Reluctantly, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians the sorry tale of his wanderings. From Troy, the winds sweep him and his men to Ismarus, city of the Cicones. The men plunder the land and, carried away by greed, stay until the reinforced ranks of the Cicones turn on them and attack. Odysseus and his crew finally escape, having lost six men per ship. A storm sent by Zeus sweeps them along for nine days before bringing them to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where the natives give some of Odysseus’s men the intoxicating fruit of the lotus. As soon as they eat this fruit, they lose all thoughts of home and long for nothing more than to stay there eating more fruit. Only by dragging his men back to the ship and locking them up can Odysseus get them off the island.
Odysseus and his men then sail through the murky night to the land of the Cyclops, a rough and uncivilized race of one-eyed giants. After making a meal of wild goats captured on an island offshore, they cross to the mainland. There they immediately come upon a cave full of sheep and crates of milk and cheese. The men advise Odysseus to snatch some of the food and hurry off, but, to his and his crew’s detriment, he decides to linger. The cave’s inhabitant soon returns—it is the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. Polyphemus makes a show of hospitality at first, but he soon turns hostile. He devours two of Odysseus’s men on the spot and imprisons Odysseus and the rest in his cave for future meals.
Odysseus wants to take his sword to Polyphemus right then, but he knows that only Polyphemus is strong enough to move the rock that he has placed across the door of his cave. Odysseus thus devises and executes a plan. The next day, while Polyphemus is outside pasturing his sheep, Odysseus finds a wooden staff in the cave and hardens it in the fire. When Polyphemus returns, Odysseus gets him drunk on wine that he brought along from the ship. Feeling jovial, Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name. Odysseus replies that his name is “Nobody” (9.410). As soon as Polyphemus collapses with intoxication, Odysseus and a select group of his men drive the red-hot staff into his eye. Polyphemus wakes with a shriek, and his neighbors come to see what is wrong, but they leave as soon as he calls out, “Nobody’s killing me” (9.455). When morning comes, Odysseus and his men escape from the cave, unseen by the blind Polyphemus, by clinging to the bellies of the monster’s sheep as they go out to graze. Safe on board their ships and with Polyphemus’s flock on board as well, Odysseus calls to land and reveals his true identity. With his former prisoners now out of reach, the blind giant lifts up a prayer to his father, Poseidon, calling for vengeance on Odysseus.
Books 9 through 12 are told as flashbacks, as Odysseus sits in the palace of the Phaeacians telling the story of his wanderings. These books thus give background not only to Odysseus’s audience but to Homer’s as well. Providing some of the richest and most celebrated examples of Odyssean cunning, they speak as much to the resourcefulness of the poet, who uses Odysseus’s voice to render a more complete picture of his hero’s wanderings, as to that of the hero himself. The foreboding that Odysseus feels as he heads toward the cave, which seems to prompt him to take the wine along, foreshadows his upcoming encounter with Polyphemus and the need for trickery to prevail. Once Homer establishes the conflict between Odysseus and Polyphemus, he unveils Odysseus’s escape plan slowly and subtly: the significance of Odysseus’s blinding of Polyphemus becomes clear when Polyphemus lets his sheep out to graze the next morning; similarly, Odysseus’s curious lie about his name seems nonsense at first but adds a clever and humorous twist to the necessity of keeping the other Cyclops from rescuing Polyphemus.
Odysseus’s eventual revelation of his identity to Polyphemus ultimately proves foolish, and, because it embodies a lack of foresight, stands in stark contrast to the cunning prudence that Odysseus displays in his plan to escape from the cave. Though his anger at Polyphemus for devouring his shipmates is certainly understandable, and though Polyphemus’s blind rock-throwing fury eggs him on, Odysseus’s taunts are unnecessary. By telling Polyphemus his name, Odysseus pits his mortal indignation against Poseidon’s divine vengeance. This act of hubris, or excessive pride, ensures almost automatically that Odysseus will suffer grave consequences. Indeed, his eventual punishment costs him dearly: Poseidon’s anger wipes away the very thing that he gains by cleverly obscuring his name—the safety of his men.
The form that Odysseus’s revelation of his identity takes is interesting, as it represents the cultural values of ancient Greece. Odysseus doesn’t simply utter his name; rather, he attaches to it an epithet, or short, descriptive title (“raider of cities”), his immediate paternal ancestry (“Laertes’s son”), and a reference to his homeland (“who makes his home in Ithaca”) (9.561–562). This manner of introduction was very formalized and formulaic in Homeric Greece and should seem familiar to readers of The Iliad. Odysseus is here going through the motions of confirming his kleos (the glory or renown that one earns in the eyes of others by performing great deeds). He wants to make sure that people know that he was the one who blinded Polyphemus, explicitly instructing Polyphemus to make others aware of his act. Like the heroes of The Iliad, Odysseus believes that the height of glory is achieved by spreading his name abroad through great deeds.
For all of his stupidity and brutishness, Polyphemus strikes some commentators as vaguely sympathetic at the end of Book 9. They point to the pitiful prayer that he offers to his father, Poseidon, and his warm treatment of his beloved sheep, who are soon to be devoured by Odysseus and his men. He caresses each wooly back as it passes out of his cave, and it is difficult not to pity him when he gives special attention to his faithful lead ram. Homer notes that, “[s]troking him gently, powerful Polyphemus murmured, / ‘Dear old ram, why last of the flock to quit the cave?’” (9.497–498). The juxtaposition of “gently” and “powerful” and the poetically stated question illustrate that, despite his monstrousness, Polyphemus is somewhat tenderhearted. Additionally, in pondering why the ram is the last to leave the cave, Polyphemus attributes a human capacity for sympathy to him (“Sick at heart for your master’s eye” [9.505]). His tenderness is all the more endearing for his ignorance—he is wholly unaware of Odysseus’s cunning. Though Homeric culture praised Odysseus for his characteristic cunning, others have criticized him for this quality, perceiving his tactics as conniving, underhanded, dishonest, and even cowardly. Dante, for example, in the Inferno, relegates Odysseus to the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell—the realm reserved for those guilty of Spiritual Theft—because of his treachery in the Trojan horse episode that enabled him to slaughter the unwitting Trojans.