The Odyssey


Book 9

Summary Book 9

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?’” (9.497498). 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.