Friday 8 December 2017

‘Odysseus is not a hero, he’s a douchebag’

Cyclops cast as a pastoral figure with panpipe: Giulio Romano, Polyphemus (1526-1528, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua)
Only a master thief, a real con artist,
could match your tricks -- even a god
might come up short. You wily bastard,
you cunning, elusive, habitual liar!
Odyssey 13.291-3 (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

Modern readers sometimes get quite angry at Odysseus. Maybe this is particularly true for younger readers? I’m not sure. Today’s title comes from a younger reader, anyway: it’s a high school student’s answer in a test, taken from this March 2016 piece by Jane Morris.

And the incident that really gets their goat, more than any other, is the Cyclops story. Won’t someone think of the poor Cyclops? And how Odysseus is so mean for stealing his cheeses? And the Cyclops is so good with his sheep, d’awww! Not to mention the bit at the end where Odysseus is such a meanie, jeering at the Cyclops as he escapes. The Cyclops calls on Poseidon for vengeance, vengeance comes, and I bet at that point a lot of readers are thinking, yeah, see how you like it, douchebag. Justice served!

#MCROdyssey students got to hear from me today that Polyphemus is a great guy (evidence: he looks after baby animals!) and Odysseus is a BAD GUEST (evidence: he eats other people's cheese without asking).
Kate Cook, 20 Nov. 2017

OK, fine, it’s a great joke, but this really is the gut feeling for a lot of readers. It’s an interpretation that gets plenty of airtime even in academic journals (subscription required). I can accept that people find Odysseus an unsympathetic character. Personally I find Achilles in the Iliad entirely brutal and horrifying. No problem there.

But the way that this reading completely reverses the moral situation in the Cyclops story -- that is a bit odd. If the Cyclops brutally murders and eats raw several of Odysseus’ companions, then the idea of having genuine sympathy for him seems weird to me. Does eating a cheese uninvited justify popping half a dozen people’s skulls open against a stone wall?

Let’s take it a bit more seriously: here’s what a non-joking version of the ‘Odysseus is a douchebag’ idea could look like.

Yes, the Cyclops is a horrific monster. There’s no real sympathy for him: that’s just comical grotesquerie. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad guy vs. good guy. It’s a really bad guy, and a sorta bad guy. Odysseus is still a douchebag.

And that’s fine for someone reading the Odyssey without any context. A perfectly sensible reading. But what I want to put to you today is that it doesn’t quite do justice to the story. A bit of context can transform a story’s meaning ...

‘They act surprised that the Cyclops is mad at them for eating all of his cheese’ -- rjmcmullen02, StoryboardThat, March 2017

Hospitality scenes

Hospitality is a Big Fresh Deal in the Odyssey. The main plot revolves around 108 suitors who have invaded Odysseus’ house while he’s away and are trying to coerce his wife into marrying one of them. They are terrible guests. They’re eating the family out of house and home, and everyone is horrified at how they’re abusing their hosts.

Hospitality carries a lot of weight. Good hospitality means you’re a civilised traveller. Abusing the system, though ... that means you are pure evil and you must be destroyed.

Now, Homeric epic makes heavy use of a story-telling tool called type-scenes. A type-scene is a semi-formulaic episode, where a regular pattern of events happens in a regular sequence. For example, there are type-scenes for warriors arming before battle; making ritual sacrifices; recognising someone you haven’t seen for twenty years; battle scenes; and there is a type-scene for when someone welcomes a guest into their home.

But type-scenes aren’t just rigid, formulaic drudgery. They carry meaning. They’re part of a poet’s toolset, not a set of rules, and they can be altered whenever the poet wants. Yes, they could be a tool for improvising, and they could be little more than a mnemonic device for memorising a poem. But they can also send very specific messages.

There are lots of hospitality scenes in the Odyssey: Athena (in disguise) arriving at Telemachus’ house; Telemachus arriving at Nestor’s house; and, later, at Menelaus’ house; Odysseus arriving at Alcinous’ palace; at the swineherd Eumaeus’ farm (in disguise); at his own house (again in disguise); and -- of course -- arriving at the Cyclops’ cave. This isn’t even a complete list. The American scholar Steve Reece has written a whole book about these hospitality scenes (The Stranger’s Welcome, 1993). Reece looks at each scene, outlines the sequence of motifs, and goes into a detailed discussion of each scene.

