ULYSSES AND THE CYCLOPS
BY HOPE MONCRIEFF
Many a year did the much-enduring Ulysses sail
unknown seas, on his way back from Troy to
Ithaca, his island home. Beset by such mishaps and enchantments
that for long he seemed little like to see
again his faithful wife Penelope and his son Telemachus,
he escaped from one perilous adventure after another,
but none more fearsome than when he came to the smoking
mountain-land of the Cyclopes. So were named a
cruel race of one-eyed giants, wild as the rocky heights
on which they fed their flocks of sheep and goats, knowing
not to plant corn or fruit, and holding no commerce
with kindly men, nor reverencing the lords of heaven.
The very danger of venturing into such a land was
lure enough for this hero, when from his ship he sighted
a huge cave opening high above the beach, its mouth half
hidden by a tangle of dark wood. Here lived alone one
of these monsters, Polyphemus by name, a savage so
churlish of nature that he kept aloof even from his fierce
fellows. Eager to explore that gloomy lair, Ulysses
picked out twelve of his boldest men, with whom he
landed, leaving the vessel moored by the shore to await
their return. On reaching the cave they found its master
absent, but that he would soon return they might
guess from the flocks of bleating lambs and kids penned
up within, along with great piles of cheeses, vats of curd,
and rows of milking vessels, the giant's household goods.
The sailors, their hearts chilled by its damp shades, were
not for staying long in this vast and deep-sunk hollow.
"Let us begone," they urged their leader, "back to the
ship with a load of cheeses and a drove of lambs and
kids to mend our fare on the salt waves! It were better
to help ourselves behind the back of such a host, who
may soon come to catch us in his den."
But Ulysses let curiosity get the better of prudence.
He had a mind at all risks to know what manner of
creature this was that lived in so strange an abode; and
he kept his companions in the cave, with a venturesomeness
that cost them dear. They even made bold to light
a fire and to refresh themselves from the giant's store
of milk and cheese; and thus were they caught, taking
their ease, when Polyphemus came home at evening,
driving before him his full-uddered flock.
Above their bleating and scurrying was heard the
heavy tramp of that monster, and the earth shook as from
his shoulders he flung down a crashing stack of firewood,
gathered in the forests through which he stalked like a
moving mountain. The flock driven inside, he closed
the entrance of the cave by dragging across it a mighty
boulder that would have made a load for twenty wagons.
Having thus shut out the fading light, he knelt down to
milk his ewes and goats, as yet unaware what uninvited
guests were straining their eyes at his black bulk from
the deepest and darkest recess into which they had
shrunk before his coming. But when he went on to light
a fire, the flickering flames showed them his hideous
face with its one broad red eye, that glowed in sudden
anger when it fell upon the strangers; and through the
smoky vaults echoed the blood-curdling roar with which
he greeted them.
"Who, and whence are ye?" he thundered forth.
"Pirates, doubtless, who peril your own lives to rob
"Nay," answered Ulysses, who of all the trembling
band alone found voice to speak. "We are men of famous
race, the Greeks who at last overcame Troy, and
now, sailing home, have been driven by winds and waves
upon this coast. As helpless suppliants we fall before
thee, seeking the hospitality due to misfortune from all
who fear the gods."
"Ho, ho!" bellowed Polyphemus, in gigantic laughter.
"Stranger, thou art strange indeed to this land, and a
fool to boot, if thou think'st a Cyclops owns any law
but his own will. For gods we care not, nor yet for men,
whoever they boast themselves! But say, how and where
came ye on our shore?"
So he asked cunningly, hoping to make prize of their
ship if anchored near at hand; but Ulysses was no less
wily than bold, and took heed not to tell the truth.
