Nobody's Home (The Cyclops)


On first glance, this story appears to be the least yielding when it comes to finding philosophy for discussion. But take a closer look and the philosophy starts to materialise from nothing. I say 'materialise from nothing' because I have found the most successful philosophical discussion emerging from this session to be about non-existent entities. This topic emerges from both the content of the story (i.e. his use of the word 'nobody' to trick the Cyclops – 'nobody' seeming to be a referring term for someone that isn't there) and a feature of the story (i.e. that it contains a famous mythical creature – mythical creatures being perfect examples of non-existent entities). So, how can something that doesn't exist have certain qualities or features? Does our collective reference to a Cyclops somehow give it existence, perhaps in our minds, in our culture, or in some other way? Some philosophers have thought so. If so, what kind of existence would this be? It's certainly not the kind of existence something like a rabbit has. Or is it simply that a Cyclops does not exist in any way? But if this is the case, how can you meaningfully speak about one - how can you tell the story you are about to tell?

Note: this story contains a clear example of a key Ancient Greek theme and one that runs throughout the Odyssey: hubris, 'downfall brought about by excessive pride'. Odysseus' announcement revealing his true identity to Polyphemus from the prow of his ship endangers both himself and his crew by inciting the wrath of the god Poseidon no less. It would, however, take another act of hubris to seal the ship's ultimate fate: that of the character Eurylochus when he makes his subversive speeches to the crew on Thrinacia (See The Cattle of Helios in The If Odyssey) adding Helios to the list of angry gods intent on destroying them. The concept of hubris will play an important role when discussing whether Odysseus was a hero or not (see The Hero in The If Odyssey).


Names to learn in this story:

  • Polyphemus (polly-fe-mus): one of a race of Cyclopes and the son of the god Poseidon.
  • Poseidon (pu-si-dun): god of the sea, and one of the most important of the Olympian gods. He wields a trident.

Hint: Memorising stories

This is one of the longest stories in the Odyssey to memorise but unfortunately it happens near the beginning of the epic so you'll need to have a go at memorising a longer story sooner rather than later to tell this in its proper place. Here are some memorisation hints and tips: Read the story through several times and read actively. That is to say, don't read in that lazy way we are accustomed to do when reading for pleasure. Read it out loud and let the images formulate fully in your mind before reading on.

On the second or third reading make your own keyword list. It is better to make your own list because it helps you to process the information more thoroughly and you will choose the words that are best for you to help recall the story.

Visualise the events of the story in your mind so that you are simply describing 'what you see' rather than trying to remember a long list of words.

Causally link the sequence of events. They are shipwrecked (The Lotus Eaters), so what do they need to do? This should jog your memory about what comes next: 'Oh yeah,' you say to yourself, 'they will need to repair the ships and seek for help because they're low on water.' This should lead you naturally to the forest scene (what do they find?), which leads to the clearing scene etc. If you try to remember a series of isolated events then memorisation is much harder, but in stories, everything happens for a reason.

Practise telling the story either on your own when you have a minute (such as when you are on a journey or waiting for a bus etc.) or tell your children, your spouse, a friend - anyone who'll listen! The more you tell, the easier it is. You will also find that the more stories you learn the easier learning new stories gets.

Take pauses in your storytelling to take stock. Pausing when you speak is also a very effective way of drawing people in to what you are saying. Of course, if you pause too much your telling becomes laborious, but get the balance right, and your telling will be more engaging and you will have the benefit of giving yourself time to think. Turn your long list of words into easy, bite-size chunks. The Cyclops story, for instance, can be reduced to just three things:

1) they explore

2) they get trapped

3) they escape - just!

Then 1) can be reduced to just three things again:

a) they arrive

b) they find the cave

c) the Cyclops returns.

Carry on like this 'in threes' as long as necessary.


In this story I want you to imagine that you are one of Odysseus' crew. Having left the island of the Lotus Eaters no land is sighted for many days. There is one night when the clouds are so thick that there is no light from the moon or the stars and the ship floats aimlessly through the water. In the darkness the ships suddenly come to a halt as they run aground on some unseen beach. It is only when morning comes that you are able to see where it is the gods have brought you.