No rigid rules, but there’s definitely a common pattern. Here are some of the standard motifs that crop up in many of them -- let’s call the guest Oscar, and the host Chuck:

  1. Oscar arrives at the door, Chuck comes to the door and acts as greeter personally
  2. Chuck brings Oscar to a seat without asking any questions
  3. Chuck gives Oscar a good meal and a drink
  4. Only afterwards, Chuck begins a conversation, asking Oscar questions
  5. Chuck offers Oscar a bed for the night and a bath
  6. In the morning, Chuck asks Oscar to stay on longer; Oscar says no, he’s got to go, and everyone’s fine with that
  7. Chuck gives Oscar a present, and offers an escort to his next destination

(Reece’s list is longer than this: he looks at 25 repeated motifs, plus 17 smaller details.) Now, how do Odysseus and the Cyclops stack up against the story of Oscar and Chuck?

  1. Odysseus arrives at the door, but there’s no host to greet him
  2. Odysseus has no one to take him inside; when the Cyclops does arrive, he immediately demands to know who Odysseus is
  3. Odysseus deals with the food situation himself; the Cyclops eats Odysseus’ men
  4. See 2. above
  5. No bed or bath (surprise surprise)
  6. The Cyclops imprisons Odysseus in his cave with a huge rock
  7. Odysseus gives the Cyclops a present; in return, the Cyclops offers him the ‘present’ of eating him last

In the normal pattern, it’s almost always Chuck who’s doing things -- the host is the one who has agency. Oscar is mostly a passive lump, except for the bit where he says he wants to leave. But in the Cyclops story, Odysseus takes on most of the agency. The result is a very warped type-scene. And at every stage, the warping is about the Cyclops, not Odysseus: every time it shows the Cyclops’ failings as a host.

From that perspective, Odysseus’ entering the cave uninvited doesn’t show him being nosy and intrusive, it shows the Cyclops failing to act as greeter. Odysseus eating the Cyclops’ cheeses isn’t about him taking things for granted, it’s about the Cyclops being absent and not playing his part. When the Cyclops demands to know who his guest is, the problem isn’t with the barrage of questions, it’s with the timing. (Nestor asked Telemachus exactly the same questions, word for word, back in Odyssey book 3, but it was fine then -- Nestor had the right timing.) And instead of feeding Odysseus’ men, he feeds on them. Then there’s the ‘gift’ that the Cyclops gives Odysseus -- the biggest topsy-turvy of them all.

A type-scene isn’t just a formula. It’s an integral part of the story’s meaning. It both creates meaning, and acts as a vehicle for meaning. Reading Homer without attention to type-scenes is like watching 300 without being aware that it’s about American politics and Islamophobia. The story will still make sense without that extra knowledge -- but it’ll have a different sense.

If you read the Odyssey without any context, in a vacuum, it makes perfect sense to judge Odysseus as a douchebag. But if you’re learning about the Odyssey in a classroom, I hope you get a more informed view of what’s going on.

Sympathy for the Cyclops taken to the extreme: Polyphemus, complete with sheep, panpipe, and faithful dog, watches his crush getting off with someone else (Antonio Tempesta, ‘Secret canoodlings of Acis and Galatea’, 1606, Met. Mus. of Art. The only thing missing is the cheese. The story of Polyphemus’ hopeless love for the nymph Galateia was a popular theme in Hellenistic-era pastoral poetry: see especially Theocritus Idyll 6, Idyll 11 (complete with wordplay on κώρα meaning both ‘girl’ and ‘pupil’ -- the Cyclops loves his one girl and his one eye, but he doesn’t get to keep either of them).


But wait, there’s more. Hospitality scenes are tied up with a thing called theoxeny, that is, ‘hospitality for gods’. This was a smallish-scale religious celebration where a god was imagined as coming for a visit in person, and the people there would set a place at a table and provide the god with a meal. Kind of like having an imaginary friend over for dinner.

In epic, there are a few places where this is very close to being what actually happens. Athena’s visit to Telemachus in disguise in Odyssey book 1 is one example. One that’s more obviously a religious occasion is Poseidon’s visit to the Aethiopes, mentioned in Odyssey 1.22-26, where we’re told

He had gone to visit the Aethiopes, who are far off, ...
to receive a hekatomb of bulls and rams.
That’s where he was sitting, enjoying the feast; ...

