An Adventure with the Cyclops by Alfred John Church

[After the fall of Troy the Greeks set out for home, but many of them had troubles and dangers to meet before they saw again the shores of their native land. The one who suffered most was Ulysses, and the following is his story of his adventure with the one-eyed giant, the Cyclops.]

The wind that bore me from Troy brought me to Ismarus, a city of the Ciconians. This I sacked, slaying the people that dwelt therein. Much spoil did we take out of the city, dividing it among the people, so that each man had his share. And when we had done this, I commanded my men that they should depart with all speed; but they, in their folly, would not hear me. For there was much wine to drink, and sheep and kine to slay; therefore they sat on the shore and feasted. Meanwhile the people of the city fetched others, their kinsmen that dwelt in the mountains, and were more in number and more valiant than they, and skillful in all manner of fighting. In the early morning they assembled themselves together, thick as the flowers and the leaves that grow in the springtime, and set the battle in array. Then we fought with them; while the day waxed we prevailed over them, and beat them back, though they were more in number than we; but when the sun was descending in the heavens, then the Cicones overcame us, and drave us to our ships. Six from each ship perished, but the remnant of us escaped from death.

On the tenth day after this we came to the land where the lotus grows—a wondrous fruit of which whosoever eats cares not to see country or wife or children again. Now the Lotus-Eaters, for they so called the people of the land, were a kindly folk, and gave of the fruit to some of the sailors, not meaning them any harm, but thinking it to be the best that they had to give. These, when they had eaten, said that they would not sail any more over the sea; which, when I heard, I bade their comrades bind them and carry them, sadly complaining, to the ships.

Then, the wind having abated, we took to our oars, and rowed for many days till we came to the country where the Cyclops dwell. Now, a mile or so from the shore there was an island, very fair and fertile, but no man dwells there or tills the soil, and in the island a harbor where a ship may be safe from all winds, and at the head of the harbor a stream falling from a rock, and whispering alders all about it. Into this the ships passed safely, and were hauled up on the beach, and the crews slept by them, waiting for the morning.

When the dawn appeared, then we wandered through the island; and the nymphs of the land started the wild goats that my company might have food to eat. Thereupon we took our bows and our spears from the ships, and shot at the goats; and the Gods gave us plenty of prey. Twelve ships I had in my company, and each ship had nine goats for its share, and my own portion was ten.

Then all the day we sat and feasted, drinking the sweet wine which we had taken from the city of the Cicones, and eating the flesh of the goats; and as we sat we looked across to the land of the Cyclops, seeing the smoke and hearing the voices of the men and of the sheep and of the goats. And when the sun set and darkness came over the land, we lay down upon the seashore and slept.

The next day I gathered my men together, and said, “Abide ye here, dear friends; I with my own ship and my own company will go and make trial of the folk that dwell in yonder island, whether they are just or unjust.”

So I climbed into my ship, and bade my company follow me; so we came to the land of the Cyclops. Close to the shore was a cave, with laurels round about the mouth. This was the dwelling of the Cyclops. Alone he dwelt, a creature without law. Nor was he like to mortal men, but rather to some wooded peak of the hills that stands out apart from all the rest.

Then I bade the rest of my comrades abide by the ship, and keep it, but I took twelve men, the bravest that there were in the crew, and went forth. I had with me a goat-skin full of the wine, dark red, and sweet, which the priest of Apollo at Ismarus had given me. Because we kept him and his wife and child from harm when we sacked the city, reverencing the god, therefore did he give it me. Three things did he give me,—seven talents of gold, and a mixing-bowl of silver, and of wine twelve jars. So precious was it that none in his house knew of it saving himself and his wife and one dame that kept the house. When they drank of it they mixed twenty measures of water with one of wine, and the smell that went up from it was wondrous sweet. No man could easily refrain from drinking it. With this wine I filled a great skin and bore it with me; also I bare corn in a wallet, for my heart within me boded that I should need it.

So we entered the cave, and judged that it was the dwelling of some rich and skillful shepherd. For within there were pens for the young of the sheep and of the goats, divided all according to their age, and there were baskets full of cheeses, and full milkpails ranged along the wall. But the Cyclops himself was away in the pastures. Then my companions besought me that I would depart, taking with me, if I would, a store of cheeses and sundry of the lambs and of the kids. But I would not, for I wished to see, after my wont, what manner of host this strange shepherd might be, and, if it might be, to take a gift from his hand, such as is the due of strangers. Verily, his coming was not to be a joy to my company.