When dawn arrives you see that you have been delivered to the shores of another island. It is mountainous and barren with rocky crags all over it. There are sheep and goats grazing on the grass that grows around the rocks and coats the hillsides, but they are no ordinary sheep or goats. They are huge and closer in size to a large cow. There's nothing for it but to explore the island and hope that you find someone civilised and able to help. Fresh water is what you most need.

Odysseus takes with him a garrison of twelve men to explore the island. You are among the twelve. In the event that you find an inhabitant of this wild land Odysseus takes with him several wineskins of his best and strongest wine as a gift for anyone you may meet. It's the wine that Maron gave him in thanks for Odysseus' protection of Maron and his family. The rest of the crew are ordered to herd as many sheep and goats as they can for food to be stored on each ship.

Many hours you spend roaming the island but there are no signs of life or civilisation. You are just about to give up and return to the ships when one of you notices, at the top of a slope of loose rock, a cave mouth with signs of life outside it! Looking up you notice, outside the cave, a huge basket tied to a tree growing over the top of the entrance. There are also bunches of dried herbs tied together around the cave. You venture up the slope and enter the cave to find out who might live there. Inside you find that nobody's home. But there's plenty of evidence that this is somebody's home. There is a bed and a table and chair, but they are not like furniture you have seen before. They are huge. Whoever owns these must himself be the size of a tower. Going further into the cave you notice that there is a pen at the back where animals must be kept, though it is empty now. And in another far corner there is a stack of homemade goat's cheese with some bread and milk. You are all starving and forget yourselves as you tuck in to the food.

So busy are you eating that you only hear the sound of giant footsteps approaching the cave when it is too late. A huge shadow blocks out the light from the entrance as the cave's owner returns home. You turn to look and what you see fills you with horror. Your way out is barred by the figure of a gigantic man wearing a tunic of goat's skins and holding a full-sized tree trunk at his side in one hand. But the most terrifying thing about this giant is that he is looking at you through one, single, blinking eye in the centre of his forehead.

He is a Cyclops: a race of lawless, one-eyed giants that inhabit these lands that you have only heard tell of. Odysseus steps forward and explains that you are shipwrecked and in need of the help of a host. He also tells the giant that you have brought him gifts. 'You are fools to come here, but you have indeed brought me gifts - yourselves!' replies the Cyclops as he reaches forward and picks up one of the men that stand before him (fortunately, it isn't you!) and he pops him into his mouth and eats him in just two mouthfuls, crunching the bones up before washing your shipmate down with some goat's milk. He then rolls a huge boulder across the entrance as if it was nothing more than a toy. He sits down, burps, farts and falls into a noisy sleep.

You are now trapped in the cave with this man-eating monster. One of you says, 'Let us kill him now with our spears while he sleeps.' But Odysseus reminds you that if you kill him then you would also seal your own fate as there would be no one able to remove the boulder.

After the Cyclops has rested, he gets up and rolls the boulder to one side, then leaves and rolls it back again, keeping you all trapped inside while he gets on with his daily chores. 'What are we going to do?' one of you says to Odysseus. 'If we don't get out of here soon, we will all end up in the belly of that thing!' 'I know,' replies Odysseus. 'Now, let me think.'

A short time later the Cyclops returns and brings with him his sheep and goats to be penned in at the back of the cave safely for the night. He rolls the boulder back to close off the way out then he takes another couple of men for supper (fortunately, not you this time, but if you don't get out soon it will be). Again, he washes them down with milk before falling asleep.

Once the Cyclops has left the next morning to shepherd his herds (and not before he devours another two men for breakfast!) Odysseus announces that he has a plan. He instructs the remainder of you to chisel the tree that the Cyclops brought with him so that it has a sharp point at one end, like a giant pencil. You practise lifting and charging your giant spear, then you place it to one side and hope that the Cyclops doesn't notice how it has changed.

