Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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In The Odyssey, why does Odysseus tell Polyphemus that his name is Nobody?

In The Odyssey, Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is Nobody as part of an elaborate trick. He knows that in the event of his escape, Polyphemus will call for help. But if he calls for help in catching "Nobody," then no one will come to his aid.

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Among other things, Odysseus has the reputation of being a cunning trickster. His trickery is on display when it comes to dealing with the fearsome Cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus is holding Odysseus and his men captive in the bowels of his cave. He's picking them off one by one whenever he fancies a snack. The situation's pretty desperate; the way things are going, Odysseus and his men will all end up in the belly of this one-eyed giant.

Thankfully, Odysseus's seemingly limitless capacity for trickery doesn't desert him, and he comes up with a truly audacious escape plan. That plan involves getting Polyphemus blind drunk and then stabbing him in the eye with a sharpened stake.

For good measure, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is Nobody. Odysseus is already thinking ahead here. He knows that if he and his men make good their escape, then the stricken giant will call for help: when he does, he'll say something along the lines of "Nobody has attacked me." That being the case, none of his friends on the island will think there's anything wrong, so they won't come to Polyphemus's assistance.

That is exactly how Odysseus's plan plays out. After being stabbed in the eye, Polyphemus screams out in agonizing pain. When his friends want to know what's wrong, Polyphemus says, "Nobody is killing me." The Cyclops's friends don't know that "Nobody" is meant to be a proper name, like Odysseus, for example. They just think that Polyphemus is saying that nobody is killing him. Because of this, they don't render assistance, and Odysseus and his remaining men are able to make good their escape.

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Odysseus tells Polyphemus his name is "Nobody" to prevent Polyphemus from being able to successfully call for help when Odysseus enacts his escape plan. 

When Odysseus and his men are trapped in Polyphemus's cave, he's horrified as the cyclops eats some of his men. To escape, he sharpens a large wooden club and then he convinces Polyphemus to get drunk. Odysseus relates the story, saying, "Three times I poured some out and gave it to him, and, like a fool, he swilled it down."

When Polyphemus is drunk, Odysseus claims his name is Nobody. He says:

"Cyclops, you asked about my famous name.I’ll tell you. Then you can offer me a gift,as your guest. My name is Nobody.My father and mother, all my other friends—they call me Nobody."

That’s what I said.

His pitiless heart replied:"Well, Nobody,I’ll eat all your companions before youand have you at the end—my gift to you,since you’re my guest."

Polyphemus then passes out from the wine, vomiting wine and parts of dead men. Odysseus and his crew use the wooden stake to blind him. Then Polyphemus calls for help -- which Odysseus anticipated and which was the reason Odysseus gave Polyphemus a fake name. 

Polyphemus's friends come in response to his screaming and when they ask what's wrong, he says, "Nobody is killing me,...

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my friends, by treachery, not using any force." His friends, therefore, think he's just ill and go away, leaving him in his cave and allowing Odysseus and his friends to escape by clinging to the bottom of sheep exiting the cave so Polyphemus can't feel them.

After he's successfully escaped, though, Odysseus is reckless and admits his true name to Polyphemus. The result of this is Polyphemus's father Poseidon sending a storm to wreck Odysseus's ship as revenge. 

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Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is no one, nobody, or outis (in Greek). At the outset, this seems like a confusing course of action. Why does it matter if Odysseus reveals his true identity to the Cyclops? Odysseus, thanks to his cunning wisdom, has the foresight to know what will happen as he tries to leave the cave. 

In Book 9, line 366, Odysseus says:

"Cyclops, you asked my noble name, and I will tell it; but do you give the stranger's gift, just as you promised. My name is Nobody. Nobody I am called by mother, father, and by all my comrades."

Polyphemus responds in line 370:

"Nobody I eat up last, after his comrades; all the rest first; and that shall be the stranger's gift for you."

From this line, the reader can begin to understand Odysseus' plan. By claiming he is "nobody," he, Odysseus, cannot be blamed for the actions to come. 

When Odysseus blinds Polyphemus and he and his remaining men escape on the underbellies of the Cyclops' sheep, Polyphemus yells:

"Friends, Nobody is murdering me by craft. Force there is none. But answering him in winged words they said: If nobody harms you when you are left alone, illness which comes from mighty Zeus you cannot fly. But make your prayer to your father, lord Poseidon."

Polyphemus tells his cyclops friends that "no one" is killing him, which they take to mean Polyphemus is fine. And with Polyphemus raging and ranting, the other cyclops are distracted and Odysseus and his men escape to their ship.

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