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The Odyssey: Hubris and its Consequences

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

Lesson 12: "Hubris and its Consequences." The Greeks, as we all know, were pretty smart people, and they prided themselves on their smarts. When Odysseus and his companions end up in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus in Book 9, it isn't by any means a foregone conclusion that they'll get out alive. Polyphemus starts eating Odysseus' men, but he has to let his sheep out to pasture each morning, so when he does, he places a great rock against the entrance so they can't get out. So Odysseus has to come up with a plan. And he does. He happens to have some wine with him, which he offers to the Cyclops. Polyphemus has never drunk wine before, and he loves the taste. And while he is drinking, Odysseus says to him, "By the way, you were asking me what my name was a moment ago. My parents call me Nobody." Moments later, Polyphemus falls asleep. Homer describes the scene. "The wine gurgled up from his throat with gobs of human flesh." Delightful, eh. Odysseus now roasts the sharpened end of a log in the fire, and with the help of his companions, he thrusts it into Polyphemus' eye, blinding him in an instant. Polyphemus gives vent to a cry of pain. Soon all the other Cyclopes are crowding around his cave. "What's going on?" they say. "My friends, my friends, Nobody is killing me." Well, if nobody is killing you, what's all the fuss about." And they depart.

Odysseus has cleverly incapacitated Polyphemus, but he and his companions are still stuck in the cave. What he does now is to lash each of his companions to the underside of one of his rams with pliant willow withes. Then he clasps the underside of the finest ram, buries himself in its fleece, and hangs on for dear life. When dawn arises, Polyphemus rolls away the stone and lets them all out. He's not stupid, however. He feels the backs of each of the rams to make sure his prisoners aren't escaping. Once out of the cave, Odysseus starts untying his men, and they run down to the shore and board ship. As soon as they are out to sea, Odysseus taunts the Cyclops. "Nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, I'm smarter than you." Whereupon Polyphemus tears off the peak of a nearby mountain and hurls it in the direction of Odysseus' voice. The mountain peak overshoots the ship, just missing it by a hair's breadth, but it causes such a tidal wave that it drives their ship back to the shore. They get away again, and when they are now twice the distance from the shore, Odysseus taunts Polyphemus a second time. "If anyone asks you who blinded you, tell them that it was Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca."

Pure unadulterated hubris, hubris being that condition of the mind whereby you insolently believe you can do anything. The Greeks were always wary of hubris, and there are many instances in their literature, where pride comes before a fall. This is the first. Because what happens now is that Polyphemus curses Odysseus by appealing to his father, Poseidon. "May Odysseus never reach home; or if it is fated that he will, may he return late, in a sorry state, having lost all his companions, in a ship that isn't his own, and to encounter troubles in his household."

And the thing is, he couldn't have cursed Odysseus if Odysseus hadn't bragged by revealing his name.

This is a pivotal moment in the poem. It's here that we discover the reason why Poseidon hates him and why Odysseus' return home is delayed by ten years. It's all due to his hubris. But there's something else going on here, which I think is very important. Odysseus prides himself on his intelligence. A monster with a single eye in the centre of his forehead. That's no match for a Greek. Well, he is, as it turns out. Odysseus proves to have been too clever by half. He brought his misery upon himself. I can't but believe that Homer is sending a message to his compatriots. You Greeks think you are so darn smart. You may be. But there's more to life than being smart. Be careful you don't bring ruin upon yourselves. Remember what happened to Odysseus, one of the smartest guys on the planet. It only took one ignorant monster to teach him a lesson he won't forget.

Homer never invokes the word hubris, either here or elsewhere in his poem. But it's an undercurrent. In the very first scene of the poem, the council on Olympus, Zeus complains of human folly. Her does so by instancing Aegisthus, who came to grief after murdering Agamemnon and shacking up with his wife. He thought he could get away with anything, a state of mind akin to hubris. And the suitors are the same. They thought they could devour another man's property and livelihood and steal his wife. Human arrogance knows no bounds, but it will always find you out in the end. Be warned. In the next lesson, we're going to talk about a feature of the poem that divides good people from the bad – the practice and institution of hospitality.

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Written by

Robert Garland