"Our vessel, alas! was dashed to pieces on the cliff,
and, of all the crew, we only have saved nothing but our
Now the men saw with what an inhuman monster
they had to do. The savage giant, wasting no more time
in parley, caught up the first two that came to his hands,
dashed their brains out against the stony floor, then
greedily devoured their flesh before the eyes of the survivors,
shuddering to think how soon they might meet
the same fate. Ulysses alone, undaunted and indignant,
laid hands on his sword, but forebore to draw it. Even
when, having ended his horrid meal and washed it down
with large draughts of milk, Polyphemus laid himself
carelessly to sleep among his flocks, the hero saw it was
vain to strike, for though he might slay their fearsome
foe, he knew that the strength of all together could not
roll away that rocky barrier from the cave mouth. There
was nothing for it but to remain patient, watching a
chance to overcome the giant by craft rather than by
Through the night the poor sailors took such rest as
they could, and the glimmering dawn brought fresh terror.
As soon as the giant had risen and stretched his
knotty limbs, he first set the lambs to the ewes, then
snatched up two more of the hapless men, taken at random,
to glut his taste for blood. When he turned out
the flock to pasture, he neglected not to roll back the
great rock that sealed up the cave, thus turned into a
prison for these rash strangers, and soon like to be their
But through the day their shrewd captain set his wits
to work on a plot for escape. By good chance they had
brought on shore with them a goat-skin full of strong
wine, that now might serve to dull the giant's senses. In
the cave they found a tree trunk he had plucked up by
the root to make a club such as only so huge a monster
could wield, for it was longer than the mast of their
ship. This Ulysses had sharpened to a point and hardened
in the fire before hiding it away among the dust
and dirt that littered the cave. He explained to his
comrades how he meant to use this enormous weapon,
bidding them draw lots who should bear a hand with
himself in the attempt; and, to his secret satisfaction,
the lot fell on the very men he would have chosen for a
Polyphemus duly returned at night-fall and again,
when he had closed the entrance and seen to his flocks,
he caught up two more of the Greeks to make his supper.
Half of his twelve men having thus been devoured,
Ulysses brought to the blood-stained monster a milk-pail
filled from the wine-skin.
"Deign, O Cyclops," he cried on bended knee, "to
taste this precious blood of the grape that rightly crowns
a Greek banquet. It is well we have saved from our
wreck one skin to offer thee, that may move thy heart
to send us on our way unhurt, and not without some
friendly boon. Else thy thirst for human blood will
scare all men from this hateful shore, and never again
canst thou come by such noble drink. Taste and know!"
The greedy giant snatched up the bowl and drained it
to the bottom; then, smacking his lips for delight, he
held it out to be refilled.
"Truly, it is noble drink, such as was never known
in our land! Speak, stranger. Who art thou that bringest
the nectar of the gods? Thy name?"
"My name is Noman," quoth the crafty Ulysses, as he
refilled the bowl.
"Then, Noman, I grant thee a boon," hiccoughed the
giant in boisterous glee, the fumes of the wine already
mounting to his head. "In reward for the drink, I will
eat up all thy companions before thee; and Noman shall
be the last of all to die. So fill once more!"
Again was poured the dark wine; and when Polyphemus
had tossed off three brimming bowls, his brain began
to reel, while his limbs failed him as well as his
voice, with which he would have roared out brutal jests
mixed with praises of this magic liquor. Staggering here
and there, he stumbled and sprawled helplessly on the
ground, and soon his snoring re-echoed through the cave
like rolling thunder, as he sank into drunken slumber.
When all else was still, Ulysses whispered the word
to his wakeful crew. From the litter they silently
dragged out that huge stake he had made ready: and
blowing up the fire, heated its point till the green wood
had almost burst into flame. It was all they could do
to bear it along to the side of the sleeping giant. When
their leader gave the signal, they plunged that red-hot
spit into his eye, and, turning it like an awl, they bored
a hole so deep and so wide that a torrent of blood gushed
out to quench the fiery brand.
The drunken giant started to his feet with a roar which
sent them quailing backwards. But when he had torn
the tormenting brand from his forehead, all he could do
was to grope blindly around him, stamping and howling
for pain and for rage against those puny enemies
that in the dim firelight could take heed to keep out
of his reach. So furious was the alarm he raised,
that it woke his neighbor giants, who presently came
hurrying along to the cave's mouth, and shouted to
"What ails thee, Polyphemus, that thus our rest is
disturbed? Who breaks upon thy sleep? Has any man
found means to hurt thee? Or has some one been robbing
thee by force or fraud?"
