In the Cave of the Cyclops: A Reading of Book 9 of the Odyssey
by David Enelow
(Quotations are from Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the poem.)
The structure of the classical narrative, especially one that is organized around a journey, may be usefully compared to the structure of sentence. The main character corresponds to the grammatical subject; both are the agents of an action, for, although the hero performs innumerable acts in the course of the story, these can all be seen as parts of a single action whose unity derives from the goal or destination. This last term corresponds to the direct object of the verb in our paradigmatic sentence. The other characters in the story are to be understood in relation to this central narrative axis. In so far as they are agents, their actions either help or hinder the main character in the achievement of his goal; in modifying his action, they function like the subjects of verbs in adverbial clauses introduced by the conjunctions "because" or "although".
One of the virtues of this simplified narrative grammar is that it facilitates symbolic interpretation. The destination or goal of the hero's action defines its meaning. Following Aristotle's dictum that all action aims towards an idea of the good, we may say that the hero's goal in a classical narrative illustrates and defines the idea of the good life which the author aims to express. Whereas grammatical analysis aims to distinguish the separate functions of the parts, interpretation generates meaning by a process of identification and universalization. Having distinguished the parts of the narrative sentence, we proceed to integrate them, beginning with the relation between the subject and the object, hero and goal. If the goal is not an illusion, it must spring from, or correspond to, the nature of the one who seeks it; the idea of the good the hero seeks outside himself must express the good within him. By the same logic, the obstacles that block the achievement of the goal must not be arbitrary, fortuitous, and external; rather, they must reflect those qualities of the hero himself which impede the realization of his better nature. Finally, the helpers and opponents who cross his path correspond to the creative and destructive elements of his nature.
It is not difficult to see how this interpretive schema applies to the prototype of journey narratives in Western literature, the Odyssey. The action of the poem is summed up by two Greek words. The first is nostos, which is usually translated 'homecoming' but literally means 'return'. The second word is harder to translate. Oikos, which designates the goal of the journey, is usually translated 'home' but literally means 'household'. In point of fact, each of the English equivalents covers a different part of its meaning. Odysseus' oikos is not just a home in the limited modern sense, that is, the private scene of family life. Rather, it refers to a largely self-sufficient social institution including slaves, servants, and retainers that satisfies most of its own economic, educational, and religious, as well as emotional, needs. In the world of the Odyssey it is the basic unit of civilization. At the same time, it encompasses the private sphere of family life and has the personal relevance and emotional resonance conveyed by the word "home". Putting the concepts of nostos and oikos together, we can say that the unifying motive of Odysseus' struggles throughout the poem is to return to his home and household on Ithaka (the principal story of the first half of the poem) and to return his home and household to what they were before he left (the principal story of the second half of the poem) and that Homer's central theme is the meaning and nature of civilization.
Chief among the helpers of Odysseus is the goddess Athena. The scene in which she first reveals herself to him, upon his return to Ithaka in Book 13, confirms the symbolic connection between the goddess and her favorite. After hearing from Odysseus a typically elaborate lie designed to conceal his identity, Athena, dropping her own disguise as a shepherd boy, expresses her satisfaction with his prudence and guile:
The goddess, gray-eyed Athene, smiled on him,
and stroked him with her hand, and took on the shape of a woman
both beautiful and tall, and well versed in glorious handiworks,
and spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words, saying:
'It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get past you
in any contriving; even if it were a good against you.
You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not
even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving
and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature.
But come, let us talk no more of this, for you and I both know
sharp practice, since you are far the best of all mortal
men for counsel and stories, and I among the divinities
am famous for wit and sharpness.... (13.287-299)
Athena possesses to a superlative degree the very powers of planning and dissimulation--the Greek word is dolos--which throughout the poem Odysseus depends on for success and which in the second half of the poem he demonstrates in his elaborate plot to catch the suitors off guard and unarmed, and destroy them. (It was she who, as the goddess of strategy in war, inspired Odysseus with the plan to build the wooden horse.) But Athena, as the goddess of weaving, is also identified with the life of the oikos, the goal of the hero's action. On the one hand, weaving satisfies the practical need for clothing and represents the most important economic activity presided over by women. On the other hand, weaving produces tapestries, works of art which adorn the oikos and help to make it an embodiment of the good life. Thus, in the poetic economy of the Odyssey Athena's meaning extends beyond her traditional realm of influence and is associated with all the activities of the household which require planning, cleverness, and calculation.