The one that’s most religious in tone is in the Hymn to Demeter, Demeter’s visit to the house of Keleos. And wouldn’t you know it? Demeter’s visit is structured as a hospitality type-scene -- a particularly full version of the pattern, in fact.

The semi-formulaic nature of hospitality type-scenes gives all hospitality in Homer a ritual air. The ceremonious greeting of the guest at the door, the procession to the seat, the seat laid with a blanket or sheepskin, the offering of a meal without small talk, the bath or ritual washing of the cult image ... these are all things that ritual theoxeny and Homeric hospitality have in common. Themes, liturgy, physical paraphernalia, the whole kaboodle.

It may well be that Homeric hospitality is modelled on the religious rite. Bear in mind, we have little evidence that Homeric guest-friendship was actually practised in real life in the archaic period. We have much better evidence for proxeny, an institution that was more like an official consulate than a personal friendship. Guest-friendship is well attested in later times, but that’s probably under the influence of Homer. It could be that theoxeny gave rise to Homeric hospitality, which in turn inspired real-life guest-friendships -- just as hero-cult festivals with sports gave rise to Homeric funeral games, which in turn inspired a few real-life instances of funeral games.

Anyway, what this means for the Cyclops story is that it’s not just about the Cyclops being a bad host. In symbolic terms, his refusal to welcome Odysseus is equivalent to someone committing a pretty horrid form of blasphemy. When the Cyclops tells Odysseus

For we Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!
-- Odyssey 9.275-276

-- he’s not messing around. It isn’t a statement of atheism, it’s a statement of religious depravity.

Imagine the Cyclops episode as a theoxeny. A man refuses to take part in the procession or in setting a table for the god, and instead he imprisons the god(!), breaks religious protocol by talking during the quiet bits, kills the god’s companions -- in a real-life theoxeny these would be accompanying cult heroes or minor deities -- only for the god to escape anyway and then put on a display of divine epiphany (Odysseus revealing his identity as he leaves), which the depraved villain can’t even see because he’s symbolically blind.

In that version of the story, it’s a bit harder to see the guest as being badly behaved.

Now, it isn’t as simple as that of course. Odysseus is not actually a god, however much he plays the part of one in this story. It’s arguable that there is a moral lesson for him here after all:

You are not a god. Do not forget it -- or else.
Tim Rayner, ‘Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate’ (Philosophy for Change, 11 June 2013)

And the portrayal of the Cyclops’ relationship with his sheep is grotesque, but it does carry a kind of sympathy, even if it’s comical and perverse. And modern hospitality conventions are a tad different.

Odysseus dealing with the cheeses is not much different from a modern guest at someone’s house mixing themselves a drink, because the host wandered off to do something else. Still, I’ll understand if people who read the story in a vacuum get a bad impression of Odysseus. I’ll still say the Cyclops is a teeny bit worse, though.

‘Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and guests,
the guest-god. He accompanies respectable guests.’
‘We Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!’
And he sprang and reached his hands for my friends,
and he grabbed two, and he dashed them on the ground
like puppies, and their brains flowed out on the earth and wet the ground.
Limb by limb he cut them up and prepared his meal.
He ate them like a mountain lion, and he didn’t leave anything:
innards, and flesh, and bones full of marrow.
We wept, and stretched our hands up to Zeus,
seeing these horrible things. Helplessness gripped our hearts.
-- Odyssey 9.270-271, 275-276, 288-295


  1. > Bear in mind, we have little evidence that Homeric guest-friendship was actually practised in real life in the archaic period.
    A bit of a 'lay' question: is then there anything that we *do* know about hospitality practices in the Homeric age?

    I've stumbled on your blog a few months ago and have been reading new posts with interest. Thanks & greetings from London!

    1. Essentially nothing, I fear - or rather, everything that is "known" is based nearly completely on what we see in Homer. The only other evidence we /could/ have from the Archaic period is epigraphic or in lyric poetry, and I believe there's nothing in either of those. Aeschylus Ag. 55-62 has some on Paris' violation of xenia, but of course that's heavily informed by Homer. We don't start to see actual guest-friendships until later in the 400s - e.g. Pericles and Archidamus (Thuc. 2.13). Croesus and Cyrus (Hdt. book 1) are earlier, but don't follow the Homeric model closely - that's not exactly a relationship between equals.

    2. And, I should have said, thank you for the kind comments!