It was evening when the Cyclops came home,—a mighty giant, very tall of stature, and when we saw him we fled into the sacred place of the cave in great fear. On his shoulder he bore a vast bundle of pine logs for his fire, and threw them down outside the cave with a great crash, and drove the flocks within, and closed the entrance with a huge rock, which twenty wagons and more could not bear. Then he milked the ewes and all the she-goats, and half of the milk he curdled for cheese, and half he set ready for himself, when he should sup. Next he kindled a fire with the pine logs, and the flame lighted up all the cave, showing to him both me and my comrades.

“Who are ye?” cried Polyphemus, for that was the giant’s name. “Are ye traders, or, haply, pirates?”

I shuddered at the dreadful voice and shape, but bare me bravely, and answered, “We are no pirates, mighty sir, but Greeks sailing back from Troy, and subjects of the great King Agamemnon, whose fame is spread from one end of heaven to the other. And we are come to beg hospitality of thee in the name of Zeus, who rewards or punishes hosts and guests, according as they be faithful the one to the other, or no.”

“Nay,” said the giant; “it is but idle talk to tell me of Zeus and the other Gods. We Cyclops take no account of gods, holding ourselves to be much better and stronger than they. But come, tell me, where have you left your ship?”

But I saw his thought when he asked about the ship, how he was minded to break it, and take from us all hope of flight. Therefore I answered him craftily,—

“Ship have we none, for that which was ours King Neptune brake, driving it on a jutting rock on this coast, and we whom thou seest are all that are escaped from the waves.”

Polyphemus answered nothing, but without more ado caught up two of the men, as a man might catch up the whelps of a dog, and dashed them on the ground, and tare them limb from limb, and devoured them, with huge draughts of milk between, leaving not a morsel, not even the very bones. But we that were left, when we saw the dreadful deed, could only weep and pray to Zeus for help. And when the giant had filled his maw with human flesh and with the milk of the flocks, he lay down among his sheep and slept.

Then I questioned much in my heart whether I should slay the monster as he slept, for I doubted not that my good sword would pierce to the giant’s heart, mighty as he was. But my second thought kept me back, for I remembered that, should I slay him, I and my comrades would yet perish miserably. For who should move away the great rock that lay against the door of the cave? So we waited till the morning, with grief in our hearts. And the monster woke, and milked his flocks, and afterwards, seizing two men, devoured them for his meal. Then he went to the pastures, but put the great rock on the mouth of the cave, just as a man puts down the lid upon his quiver.

All that day I was thinking what I might best do to save myself and my companions, and the end of my thinking was this: there was a mighty pole in the cave, green wood of an olive-tree, big as a ship’s mast, which Polyphemus purposed to use, when the smoke should have dried it, as a walking-staff. Of this I cut off a fathom’s length, and my comrades sharpened it and hardened it in the fire, and then hid it away. At evening the giant came back, and drove his sheep into the cave, nor left the rams outside, as he had been wont to do before, but shut them in. And having duly done his shepherd’s work, he took, as before, two of my comrades, and devoured them. And when he had finished his supper, I came forward, holding the wineskin in my hand, and said,—

“Drink, Cyclops, now that thou hast feasted. Drink, and see what precious things we had in our ship. But no one hereafter will come to thee with such like, if thou dealest with strangers as cruelly as thou hast dealt with us.”

Then the Cyclops drank, and was mightily pleased, and said, “Give me again to drink, and tell me thy name, stranger, and I will give thee a gift such as a host should give. In good truth this is a rare liquor. We, too, have vines, but they bear not wine like this, which, indeed, must be such as the Gods drink in heaven.”

Then I gave him the cup again, and he drank. Thrice I gave it to him, and thrice he drank, not knowing what it was, and how it would work within his brain.

Then I spake to him: “Thou didst ask my name, Cyclops. My name is No Man. And now that thou knowest my name, thou shouldst give me thy gift.”

And he said, “My gift shall be that I will eat thee last of all thy company.”

And as he spake, he fell back in a drunken sleep. Then I bade my comrades be of good courage, for the time was come when they should be delivered. And they thrust the stake of olive-wood into the fire till it was ready, green as it was, to burst into flame, and they thrust it into the monster’s eye; for he had but one eye, and that in the midst of his forehead, with the eyebrow below it. And I, standing above, leant with all my force upon the stake, and turned it about, as a man bores the timber of a ship with a drill. And the burning wood hissed in the eye, just as the red-hot iron hisses in the water when a man seeks to temper steel for a sword.

Then the giant leapt up, and tore away the stake, and cried aloud, so that all the Cyclops who dwelt on the mountain-side heard him and came about his cave, asking him, “What aileth thee, Polyphemus, that thou makest this uproar in the peaceful night, driving away sleep? Is any one robbing thee of thy sheep, or seeking to slay thee by craft or force?”

And the giant answered, “No Man slays me by craft.”

“Nay, but,” they said, “if no man does thee wrong we cannot help thee. The sickness which great Zeus may send, who can avoid? Pray to our father, Neptune, for help.”

So they spake, and I laughed in my heart when I saw how I had beguiled them by the name that I had given.

But the Cyclops rolled away the great stone from the door of the cave, and sat in the midst, stretching out his hands, to feel whether perchance the men within the cave would seek to go out among the sheep.

Long did I think how I and my comrades should best escape. At last I lighted upon a device that seemed better than all the rest, and much I thanked Zeus for that this once the giant had driven the rams with the other sheep into the cave. For, these being great and strong, I fastened my comrades under the bellies of the beasts, tying them with osier twigs, of which the giant made his bed. One ram I took, and fastened a man beneath it, and two rams I set, one on either side. So I did with the six, for but six were left out of the twelve who had ventured with me from the ship. And there was one mighty ram far larger than all the others, and to this I clung, grasping the fleece tight with both my hands. So we all waited for the morning. And when the morning came, the rams rushed forth to the pasture; but the giant sat in the door and felt the back of each as it went by, nor thought to try what might be underneath. Last of all went the great ram. And the Cyclops knew him as he passed, and said,—

“How is this, thou who art the leader of the flock? Thou art not wont thus to lag behind. Thou hast always been the first to run to the pastures and streams in the morning, and the first to come back to the fold when evening fell; and now thou art last of all. Perhaps thou art troubled about thy master’s eye, which some wretch—No Man, they call him—has destroyed, having first mastered me with wine. He has not escaped, I ween. I would that thou couldst speak, and tell me where he is lurking. Of a truth, I would dash out his brains upon the ground, and avenge me of this No Man.”

So speaking, he let the ram pass out of the cave. But when we were now out of reach of the giant, I loosed my hold of the ram, and then unbound my comrades. And we hastened to our ship, not forgetting to drive the sheep before us, and often looking back till we came to the seashore. Right glad were those that had abode by the ship to see us. Nor did they lament for those that had died, though we were fain to do so, for I forbade, fearing lest the noise of their weeping should betray us to the giant, where we were. Then we all climbed into the ship, and sitting well in order on the benches smote the sea with our oars, laying to right lustily, that we might the sooner get away from the accursed land. And when we had rowed a hundred yards or so, so that a man’s voice could yet be heard by one who stood upon the shore, I stood up in the ship and shouted,—

“He was no coward, O Cyclops, whose comrades thou didst so foully slay in thy den. Justly art thou punished, monster, that devourest thy guests in thy dwelling. May the Gods make thee suffer worse things than these!”

Then the Cyclops in his wrath brake off the top of a great hill, a mighty rock, and hurled it where he had heard the voice. Right in front of the ship’s bow it fell, and a great wave rose as it sank, and washed the ship back to the shore. But I seized a long pole with both hands, and pushed the ship from the land, and bade my comrades ply their oars, nodding with my head, for I would not speak, lest the Cyclops should know where we were. Then they rowed with all their might and main.

And when we had gotten twice as far as before I made as if I would speak again; but my comrades sought to hinder me, saying, “Nay, my lord, anger not the giant any more. Surely we thought we were lost before, when he threw the great rock, and washed our ship back to the shore. And if he hear thee now, he may crush our ship and us, for the man throws a mighty bolt, and throws it far.”

But I would not be persuaded, but stood up and said, “Hear, Cyclops! If any man ask who blinded thee, say that it was the warrior Ulysses, son of Laertes, dwelling in Ithaca.”