Arrayed against Odysseus, as the divine counterpart to Athena, is Poseidon. His opposition is obviously fitting since he is the god of the sea and the sea is the space that separates Odysseus from his home. Of course, the sea is also the path he must travel to return to Ithaka and when it is calm it actually speeds his journey. When Poseidon first appears in the poem, however, he unleashes a storm against Odysseus. In the poetic economy of the Odyssey he is specifically identified with the opposing power or turbulence of the sea. Thus, on the one hand, he represents an external force directed against the hero. On the other hand, the storm he lets loose expresses his anger against Odysseus for the blinding of his son, the Cyclops Polyphemos. Thus, Poseidon is associated with psychic as well as physical violence, and it is the specifically human dimension of his nature which establishes the symbolic link between him and the hero. But at this point, rather than exploring Poseidon in greater detail, I would like to examine the related figure of the Cyclops. The famous episode in Book 9 concentrates, more fully than any other, the meaning of the entire poem, while showing the utility of the interpretive framework I have proposed.
Homer introduces the story of Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops with a generalized characterization of the race of Cyclopes which defines them as uncivilized:
"From there, grieving still at heart, we sailed on further
along, and reached the country of the lawless outrageous
Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal
gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anything,
but all grows for them without seed planting, without cultivation,
wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for them
wine of strength, and it is Zeus' rain that waters it for them.
These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others.
...the Cyclopes have no ships with cheeks of vermilion,
nor have they builders of ships among them, who could have made them
strong-benched vessels, and these if made could have run them sailings
to all the various cities of men...." (9.105-128)
The elements of civilization which the Cyclopes lack may be roughly divided into two groups corresponding to the Greek words techne and themis. Techne means craft or skill and is the origin of such English words as "technique" and "technology". Themis means that which is set down by custom and includes what is for Homer the not yet distinguished ideas of manners, morality, religion, and politics. Under the heading of techne we are concerned with the manipulation of nature; under the heading of themis we are concerned with relations among human beings and relations between human beings and the gods. The tale of Odysseus and Polyphemos which follows this introductory passage unfolds symbolically the meaning of these concepts.
Among the technical aspects of civilization which the Cyclopes lack we must include agriculture, architecture, and ship-building, all activities which require the kind of planning and calculation which the poem associates with Athena. At the root of such planning is the mental power Homer calls metis or intelligence, the power which enables us to solve problems by anticipating events, calculating the relative disposition of forces, and determining ways of exploiting them. Specifically, intelligence is the power human beings rely on to compensate for their relative weakness in relation to the brute forces of nature which sometimes threaten them with extinction. In fact, such a struggle between brawn and brain is an important part of what the story in Book 9 is all about. Homer first associates the Cyclops with nature when he compares Polyphemos to "a wooded/ peak of the high mountains" (9.191-192). In the Odyssey nature sometimes has an idyllic character, as it does on the island of Calypso or in the vicinity of the cave of the Nymphs on Ithaka where the Phaeacians leave Odysseus. But it is the hostile, life-threatening power of nature, typically associated by Homer with the sea, which manifests itself in the cave of the Cyclops, who consumes the hero's companions "like a lion reared in the hills" (9.292). In this crisis Odysseus, relying for success on Athena (9.317), devises a complex plan utilizing a variety of technical resources. His planning is complicated by the fact that only the Cyclops is strong enough to move the great stone that blocks the entrance of the cave. Rather than killing the monster, they must contrive to make use of its power, just as human beings seek to tame and harness the resources of nature, turning its destructive capacities to useful ends.
The symbolism of Odysseus' struggle with the Cyclops is reinforced and developed in a series of comparisons Homer uses to characterize the weapon Odysseus fashions out of the trunk of a tree he finds lying in the Cyclops' cave:
"The Cyclops had lying there beside the pen a great bludgeon
of olive wood, still green. He had cut it so that when it dried out
he could carry it about, and we looking at it considered
it to be about the size for the mast of a cargo-carrying
broad black ship of twenty oars which crosses the open
In comparing the club to the mast of a ship, Homer suggests that the weapon Odysseus is about to construct is representative of the other technical products of human ingenuity by which the power of such natural barriers as the sea is overcome; the fact that the Cyclops is the son of Poseidon deepens the resonance of the simile. The fact that the wood is olive is also part of Homer's design, for throughout the poem the olive tree and olive wood are identified with techne and civilization. One thinks of the bronze axe with its "beautiful handle of olive wood" (5.236) which Kalypso gives Odysseus to make his raft with. One also thinks of the twin bushes--"shrub" olive and "wild olive"--under which he finds shelter from "wet-blowing winds" and "shining sun" (5.477-479) when he emerges naked from the sea on the island of the Phaeacians. Last in a series of further references is the trunk of the still-rooted olive tree from which Odysseus has fashioned one of the posts of his marriage bed, the ultimate symbol of the achievement of his oikos.
