Homer’s Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ return from Troy; it is also an adventure-story of sailing on troubled waters, full of encounters with raring sea-monsters, surreal mythological creatures, strange and unknown lands, and personages that metamorphose themselves or others before the eye of the beholder; it is a journey full of dangers and dark, uncanny magic. Well-received throughout antiquity, the middle ages, the renaissance and modern times, the Odyssey recommended itself particularly to the imagination of the Victorian English gentleman, a keen adventurer himself, in his incarnation as a colonial explorer, a conqueror of stormy seas, and the proud reporter of the customs and climates of places and people located far beyond the wave.
There is more : besides offering adventure-tales about the sea, the Odyssey strongly ties in with a rhetoric of civilization that suited the ideological edifice of a growing colonial Empire. For all his marvellous discoveries and enchanting encounters on his long homebound journey, Odysseus never once quits his firm resolve to return home. The quest for home in the Odyssey is at times so exalted by measure of the journey becoming elongated and freaky, that all the places in the journey are made to appear indiscriminately rugged and uncultured, their inhabitants savage and strange.
„There a monstrous man was wont to sleep“, states an early 20th century translation of Odyssey 9, „who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness. For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest.“
This is, of course, the beginning of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, a man-eating, one-eyed giant, who lives in a cave. The translation itself, published in 1919 (presumably begun several years before this date), is taking liberties : Homer’s Greek text doesn’t quite use any word such as „monstrous“ or „monster“ where the translator has supplied these words. The original text uses a Greek word (pelorios) that may be translated as „mighty“ or „awesome“ (in the original sense of that word), a word often used of gods or heroes.
But „monstrous“ it is, for Polyphemus is also a cannibal – a perfect colonial trope. The appellation „monster“ is rooted in Shakespeare’s The Tempest where it is used of Caliban („poor credulous monster“), „the barbarous native just ripe for subjugation“, as Edith Hall writes. Going back to Columbus, Hall writes : „Columbus’ first letter discusses reports of the Carribean people of Caniba, terrible cannibals (said in other sources to have only one eye), the image of whom was to play a vital role in the creation of Caliban– the barbarous native just ripe for subjugation – in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Columbus also noted how native peoples couldn’t handle alchohol, an important element in the presentation of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, and subsequently in the literature of colonial encounters between Europeans and their subjects everywhere. The Cyclops then flourished during the great age of teratology, when malformed individuals were studied and feted. This coincided exactly with the first great wave of European colonial expansion, as numerous fabulously illustrated books attest.“
The encounter with the Cyclops in the Odyssey, it seems, became one of many prototype images from ancient Greek mythology that were converted for all kinds of colonial purposes. How fascinating, in this context, that even the translator of the Greek epic, (Augustus Taber Murray, 1866-1940) by 1919, although he would have had the very same Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon in front of him that I use today (first edition : 1843) , chose to translate dictionary meaning „mighty“ by the connotation „monstrous“, and introduced a few more turns of phrase and word choices slanting the entire passage into a colonial perspective.
Throughout A.T. Murray’s translation, one senses the influence of the Victorian poets (by 1919, there would have been other and more modern poets, indeed avant-garde poets, for a translator to take inspiration from, but this obviously didn’t happen in this instance). For example, Tennyson had written the famous poems Ulysses and The Lotos-Eaters, inspired from the Lotus-Eaters episode in the Odyssey (which directly precedes the Cyclops episode) and described the landscapes that they found :
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
These descriptions of the landscape are not a million miles away from Murray’s rendering of the land the Cyclops lived in (although, for an even more accurate comparison, one would have to go back to the Lotos-Eaters episode) :
In it are meadows by the shores of the grey sea, well-watered meadows and soft, where vines would never fail, and in it level ploughland, whence they might reap from season to season harvests exceeding deep, so rich is the soil beneath (…)
These landscape descriptions betoken the settler’s gaze even more than the traveler’s or the adventurer’s. Although it can’t quite be known what the historical Odysseus, if ever there was one, was up to, we can at least see how Tennyson’s Ulysses Britannicus amalgamates the exotic imagery so dear to the colonial century together with Odyssean narrative overtones of travels into the uncharted regions beyond the pillars of Hercules.
Today we live very much still in shadow of these victorian and post-victorian renderings of Greek culture. For example, the translation that I have been referring to in this post is the official English translation offered by the digital classical library site Perseus.edu, home of the greatest digital classical collection and resources portal (courtesy of Tufts University). No doubt, the chief reason for using such an old translation is copyright law: only publications that are suitably old are permitted to be disseminated freely on the internet. Thus it’s important, in order to get the most out of the study of ancient literature today, to become aware of the structures in which ancient Greek culture is presented, to examine and understand these structures almost as much as the content itself, as we will want to re-discover the ancient Greek epics from a contemporary perspective, and give our very own spin on the cultural significance of an all-new and all-digital „Odysseus and the Cyclops“.
Sources: Martin McKinsey, Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford, 2010), esp. chapter 2 ‘Ulysses Victorianus’
E. Hall’s essay ‘Survival of culture’ in : Emily Shuckburth, ed., Survival (Cambridge, 2008)
Marie-Denise Shelton, ‘Who is Afraid of the Canon?’, PCP 32.2.136-9 (1997)
picture: W. Dyce, Neptune resigning to Britannia. Wikimedia Commons.