4. "The Cyclops"

"My blindness knows its place: it has no boundaries, it doesn't stop."
(Polyphemus from The Cyclops, by Euripides)


Euripides didn't care much for Odysseus; he depicted him as a cold-blooded schemer who talked Agamemnon into sacrificing his daughter, Iphigeneia, to allow the Greeks to sail to Troy. Then he took the captive Trojan Queen's daughter, Polyxena (remember that name!), from her mother's side, as a sacrificial victim to allow the Greeks to sail home again. He was the despicable, rational face of wartime cruelty, and the goddess he served, Athena, rewarded such ruthless values. He fares better in "The Cyclops", a short satyr play that's the only one to survive intact (which is ironic, given that Euripides was lampooned in comedies for his lack of humor). Here, in the reverse of how he's usually depicted, Odysseus is the rescuer of Dionysus's fellow pirates, satyrs led by the incompetent yet loyal goat-man, Silenus.

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus's encounter with the cyclops is told in flashback. He's a guest of Nausicaa, a princess of an island kingdom, Phaeacia, which is not far from his home of Ithica. It's taken him twenty years to return from the Trojan war, and Poseidon's curse prevents him from making even the short trip home from Phaeacia without resorting to more trickery. This play is his explanation of how he angered Poseidon, by blinding his one-eyed son, Polyphemus, with a stick...except Euripides makes some mischief with the traditional storyline.

Homer left Dionysus out of his epics, but Euripides restores him to his rightful place, by borrowing a passage from Homer's "Hymn to Dionysus", about the young god's abduction by pirates. Silenus, elder chief of the satyrs, sailed with his goat-men to rescue Dionysus, who had been kidnapped by Thracian pirates. They find themselves swept away by unfriendly seas onto the shores of Mt. Aetna, where the local cyclopes, who feed on human flesh, decide the satyrs would not make good eating; better to have them around as servants to milk the cows and goats. The satyrs are miserable, in large part because the cyclops don't drink wine, so there's none in stock. Odysseus and his men, on the way home from Troy, decide to land near the cyclop's cave and stock up on food and water. Silenus recognizes Odysseus's name: "I know him for a prating knave, one of Sisyphus' shrewd offspring." He changes his tune when he discovers Odysseus carries a wineskin with him. Odysseus offers to barter the wine for water, when Polyphemus the cyclops shows up, and notices the men: "Ha! what is this crowd I see near the folds? Some pirates or robbers have put in here."

Odysseus tries to talk his way out of becoming the cyclop's meal, and portrays himself as a suppliant on the run from misfortune caused by the gods. It's ironic, given how he treated suppliants in Euripides' other plays, and the cyclops isn't buying it. He declares himself a god as well, on the grounds that he can feed himself without the help of Zeus; so, hustling them into his cave, he'll feed on Odysseus and his men as proof!

Once inside, the cyclops readies his ghastly meal, preparing the men two at a time. Odysseus, acting as waiter, offers him his wineskin in place of the Cyclops' usual goat's milk. The cyclops is overwhelmed with this new intoxicating drink, and sings himself into a stupor. Odysseus escapes the cave, and rallies the satyrs: "Save thyself with my help and regain thy old friend Dionysus, so little like the Cyclops." The satyrs bravely offer to help Odysseus, but when it comes time to actually stick a giant heated brand into the Cyclops' eye, they suddenly have a million excuses why they aren't able to oblige. Odysseus the hero rallies his own men and blinds the giant himself. The cyclops stumbles about, demanding the whereabouts of "No man", the name Odysseus had given the cyclops earlier. But, enjoying his triumph, Odysseus can't help but tell him his real name. This is unfortunate, because the cyclops has heard it before in prophecy: it's the name of the man destined to blind him while becoming cursed himself to wander the seas for his crime.

As the cyclops stumbles about, Odysseus invites the satyrs onto his ship, and it could be the start of a beautiful friendship: "As for us, henceforth will we be the servants of Bacchus, sharing the voyage of this hero Odysseus". The audience who watched this play, as the sun set, learned the dangers of drinking alone: had the cyclops shared his wine with his friends, instead of following the ill-intentioned advice of that schemer Odysseus, and spent his time singing the praises of Dionysus, instead of sleeping, he'd avoid his terrible fate. But cyclops are too cave-bound and single-minded to understand the fellowship that Bacchic celebrations bring.

This play contributes more than just inspiration for the comedies of "Xena" and "Hercules"; in it we can find the shows' archetypes: the cyclops/giants and their cavern lairs; we can also find the germ for the shows' Dionysus/pirate relationship: both of these archetypes will be spun off into series of their own, in the form of "Cleopatra 2525" and "Jack of all Trades."

So far, we've looked at two sources for these shows, both involving Dionysus: one a tragedy, one a comedy. Now let's look at one more, related to both, a classic film whose story is also dispersed throughout the series: "Black Orpheus".



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