At the climax of the physical action in the cave of the Cyclops come two similes which continue the pattern of the mast image by comparing, in grisly detail, the blinding of the Cyclops to ship-building and tool-making:
"They seized the beam of olive, sharp at the end, and leaned on it
into the eye, while I from above leaning my weight on it
twirled it, like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into a ship timber....
As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges a screaming
great ax blade or plane into cold water, treating it
for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even
so the Cyclops' eye sizzled about the beam of the olive." (9.382-394)
Odysseus makes use of two other products of techne in his scheme to outwit the Cyclops. The first is the strong wine by means of which he stupefies the monster into accepting the ruse of the name; the second of these tools is language itself. Foreseeing that Polyphemos, when blinded, will call out in his pain and attract the attention of the other Cyclopes, Odysseus tells him his name is "Nobody" (ou tis) so that when the others inquire what's the matter, he will say, "Nobody is killing me by force or treachery." What the Cyclops understood to be a proper name referring to a unique individual, the others hear as an indefinite pronoun meaning something but referring to nothing at all. Odysseus takes advantage of the fact that the meaning of words is determined by context and the fact that language has objective, nonexpressive properties which operate independently of the intentions of the speaker. Homer underscores the significance of Odysseus' play on words by a pun: "...the heart within me/ laughed over how my name and my perfect planning had fooled him" (9.413-414). "[M]y name and my perfect planning" unpacks the meaning of a single Greek word: metis, which means intelligence (or planning) and, if separated into me and tis, 'no one'. Of course, the trick of the name shows Odysseus' intelligence, but perhaps Homer is pointing to a deeper, conceptual pattern. The idea of intelligence is linked to a word which is precisely not a proper noun, to a pronoun which has meaning but not reference to anything outside of language. The appropriateness of the connection may be explained in the following way. Intelligence expresses itself in planning, which in turn depends on the ability of the mind to make pictures of things that don't exist and to make scripts, that is, tell stories, about events that haven't happened. ('Tomorrow I will buy this amount of wood, bring it home, and construct a doghouse following this diagram.') Planning therefore depends on imagination and on language, which makes possible the development of complex patterns not limited to what is already known or experienced. Intelligence thus depends on the power of language to make sense without referring to actual objects or events. This freedom of language from reference is what the pun on metis connects with the idea of intelligence. In the cave of the Cyclops and everywhere else in the poem Odysseus demonstrates his metis through his skill at the art of lying.
So far we have been following the clues that link the Cyclops to the forces of external nature, whose control or deflection represents the technical achievement of civilization. The moral and social aspects of civilization, associated in the poem with the word themis, refer to human self-control. To appreciate this dimension of Homer's symbolism in Book 9 we must follow up on the evidence that gives Polyphemos the ambiguous status of a monster, at once human and not human:
there lodged a monster of a man...
and in truth he was a monstrous wonder made to behold, not
like a man, an eater of bread...." (9.186-191)
Monsters characteristically are depicted as deformed images of humanity, their distorted human features corresponding to a defective inner nature that possesses certain negative human traits while lacking other positive ones. The most conspicuous trait the Cyclops shares with human beings is appetite. It is appetite which in the first place governs his treatment of Odysseus and his crew: without mercy, much less hospitality, he consumes his defenseless guests with no more regard for the rules of civilized conduct (themis) than a mountain lion:
"So I spoke, but he in pitiless spirit answered
nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions,
caught up two together and slapped them, like killing puppies,
against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking
the ground. Then he cut them up limb by limb and got supper ready,
and like a lion reared in the hills, without leaving anything,
ate them, entrails, flesh, and marrowy bones alike."