"Noman has hurt me!" yelled back the blind giant.
"Noman is robbing my flock! Noman, I say, has played
a cruel trick upon me!"
"Then if no man does thee harm, why these complaints?"
grumbled his neighbors, while Ulysses chuckled
over his sly device, all the more as he heard the giants
tramping away to their own lairs with a parting word
of mockery for the victim of a nightmare, as they took
it to be. "If the gods send thee pain, take to prayer, and
rouse us no more to give help against no man in mortal
Thus left to himself, the blinded monster, pouring out
his rage in tears of blood, found it hopeless to lay hands
on the silently exulting foes, who all night long remained
shut up with him in the cave; yet more fiercely his dark
mind was bent on revenge against that insolent Noman
and the rest of his crew. Fumbling about till he touched
the rock that barred the entrance, he heaved it away;
then there sat down with his hands stretched out before
him, to make sure that none of the men should slip
through among the flock when the rosy dawn called them
forth to their pasture.
But again Ulysses was too wily for the thick-headed
giant. Through the night he had been busy lashing the
biggest rams together, three and three; and each midmost
beast bore a man bound to it by osier twigs. The
largest of all he kept for himself, creeping beneath it,
and clinging to the thick fleece below its belly. On this
strange steed he would come forth last of all.
So, when the sheep poured out into the dewy uplands,
the Cyclops, handling each as it slipped past him, felt
nothing but their fleecy backs. Blind as he was, he knew
the tread of that big ram, the pride of the flock, under
which lay Ulysses, holding his breath, as its master
stopped the beast to growl out:
"Why com'st thou last who wert wont to lead the way,
like a chief among thy fellows? Can it be that a dumb
creature mourns for what Noman and his hateful band
have done to its lord? Ah! could'st thou but speak to
tell me in what corner the wretch lurks within, trembling
for the moment when at last I shall dash out his brains
and warm my heart with his blood!"
With this he let the ram go, still sitting watchful at the
entrance barred by his huge hands. But as he sat muttering
threats, to his strained ears came a mocking cry
from without, where now Ulysses had unbound his men,
and the whole band were hurrying down to their ship,
driving before them the pick of the giant's flock.
Heartily the crew hailed their captain's return, and
eagerly they would have known how it had fared with
him. But this was no time for words. Ulysses bid them
push off in haste, taking to their oars as soon as they
had heaved the sheep on board. Scarcely indeed had
they launched when the stumbling and shouting giant appeared
upon the rocky heights above the shore.
"Ha, ungracious host!" cried Ulysses; "didst thou
think to gorge thyself on me, whom the gods have made
an instrument to punish thy churlish manners?"
No longer able to see his exultant enemies, the raging
Cyclops plucked up a great rock to hurl after them,
guided by the sound of that mocking voice. So near it
fell that it had almost smashed the rudder, and raised
such a wave as would have washed the galley back on
shore had not Ulysses pushed it off again with all his
strength, while the rowers bent their backs as for their
lives. Though they begged him to be silent, their bold
captain could not refrain from once more raising his voice
in boastful taunts of the baffled monster.
"Hear, Cyclops! Should men ask who blinded thee
and made thy face more hideous than before, say not it
was Noman, but Ulysses of Ithaca, victor at the walls
Again the giant hurled a mighty rock that, had it struck
fair, would have crushed their ship like an eggshell.
Drenched by the splash, they rowed with might and
main, and were soon out of reach; but so long as they
could hear his voice, the raging giant's curses drove them
onward across the bounding seas.
Thus did Ulysses, by his cunning, prevail over the
brute force of the Cyclops, for Minerva, goddess of Wisdom,
inspired and guided him. Then soon, with a hungry
heart craving for more adventures, he sailed to
further wondrous lands and gathered fresh knowledge
year by year.