puppies/ Their brains spattered out/And oozed in the dirt. He tore them limb from limb/To make his supper, gulping them down/Like a mountain lion, leaving nothing behind--/Guts, flesh, or marrowy bones. /Crying out, we lifted our hands to Zeus/At this outrage, bewildered and helpless. (281-288)
This is where the reader first encounters a sense of the excitement Odysseus feels when something gruesome happens. In his description of his beloved (supposedly) men, Odysseus describes it in as graphic detail as possible, and is even light-hearted about it. With the reference to them being tossed like puppies, there is a distance being created by Odysseus between himself and his men that makes him appear as an outside observer, not someone who has been traveling with these men for years on end and has a close relationship with them. He watches and describes the brutal death with admiration as he sees the Cyclopes mutilate his companions. Additionally, it seems like Odysseus' men are expendable to him. He willingly brings them into a hostile environment that he knows is dangerous, and deceitfully coaxes them in by telling them he just wants to see if they are hospitable people or not. If he told his men that several of them were probably going to be killed, they wouldn't have gone. Odysseus makes it seem like his own men might have been the sacrifice he was offering to the Cyclops.
The next, and most revealing, instance of Odysseus getting a pleasure out of brutality comes as they shove the spear into Polyphemus' eye. Odysseus clearly enjoyed this act, sparing no detail in the re-telling of the story:
My men lifted up the olive wood stake/And drove the sharp point right into his eye, /While I, putting my weight behind it, spun it around/The way a man bores a ship's beam with a drill, /Leaning down on it whole the other men/Keep it spinning and spinning with a leather strap. /That's how we twirled the fiery-pointed stake in the Cyclops' eye. (380-387)
Odysseus enjoys poking out Polyphemus' eyeball so much that he likens it to the art of drilling. He even gets carried away enough to repeat the word 'spinning', as if mesmerized by how masterfully he leaned on the olive-wood stake. Then, after the metaphor is concluded, Odysseus makes the brutal act even more emphatic by explaining "That's how we twirled the stake". He continues with an intense sensory description of how Polyphemus' eye sizzled and crackled from the intense heat of the pointed stake, likening it to when a blacksmith dips an axe head into water when he wants to temper the iron. Afterwards, he repeats himself again, "That's how his eye/Sizzled and hissed around the olive-wood stake." (392-393) The repetition that he uses is indicative of the fact that he does indeed get pleasure out of inflicting pain.
After he escapes the cave and is safely back on the boat, Odysseus begins to taunt the enraged Polyphemus, displaying another quality unbecoming of a great hero. "So, Cyclops it turns out it wasn't a coward/Whose men you murdered and ate in your cave, /You savage! But you got yours in the end, /Didn't you?" (475-478) In addition to taunting the Cyclops, he makes the claim that he isn't a coward. What he is doing, however, is being a coward. It is indeed cowardly for a man to taunt a being who can crush him with one hand, but only from a safe distance. If he wasn't a coward, he wouldn't have needed to taunt him at all. A man who is not cowardly would not have schemed to invade and hurt another being for his own selfish reasons. A man who is not a coward would have entered the cave alone instead of sacrificing four of his best men. It seems here as if Odysseus the hero is acting more like Odysseus the selfish coward.
It must be understood that this story is essentially told from one perspective. There are always two sides to every story, and some may be more critical than others. It is understandable that Odysseus might feel a slight bit of pleasure when he kills an enemy, but in this circumstance, his actions here are unjustified. He has shown prejudice against the Cyclopes and the way they live, even though they have not wronged him at all. He has shown deceit in coaxing his men to help him do his bidding. Odysseus often claims that the Cyclops has a "pitiless heart" when describing him, but the real one without pity appears to be him. At this point in The Odyssey, Odysseus has established himself as a selfish leader who is willing to let his men die as a means for his own personal reasons. While the rest of the books may make a strong case for Odysseus being the great hero he is made up to be, his actions in the land of the Cyclopes cast a shadow of doubt over even his greatest achievements.