Although the image of the lion initially suggests a contrast between human and savage ways of eating--between what German calls essen and fressen--, the larger context of book 9 and the whole poem indicates that this monstrous expression of appetite represents a natural force that is part of human nature and that must be brought under control if civilization is to emerge.
The most obvious human analogue to the Cyclops and his "enormous stomach" is the company of suitors, who are consuming the hero's oikos while disregarding the laws of the feast and hospitality. One also thinks of the crew on Thrinakia, where, driven by unrelenting hunger, they eat the cattle of the sun. On that occasion Odysseus controls his appetite, but he well knows its destructive force. In Book 7 when he first appears in the court of Alkinoos and the king surmises that his guest might be one of the gods, Odysseus forcefully asserts his mortality, citing among other weaknesses his subjection to the shameless belly:
"Alkinoos, let something else be in your mind; I am not
in any way like the immortals who hold wide heaven,
neither in build nor stature, but only to men who are mortal.
Whoever it is of people you know who wear the greatest
burden of misery, such are the ones whom I would equal
for pain endured, and I could tell of still more troubles
that are all mine and by the will of the gods I suffered.
But leave me now to eat my dinner, for all my sorrow,
for there is no other thing so shameless as to be set over
the belly, but she rather uses constraint and makes me think of her,
even when sadly worn, when in my heart I have sorrow
as now I have sorrow in my heart, yet still forever
she tells me to eat and drink and forces me to forgetfulness
of all I have suffered, and still she is urgent that I must fill her."
The association of appetite with forgetfulness recurs in the land of the Lotus-eaters: "But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotus/... wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating/ people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home" (9.94-97). The same pattern is found when the crew eat the food of Circe, becomes "forgetful of their own country" and turn into pigs. In these passages and throughout the poem human identity is connected to the power of memory to weave past and present into a story and link that story to a particular place. Indeed, forgetting home is the equivalent to forgetting both themis and techne, the fundamental powers that create the oikos. More generally, without memory, both individual and collective, the transmission of custom and skill would be impossible. Appetite, on the other hand, represents the mute and unintelligible substratum of human existence which always retains the power, if its demands are unappeased, to efface voice, memory, identity, and finally civilization. It is an apt piece of symbolism that Odysseus, in the cave of the Cyclops--which itself resembles an enormous stomach--, should call himself "Nobody".
In this light the recurrent image of the feast in the Odyssey takes on additional meaning. As a synecdoche for civilization, the feast represents the successful inscription of appetite within a social, aesthetic, moral, and religious order. In portraying the feast held by the supercivilized Phaiakians, Homer depicts the sacrifices and libations to the gods, the hospitality offered to strangers, the singing of the bard, and the athletic competitions of the men. The physical act of consumption, however, he virtually passes over in silence, relying upon the following formula: "They put their hands to the good things that lay ready before them./ But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking...." In the cave of the Cyclops and among the unruly suitors, on the other hand, the ceremonies and refinements that civilize the act of consumption are missing or defective.
But the cave of the Cyclops stands in contrast to civilization (and themis) in still another way. In organizing an expedition to explore the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus expresses a desire to
"go and find out about these people, and learn what they are,
whether they are savage and violent, and without justice,
or hospitable to strangers and with minds that are godly."
This, his stock question about people he is about to encounter for the first time, suggests an alternate definition of civilization which stresses hospitality and religion as the basic ingredients. Throughout the Odyssey hospitality serves as an index of the morality of an individual or group. What makes hospitality a true test of morality is the fact that it is offered to strangers and is therefore not based on a calculation of self-interest in any immediate or obvious sense. Among the rules governing the treatment of guests in the poem is one that forbids inqueries into a visitor's identity or purpose before his needs are addressed. In Book 1 Telemakhos scrupulously observes this rule when he greets Athena, disguised as Mentes: "Greetings, stranger! Welcome to the feast./ There will be time to tell your errand later" (154-155). The Cyclops, of course, ignores this rule when he begins at once by interrogating Odysseus: “Strangers, who are you?” Because the guest is a stranger, the host has no reason to fear retaliation from the guest’s friends and family, or feel any certainty of future benefit. Granted, a guest may prove to be a family friend, as Mentes is, but this is only a possibility, not a likelihood. Just as likely is the possibility that the guest is a pirate as the Cyclops accuses Odysseus of being. The fact that Nestor asks the same question of Telemachus upon his visit to Pylos (3.77-81) suggests that Homer sees such suspicions as inherent in such encounters between strangers who face each other with absolute uncertainty about the intentions of the other. Without the mediation of custom to impose order and meaning upon such indeterminacy, a preemptive hostility makes as much rational sense as trust and hospitality. Indeed, the words “hostile” and “hospitality” have the same root: the stranger may just as well be an enemy as a guest. In this context custom is revealed to be an act of social imagination prescribing the behavior and defining the status of the two strangers confronting each other. At the same time, in treating hospitality as representative of moral behavior in general, Homer is defining morality in terms of how the strong treat the weak. Of course, in relation to the Cyclops who is "endowed with great strength" (9.214), Odysseus is "a little man, niddering, feeble" (9.515), but in the guest-host relationship the guest is always a supplicant in need of the host's support. Morality and custom, in Homer’s view, are all about curbing the abuse of power.