When he returns for the night with his sheep and goats and eats another crew member, Odysseus steps forward once more and this time offers the Cyclops some of Maron's wine he had brought with him. The Cyclops tries it and finds it to be very pleasing indeed. 'This is good,' says the Cyclops. 'Give me more! And tell me your name then I would like to offer you a gift of my own in return.' Odysseus hands the giant some more wine and he drinks it all down in one go this time. 'My name – in answer to your question – is 'Nobody',' says Odysseus. 'A strange name,' muses the Cyclops. 'Well, No-bo-dy, I would like to give you a gift in return for the delicious wine you have given me. My gift is... that I shall eat you last!'

And with that he laughs. Despite hearing this Odysseus laughs with him and continues to chat amicably with the Cyclops, offering him more and more wine with each exchange. Slowly, and without noticing, the Cyclops becomes drunk. His words begin to slur and his huge eyelid gets heavier and heavier until eventually he says to Odysseus with words that are barely distinguishable, 'I like you... you're my best friend, you are...' And with that he falls over landing on his chest with a thunderous crash, his neck twisted and his face to one side.

'Now!' hisses Odysseus, and you all lift the wooden stake with your combined might. You aim the tree trunk, and then charge towards the sleeping eye of the Cyclops. It makes an almighty crunching sound as the giant stake impales the huge eye.

The Cyclops immediately wakes up screaming, clutching the stake that protrudes from his eye. With one pull he rips it out and screams even louder than before. Racked with pain and anger he swings his huge arms to-and-fro to try to find you, and you have to duck down to avoid being thrown against the wall. All the noise has attracted the attention of the other Cyclopes that live in caves nearby. Now, you can just about deal with one Cyclops when it is blinded but you couldn't possibly deal with a host of sighted Cyclopes. You hear what must be the footsteps of at least a dozen Cyclopes ascending the slope and you all freeze with terror. When they reach the boulder, however, one of them shouts in from outside. 'What's going on in there, Polyphemus? What's all the noise for? Are you being robbed?'

'I've been blinded and tricked,' screams the injured Cyclops who you now realise is called 'Polyphemus'. 'Who has wronged you?' the other Cyclops shouts back. 'NOBODY has blinded me and NOBODY has tricked me and NOBODY is here now, though I can't find him!' shouts Polyphemus full of anger. 'Nobody is in there? No wonder you can't find him!' The other Cyclopes look at each other and guess that Polyphemus must have been drinking again. 'If there's nobody there, then there's nobody to be afraid of and nothing to worry about, Polyphemus. Now go back to bed!'

And, with that, they wander off and return to their business leaving Polyphemus to his moaning and his pain. After that narrow escape, you now have the blinded, angry Cyclops to worry about. He eventually calms down and sits on his bed. He manages to find a bowl into which he puts some water and, using a rag, he nurses his wound. You have to remain absolutely silent and still to avoid being detected. You can barely breathe. You endure a very uncomfortable night, Odysseus occasionally whispering to you about the next part of the plan only when Polyphemus is fast asleep and snoring.

The next morning the Cyclops has to release his livestock but he is worried that you will escape if he rolls the boulder too far. He might be stupid but he's not that stupid! He rolls the boulder just far enough to allow one of his livestock through and, as each goat or sheep is let out, he checks its back and sides by feeling with his big hands, to see if any of you are trying to hide on them.

But none of you are hiding on the backs and sides of the sheep and goats, you are hiding underneath them, tied to their bellies. It might be smelly and dirty under there but it's better than being eaten alive! Once all the crew are through there is only one animal left. A full-grown ram, the best of the flock, and under its belly is Odysseus. As Polyphemus feels the ram he says to it, 'Why are you the last to leave today? Normally, you are first out.' He checks the ram again. For a minute you think that Polyphemus has suspected your trickery and seen through your plan. But then he says, 'It must be because you are grieving for your master's eye.' With his massive hand he urges the ram through the gap and out of the cave. He quickly rolls the boulder back to imprison you once more but without knowing that he has, in fact, secured your escape.

