A Summary and Analysis of the Myth of Odysseus and the Cyclops

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

When is it a good idea to be nobody? There are some situations where it certainly pays to be Nobody, or rather, to claim to be ‘No One’. And one of the most famous episodes involving wily Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known to the Romans) bears this out.

But what exactly happened when Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, met Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops? Let’s take a closer look at this myth, and what Homer tells us about it in his great epic poem, the Odyssey.

The Cyclopes: background

Let’s start with a question: what’s wrong with the following sentence? ‘The Cyclops were a race of mythical one-eyed giants.’

The main thing is that ‘Cyclops’ is the singular: ‘Cyclopes’ is the plural. Cyclopes (literally meaning ‘round-eyes’ or ‘circle-eyes’) were divided into three ‘families’: the Uranian Cyclopes, descended from Uranus and Gaia, the Sicilian Cyclopes, and the ‘master-mason’ Cyclopes.

The Uranian Cyclopes served Zeus, creating his infamous lightning-bolt which the god used to administer divine punishment and retribution. These Cyclopes were three brothers, named in Hesiod’s Theogony as Brontes (literally, ‘thunder’), Steropes (‘lightning’), and Arges (‘bright’).

The Sicilian Cyclopes were smiths and craftsmen, as The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary) notes, and they fashioned the bows and arrows used by the gods Apollo and Artemis. And the Cyclopes associated with Lycia get the credit for building the giant prehistoric stone monuments found around Greece and on Sicily.

The Cyclops – singular – who is most famous is Polyphemus, whose name fittingly means ‘abounding in many songs or legends’. This Cyclops is the one who features in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.

Odysseus and the Cyclops: plot summary

Odysseus and his crew arrive on the island of the Cyclopes during their long journey home from the Trojan War. These Cyclopes are more like shepherds than master-builders or masons. Finding the cave of Polyphemus, a Cyclops who is the son of the sea god Poseidon, they go inside to find it unoccupied and stocked with all manner of provisions.

But when Polyphemus returns home with his flock and finds Odysseus and his men inside the cave, he takes a large stone and blocks the entrance, imprisoning them inside (he eats two of them for good measure).

The next day, he eats two more of Odysseus’ men before heading off to tend to his flock. Odysseus remains trapped in the cave, wondering how he and the rest of his crew will ever make it out of this alive.

Sure enough, things look bleak for them. That evening, Polyphemus returns home and wolfs down two more of the men. But ‘wily Odysseus’ is cunning, and offers the not-too-bright giant some of the wine has acquired during his voyage home. Polyphemus accepts it, and promptly gets very drunk.

His guard lowered, Polyphemus is vulnerable. When he asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus replies, ‘Οὖτις’, i.e., ‘Nobody’. In return for Odysseus’ compliance, Polyphemus tells him he will eat him last, before falling fast asleep. Odysseus sees his chance: he has used the fire to harden a wooden stake, which he now drives through Polyphemus’ eye, blinding him.

Polyphemus cries to his fellow Cyclopes for help, and they come to the entrance of his cave, asking who is attacking him. When Polyphemus replies, ‘Nobody!’, the Cyclopes assume that he has gone mad, so they go back to their own business, leaving him to it.

The next day, Polyphemus wants revenge, and isn’t going to let his blindness get in the way of it. When he opens his cave and lets the sheep out, he feels their backs to ensure that Odysseus and his men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves under the sheep, and so manage to get away without him noticing.

However, the Greeks loved a bit of hubris, or rather they hated those who possessed it: swaggering pride or over-confidence. As he sails away from the island, Odysseus cannot resist telling Polyphemus his real name, so the Cyclops will always remember that wily Odysseus was the one who blinded and outwitted him. Polyphemus prays to Poseidon, his father, for revenge, and Odysseus’ crew have a rather eventful journey home.

Odysseus and the Cyclops: analysis

The one thing everyone knows about the Cyclopes is that they had one eye, but curiously, Homer never explicitly mentions this fact in the episode involving Odysseus and Polyphemus. But this is probably because he assumed his audiences would already be familiar with the physiognomy of the Cyclopes. (Homer makes references to ‘the eye’ of the Cyclops which Odysseus had blinded, with the wording leaving the matter ambiguous; but it seems clear that the one-eyed nature of the Cyclopes was common knowledge when Homer was composing.)


The story of Odysseus outwitting the Cyclops is one of the classic tales from the Odyssey, and the myth neatly sums up how Odysseus got his reputation for being cunning and crafty. Unlike earlier Greek heroes such as Ajax and Agamemnon, Odysseus possesses brains as well as brawn, and uses his mind to help him escape from potentially deadly situations.

But the tale also contains one of the staples of Greek literature: the dangers of hubris. Odysseus is clearly proud of his cunning, and his insistence on yelling out his name to Polyphemus as he departs will cost him dearly as he continues his voyage home.

In his satyr play, Cyclops, the great tragedian Euripides provides a comic and burlesque response to the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus. But where Homer’s Cyclops was brutish and stupid, Euripides makes his Polyphemus a satirical send-up of the sophists who were popular at the time, with their fallacious philosophical arguments.

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