One strand of moral philosophy has stressed the difference between moral and self-interested behavior. Certainly, in view of the host’s power and the guest’s undefined identity and motive, the decision of the former to fulfill the role custom prescribes is not self-interested in a narrow sense. Lest we put too Kantian a spin on Homer’s idea of morality, however, we must note at once that in the Odyssey hospitality is prompted by two distinct moral emotions that qualify the freedom of the host: pity and fear. When the Cyclops assaults the visitors in his cave, Homer tells us that “pity” did not stay his hand: “...he in pitiless spirit answered/ nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions...” (9.287-288). Earlier, Odysseus appeals to fear when he warns Polyphemos that “Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honors/ due them, avenges any wrong towards strangers and suppliants” (9.270-271).
The key to whether the host treats the guest with kindness, pitying his weakness, is the host's attitude towards his own power. The word "violent" in the passage that frames Odysseus' fundamental question translates the Greek word hubristai, which in turn derives from the noun hubris. Hubris designates the violence springing from the arrogance of one who does not fear the gods because, explicitly like the Cyclops or implicitly like the suitors, he equates himself with their power. The host who abuses his guest is asserting that nothing limits his power, including the gods who, religion teaches, are the guardians and guarantors of the moral order in general and the laws of hospitality in particular. Thus, when Odysseus tells the Cyclops, "We are your suppliants,/ and Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honors/ due them, avenges any wrong towards strangers and suppliants" (9.269-271), Polyphemos replies,
'Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off,
when you tell me to avoid the wrath of the gods or fear them.
The Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis.
nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better
than they, and for fear of the hate of Zeus I would not spare
you or your companions either, if the fancy took me
Glorying in his own strength, he proceeds to mock the laws of hospitality (themis) by eating his guests instead of giving them food to eat and offering Odysseus, who, in another reversal, has had to offer wine to his host, the guest-gift of being eaten last of all.
In Book 18 Odysseus warns Amphinomos, the least offensive of the suitors, against the danger of hubris in a passage which casts further light on this disorder of the spirit and which points to the connections between respect for custom, compassion for the weakness of others, and fear of the gods:
"Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing
more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters;
for he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future
days, while the gods grant him courage, and his knees have spring
in them. But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him,
against his will he must suffer it with enduring spirit.
For the mind in men upon earth goes according to the fortunes
the Father of Gods and Men, day by day, bestows upon them.
For I myself once promised to be a man of prosperity,
but giving way to force and violence, did many reckless
things, because I relied on my father and brothers. Therefore,
let no man be altogether without the sense of righteousness,
but take in silence the gifts of the gods, whatever they give him."
Homer is suggesting that civilized morality rests on a sense of shared human weakness. The strong, however, are tempted to forget their own limitations and boast that their strength is not a temporary gift of the gods, but a permanent possession that defines their nature. The myth to which Homer's characters sometimes refer, that the gods come down to earth, disguise themselves as mortals, and test people's hospitality, therefore expresses the view that the host must not forget the precariousness of his advantage. Taking this view, he will be inclined not just to fear the punishment of the gods if he should abuse his guest, but also to see the poverty of his guest as potentially his own.
