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Classical Mythology

Going Home So Soon? Not Bloody Likely

Like so many of the Greek soldiers, however, Odysseus had a difficult time getting home. His long journey began when he quickly crossed the Hellespont from Troy to the peninsula known as the land of the Bistones (a Thracian tribe). Odysseus brought with him as his slave Hecuba, the wife of Priam. Near the end of the war, Hecuba had sent her youngest son Polydorus and a shipment of gold to the Thracian King Polymestor, a Trojan ally. Now she hoped to recover them both.

Sadly, Hecuba discovered that Polymestor had murdered Polydorus and stolen the gold. Hecuba avenged her son's death by luring the king into her tent, blinding him, and killing his two infant sons. Turning into a dog with eyes of fire, Hecuba then dived into the sea.

What Are We Doing Here?

The More Things Change ...

Mythic journeys in which a hero learns of the world abroad and returns home wiser, though sometimes sadder, appear in many different ages and cultures. These include: the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, Dante's Divine Comedy, the quest for the Holy Grail, Huckleberry Finn, and The Wizard of Oz.

Odysseus continued on, moving westward along the coast of Thrace to the Ciconian city of Ismarus. He and the crew members of his 12 ships sacked the city, sparing only Maron, a priest of Apollo, who gratefully bestowed upon them fine wine and other gifts. Despite Odysseus's warning, his crews celebrated their victory for too long. The main force of Ciconians descended upon them and drove them out to sea. Six benches of rowers from each of Odysseus's 12 ships were lost. (Each bench held two or three men.)

The dozen ships sailed the Aegean uneventfully. Soon they reached Cape Malea, the southernmost point of the Peloponnesus, and prepared to sail north to Ithaca. But nine days of foul winds drove them all the way across the Mediterranean to Libya. When three men, sent inland to scout the territory, failed to return, Odysseus went after them himself.

Odysseus soon found a tribe of natives who offered him the yellow-orange fruit of the lotus. Yet he saw the effect the fruit had produced in his scouts: The three men had entirely forgotten their mission and had no further ambition but to continue eating this fruit. Odysseus dragged the three away from the Lotus-Eaters and brought them back to the ships.

My, What a Big Eye You Have!

Odysseus next put in at a wooded island (perhaps Sicily). Unknown to Odysseus and his men, the savage, one-eyed giants known as Cyclopes lived here.

With a dozen men, Odysseus climbed to a cave where they found a bounty of cheese, lambs, and kids. Though the crew wanted to take these spoils and run, Odysseus ordered them to wait and see who lived there. A giant Cyclops named Polyphemus returned with his flocks at dusk, trapping everyone inside by closing off the entrance to his cave with a massive boulder.

What a Life!

A seer named Telemus had once warned Polyphemus that a man named Odysseus would blind him. But Polyphemus was too heartbroken to pay attention to this oracle. The grotesque Cyclops had loved the sea nymph Galatea, but she only had eyes for the handsome human youth Acis. Polyphemus crushed his rival under a giant rock. But Galatea only hated him more after this murder, while Acis—in answer to her prayers—was changed into a river god.

Odysseus appealed for kindness under the laws of hospitality. But Polyphemus, who recognized neither gods nor laws, demonstrated his idea of hospitality by devouring two of Odysseus's men. Odysseus kept his wits about him. He knew he should not kill the Cyclops because only Polyphemus was strong enough to reopen the cave's mouth. So he plotted their escape throughout the night.

When morning came, Polyphemus ate two more Greeks, then left to tend to his flocks—but not until he had again closed off the entrance to the cave with the giant boulder. The Cyclops returned that night and devoured two more men.

Odysseus, who cleverly introduced himself to the Cyclops as “Nobody” (Outis), filled his host with Maron's delicious wine that night. When the giant passed out in a drunken stupor, Odysseus drove a heated stake through his eye. Polyphemus roared with pain, which brought his fellow Cyclopes running to the entrance of his cave. But when they asked what was wrong, Polyphemus screamed, “Nobody has blinded me! Nobody is killing me!” The Cyclopes, simultaneously relieved and annoyed by this news, told him to be quiet and go back to sleep.

The next morning, Polyphemus shoved the boulder aside, but blocked the entrance with his own body, hoping to catch the remaining seven men as they tried to leave. But during the night, Odysseus had tied himself and his men to the undersides of rams in the ogre's flock. As Polyphemus sent the animals out to graze, he stroked each on its back to make sure it was indeed a sheep. But because he failed to stroke their underbellies, the Cyclops never discovered their passengers. Once safely outside, Odysseus and his men quickly led the flocks to their ship.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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