The cyclops Polyphemus is perhaps the most famous villain in the ancient epic The Odyssey. He’s a giant, rude and violent ogre with one eye, and he could very well be the death of the hero and his companions.
Let me recount the tale for you, and as I do, keep in mind, there’s a newfangled version of it playing out in the GOP primary right now—although we don’t know yet whether, at this pivotal moment, our modern warriors will take the same actions to free themselves or will be gobbled up. (I’ve put our contemporary cast of characters at the bottom of this post, and linked them in the story as footnotes for your convenience.)
The Tale of Polyphemus
On their long, horrible voyage trying to get back home1 from the Trojan war, Odysseus2 and his dwindling band of men3 land on the island of the creatures known as the cyclops. The men are in need of food supplies. A scavenger group leaves their battered ship and comes upon a cave stocked with sheep and milk and cheese. Before they gather up the groceries, however, the hulking cave dweller comes home. It’s Polyphemus4. He’s hideous.
Now in ancient Greece, hospitality was highly prized. If someone showed up to your party without an invite, you were still expected to offer them all the best you had, no questions asked—at least until the stranger had his fill of your wine and roasted meat and perhaps a nap. To do otherwise was gauche.
But Polyphemus wasn’t much for hospitality. In fact, he did the most ill-mannered thing possible. Instead of offering a meal, he snatched up a couple of Odysseus’ men, bashed their heads in and made a meal of them instead.
Unfortunately for the rest of the guests, when Polyphemus came in, he had rolled a massive boulder in front of the cave door. There was to be no escape for Odysseus and his men. The cyclops was going to simply eat them, two by two, until there were none left.
So our conquering hero devises a plan. They must attack Polyphemus, but they don’t want to kill him, because they need him to open the door for them. It’s the only way they can all get out. (Even with their combined strength, the Odysseus crew cannot budge the boulder. They are trapped inside the nightmarish hovel.)
The next morning, Polyphemus awakes and breakfasts on two more of Odysseus’ men. They are frantic with fear. But they watch as Polyphemus rolls the boulder out of the way to let his giant sheep5 out before sealing the door shut again to keep his remaining human quarry inside.
Aha! The best way out is to pretend to be sheep going out to pasture in the morning. But even with just one eye, Polyphemus will be able to see that they aren’t giant sheep. They need to blind him. So they find a giant timber, work one end into a sharp point and stash it away until the opportunity to use it arises.
Polyphemus comes home that night from a day in the fields and feasts on another pair of men. It’s time, urgent time, to put the plan into action.
Odysseus had brought along some undiluted potent wine on their scavenger trip, so he offers the wine to Polyphemus as a gift to wash down his revolting dinner. The cyclops enjoys the wine and actually becomes a little friendly with Odysseus, asking what his name is. Odysseus replies, “Nobody.”
Once Polyphemus passes out, the hero and his men retrieve the hidden timber and harden its point in the fire until it becomes a red-hot poker. Then they muster all their strength, surround the cyclops and plunge the fiery stick into his sleeping eye.
The plan could have all gone awry then, when the neighborhood cyclops6 hear Polyphemus screaming bloody murder. They rush to the boulder at the cave door and ask, “What’s going on in there?” Polyphemus cries out, “Nobody is stabbing me in the eye! Nobody is stabbing me!” The other cyclops all shake their heads and laugh. What a loon that guy in there is, they think, and they leave.
When the blinded cyclops passes out again, Odysseus ties each of his men to the belly of sheep, and in the morning, Polyphemus rolls the boulder out of the way and blindly feels the top of each departing animal to make sure it’s a sheep and not a man.
Once all the men have escaped, they race back to the boat. Their party can set sail and leave the cyclops behind, taking his sheep with them. Phew!
But that’s when Odysseus’ pride takes over, though. He can’t leave well enough alone and be satisfied they had escaped with their lives. When they sail past the blinded Polyphemus, the hero wants his name to be known. He can’t resist letting Polyphemus know that it wasn’t Nobody that defeated him. It was Odysseus!
Bad move. The ancient Greeks disliked hubris, and it turns out that Polyphemus’ father was the powerful god of the sea, Poseidon, who soon takes revenge on the men for his crippled son. But that’s another story. One that the GOP will preferably avoid, happy instead to just be sailing off towards home.
Present-day Cast of Characters
1 Home The White House ↩Return to Tale
2 Odysseus Ted Cruz, of course, in my version, but feel free to make whatever candidate you like to be the hero of the tale. He crafts the plan and executes it, even when lesser men are going weak in the knees. ↩Return to Tale
3 The men The other candidates beyond our hero. It takes all the men to pitch in to defeat Polyphemus. There’s no one hanging back in the corner, thinking he’ll wait it out until all the other guys get eaten and then somehow escape on his own. No, cowards die. There will be no “kleos,” no glory if you don’t get in there and fight. ↩Return to Tale
4 Polyphemus Donald Trump, blustering, boorish, nasty and vicious. Doesn’t have great depth perception of what policies it will take to Make America Great Again. More of a monovision type of guy. Limited, but gets the job done. ↩Return to Tale
5 The sheep The voters that the cyclops shepherds. We need them to escape with the candidates. ↩Return to Tale
6 The other cyclops The media and entertainment wing. They’ll laugh now, write it up later. They are excited about the fabulous ratings, clicks and cocktail party invitations the latest news of that wacky Polyphemus will bring them. ↩Return to Tale
Fast Forward to Texas Debate Night
Men have been eaten. Their bones litter the stage. Each candidate has a collection of shivs carefully prepared by their staff. There’s not many left to have the combined strength to climb up on Polyphemus and incapacitate him!
But wait. What’s this? Oddly, some of the men seem to be eyeing the other men, looking to take down the hero. Oh no. What foolishness is afoot.
Will they come to their senses and free themselves and the cyclops’ voters in time?
Special thanks to SooperMexican for the TrumPolyphemus image.