In speaking to Amphinomos, Odysseus is of course in disguise and his confession is in one sense a deception; however, the audience of the poem also knows in what sense he is speaking from bitter personal experience. Like the Cyclops and the suitors, Odysseus has known the folly of arrogantly boasting. After blinding Polyphemos and escaping from his cave, he cannot resist the temptation to assert his own power:
'Cyclops, in the end it was no weak man's companions
you were to eat by violence and force in your hollow
cave, and your evil deeds were to catch up with you, and be
too strong for you, hard one, who dared to eat your own guests
in your own house, so Zeus and the rest of the gods have punished you.' (9.475-479)
When the Cyclops, directed by Odysseus' voice, hurls a huge stone that nearly sinks the ship, we recognize the hero's error in thinking he has completely escaped the monster's power. But his error is merely tactical, for he is still giving credit to the gods for the victory. His ultimate act of hubris comes when he recklessly claims the victory in his own name:
'Cyclops, if any mortal man ever asks you who it was
that inflicted upon your eye this shameful blinding,
tell him that you were blinded by Odysseus, sacker of cities.
Laertes is his father, and he makes his home in Ithaka.' (502-505)
By revealing his own name, he allows the Cyclops to curse him to his father Poseidon, with the result that he falls under the wrath of a god whose power is not as limited as his son's. But in a deeper sense his error lies in forgetting the power of the gods and claiming to be the sole author of his own success. As far as the Odyssey is concerned, the truth about human responsibility lies in the intersection of two conflicting statements. At the outset of the poem Zeus criticizes mortals who blame all their troubles on the gods when "it is they, rather/ who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given" (1.33-34), yet only a little while later we hear Athena say to Telemachos, "Yet all these are things that are lying upon the gods' knees..." (1.267). In Book 9 Homer plants numerous clues that the hero’s success has depended on divine assistance. It isn’t only that Odysseus prays to Athena for guidance before he plans his escape. He also acknowledges the stroke of luck that the Cyclops drove all his flocks into the cave that night, speculating “whether a god so urged him” (9.339). When it comes time to undertake the fearsome attack on the sleeping monster, “some great divinity breathed courage into us” (9.381), he says. And finally, there is the testimony of the other Cyclopes, who tell Polyphemos that his blinding must be “sent by great Zeus” (9.411). Overcome by pride in the success of his deception, Odysseus misses the truth of their words, which only repeat his earlier assertion that “Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honors/ due them, avenges any wrong towards strangers and suppliants” (9.270-271).
At issue in both the technical and the moral aspects of civilization is the control of force. To express Homer's view in a single statement, we might say that the goal of civilization is the control of all the forces external and internal to human nature which threaten to disrupt individual and communal life. But this formulation misses the irony that it is the success of Odysseus' techne which gives rise to his hubris, that the power of his own intelligence makes him arrogantly forget the temporary nature of his own victory. When Odysseus’s clever scheme of giving his name as “Nobody” works and the other Cyclopes are deceived, he is so delighted with his own intelligence that he bursts out laughing, but this self-delight paves the way to his arrogant boasting once he thinks he is safely away. Homer is clearly suggesting that the technical side of civilization exists in dangerous tension with its deeper moral basis. It is fitting therefore that Athena gives Odysseus no assistance in his final task, the propitiation of Poseidon.
Journeying to the land of the dead, Odysseus hears from the prophet Teiresias that his homecoming depends on containing his thymos, the mysterious gland that Homer regards as the source and seat of immoderate desire or hubris. It is first of all on the island of Thrinakia where Odysseus demonstrates this self-control, refusing, despite the most extreme pangs of hunger, to eat the cattle of the sun god. Again he shows his self-control when he bears up under the blows and insults of the suitors in his own home, patiently awaiting the proper moment for action. And finally he shows his self-control when he refrains from boasting after his victory over his enemies, telling his nurse-maid Eurykleia,
"Keep your joy in your heart, old dame; stop, do not raise up
the cry. It is not piety to glory so over slain men.
These were destroyed by the doom of the gods and their own hard actions...." (22.411-413)
But even after all these victories of self-control, Odysseus must make a final journey of propitiation. He must travel alone to a land where the people are ignorant of the sea and mistake an oar for a winnowing fan. There he must render sacrifices to Poseidon, acknowledging that his power is everywhere and not limited to the sea. Only then Odysseus can hope for the happiest of all deaths, a gentle death in old age surrounded by his people and secure in the knowledge of their prosperity. Significantly, this death "will come to you from the sea" (11.134). The power of Poseidon, the destructive power of nature, can be held off for a time, but its victory is inevitable. The key to postponing this victory lies in accepting its inevitability.