What kind of society do the Cyclopes have and how do you know?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most important episodes in the Odyssey occurs in Book IX when Odysseus describes his encounter with the Cyclopes to King Alcinous of the Phaeacians.  The Cyclopes are a race of beings, children of the Titans, who have nothing to do with mankind or the gods.  When Odysseus and his men sight the island on which the Cyclopes live, they are struck by its richness but, more important, they notice immediately that the Cyclopes do not live like men:

Now the Cyclopes neither plant nor plow, but trust in providence, and live on such wheat, barley, and grapes as grow wild without any kind of tillage, and their wild grapes yield them wine as the sun and the rain may grow them. They have no laws nor assemblies of the people, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbors. 

To Odysseus and his men, who come from an island (Ithaca) that is not full of natural resources, the island of the Cyclopes is a paradise, but a wasted paradise in that the Cyclopes do not work to improve their surroundings.  More important, the Cyclopes appear to have no organized society, no fellowship with each other, nothing that would place them within the human family.  In other words, they seem to be a collection of individuals who live off the land in a way that we would describe as even less than primitive.

What is even more surprising to the Greeks is that there is a nearby island that is more fertile and full of life than the Cyclopes' main island.  As Odysseus points out, however, they

. . . have no ships, nor yet shipwrights who could make ships for them; they cannot therefore go from city to city, or sail over the sea to one another's country. . . .

One can sense the tone of condemnation in Odysseus' voice as he marvels at a race of beings who not only cannot travel but also have no interest in travel or exploration.  From the Greeks' point of view, the Cyclops, who resemble human beings (although on a huge scale), do not exhibit any characteristics of human beings, and this lack of humanity places them in a unique category.

In sum, then, the Cyclopes do not have a society that is recognizable to Odysseus and his men.  Ultimately, as Odysseus and his men discover, the Cyclopes (specifically, Polyphemus) eat men, a characteristic that absolutely places them in the realm of animals. 

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