'We must run as fast as we can to warn the others and get away from this island, because the moment he finds out he's been tricked, he will not be happy,' says Odysseus as you all climb out from under your animal and brush yourselves down. When you are about half way back to the ships you hear an almighty roar: 'NOBODEEEEEEEEY!' Polyphemus must have found out that you have escaped. As you run on to the beach you shout to the other men to get in the ships and cast off immediately. You have to leave many things behind on the beach - there just isn't time to collect anything. Just as the ships cast off Polyphemus comes stumbling on to the beach saying, 'Nobody's here, I can smell him!' Of course, being blinded he can't see you, so, as quietly as you can you row for your lives away from the cursed shores of this island.

Odysseus has many qualities: he is resourceful (in Ancient Greek the word for 'nobody' is me tis but if you run the two words together, metis, becomes the Greek for 'resourceful'), he is cunning and clever, as you have already seen in previous adventures, but he is also proud. When he believes the ships to be at a far enough distance from the shore Odysseus stands on the prow of his ship and shouts out to the Cyclops: 'Polyphemus, you will recognise this as the voice of 'Nobody' only I am not really 'Nobody' I am Odysseus, son of Laertes and King of Ithaca. It is Odysseus who today tricked you, it is Odysseus who today blinded you and it is Odysseus who stands here having escaped your clutches to taunt you from the safety of his ship.'

Even from this distance you can see Polyphemus' rage as he shouts back across the water: 'I am Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, the Earth-shaker, and he will hear my plea and have me avenged!' He then reaches out to a pinnacle of rock that he tears from its top and throws with all his might towards the sound of Odysseus' voice. The rock plunges into the sea next to Odysseus' ship and the ship is rocked from side to side like a child's bath toy. Some men fall into the sea and Odysseus orders the ships to turn around and retreat to the ocean. But by now Polyphemus is searching the beach for another rock to launch at the ships. It is not long before he finds one. This rock finds a target. The rock drops a hole directly in the middle of one of the ships and it starts to sink. The crew of the remaining ships save as many men as possible whilst a shower of boulders threatens to sink them all. But in the end the danger is too pressing and some men have to be left behind. Once out of range from Polyphemus' throw you are finally safe. You sail on with heavy hearts for the men that were lost but grateful for your own narrow escape.

Non-existent entities

Explain the following to the class: A Cyclops is an example of a mythical creature. Imagine two children are arguing in the playground about how many eyes a Cyclops has. They can't agree on the number of eyes a Cyclops has.

Task Question:

  • How many eyes does a Cyclops have?

If you feel they need some help here then simply add that one of the children thinks that a Cyclops has one eye 'because everyone knows that they do!' The other child, on the other hand, says, 'They can have as many eyes as you want, because they're not real.'

Nested Questions:

  • How can something that isn't real have one eye (or, for that matter, any eyes)?

  • Do mythical creatures exist?

  • How many eyes does a Cyclops have if it doesn't exist?

  • How many eyes does a Cyclops have if it does exist?

  • If a Cyclops was born with the deformity of having two eyes, would it still be a Cyclops?

  • The Ancient Greeks thought that Unicorns were real only very difficult to find. Does that mean that, for the Ancient Greeks, Unicorns were real?

Socratic Question:

  • What is real?

  • If 'cyclops' means 'one-eyed' then does that mean that Cyclopes only have one eye?

  • Does a cartoon character, such as 'Bart' from The Simpsons, exist?

  • Presumably, Bart had a mother, and she must have had a mother, Bart's grandmother and she too must have had a mother etc. Does Bart's great-great-great-great-grandmother exist?

An exercise to help bring out the controversy:

  • Take two pieces of A4 paper and on one of them write: 'A Cyclops has one eye.' On the other write: 'A Cyclops isn't real.' Put both pieces of paper on the floor in the centre of the room so that all the children can see. Then ask the following

Task Question 2

  • Can both sentences be true at the same time?

Nested Questions:

  • What about these pairs of sentences?

  • 'