Friday, November 15, 2013

Mêtis & The Inner Cyclops


Odysseus in Polyphemus' Cave (Jacob Jordaens, 1635)

Following the thread of the previous posts, we delve  now into the famous, terrifying and humorous passage in the Book IX of Homer´s Oddyssey, where the sly Odysseus finds himself trapped with his crew inside a cave, where a Cyclops, one-eyed giant, starts devouring them mercilessly. And before we examine its meaning, let´s refresh it briefly:
We made a pleasant meal of wild goat, then next day I left everyone else behind and took my own crew over to the mainland. The first thing we saw was a big cave overlooking the beach. Inside were milking pens for goats and big cheeses aging on racks.
My men were for making off with the cheeses and the lambs that we found in the cave, but I wanted to see what manner of being made this his lair.
When the Cyclops –Polyphemus was his name– came home that afternoon, he blotted out the light in the doorway. He was as tall and rugged as an alp. One huge eye glared out of the center of his forehead.
He didn't see us at first, but went about his business. The first thing he did was drag a huge boulder into the mouth of the cave. Twenty teams of horses couldn't have budged it. Then he milked his ewes, separating out the curds and setting the whey aside to drink with his dinner. It was when he stoked his fire for the meal that he saw us.
'Who are you?' asked a voice like thunder.
'We are Greeks, blown off course on our way home from Troy,' I explained. 'We assume you'll extend hospitality or suffer the wrath of Zeus, protector of guests.'
'Zeus? We Cyclopes are stronger than Zeus. I'll show you hospitality.'
With that he snatched up two of my men and bashed their brains out on the floor. Then he ate them raw, picking them apart and poking them in his mouth, bones and guts and all.
We cried aloud to Zeus, for all the good it did our comrades. The Cyclops washed them down with great slurps of milk, smacked his lips in satisfaction and went to sleep. My hand was on my sword, eager to stab some vital spot. But I realized that only he could unstopper the mouth of the cave.
We passed a miserable night and then watched the Cyclops make breakfast of two more of our companions. When he went out to pasture his flock, he pulled the boulder closed behind him.
It was up to me to make a plan. I found a tree trunk that the Cyclops intended for a walking stick. We cut off a six-foot section, skinned it, put a sharp point on one end and hardened it in the fire. Then we hid it under a pile of manure.
When the Cyclops came home and made his usual meal, I spoke to him. 'Cyclops, you might as well take some of our liquor to savor with your barbarous feast.'
I'd brought along a skin of wine that we'd been given as a gift. It was so strong that we usually diluted it in water twenty to one. The Cyclops tossed it back and then demanded more.
'I like you, Greek,' he said. 'I'm going to do you a favor. What's your name?'
'My name is Nobody,' I told him. [1]
It turned out that the favor he intended was to eat me last. But when the wine had knocked him out, I put my plan into effect. Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.
Polyphemus came awake with a roar, tore the spike from his eye and began groping for us in his blindness. His screams of frustration and rage brought the neighboring Cyclopes to the mouth of the cave.
'What is it, brother?' they called inside. 'Is someone harming you?'
'It's Nobody!' bellowed Polyphemus.
'Then for the love of Poseidon pipe down in there!'
They went away, and Polyphemus heaved the boulder aside and spent the night by the open door, hoping we'd be stupid enough to try to sneak past him. Getting past him was the problem alright, but by morning I'd worked out a solution...

What does the "one eyed" Cyclops represents in ourselves? Aren´t there within us selfish impulses, mono-directional views, that devour all divine trace in our hearts, thwarting every possibility of evolving, of escaping the sublunar spheres? 

And what about Odysseus and his trickery?
To make the subject even more interesting, we may have a look at something Peter Kingsley unveils nicely in the work Reality
In front of the monster, he  introduces himself as Outis: Nobody. [...]
This is the point where the real  jokes begin –as Homer draws out through word-play after word-play all the ambiguities stretching from Outis through ou tis and mê tis, which in Greek are alternative forms for nobody, to mêtis.
As Odysseus laughingly comments about the episode, well after the events have taken place, it was his mêtis that allowed him to blind the monster because it allowed him to be nobody: ou tis, mê tis. 
(...)  from the time of the Odyssey onwards, mêtis would always be associated in the minds of Greeks with this particular episode; with this notorious play on words ou tis and mê tis. (Ibid p. 226)

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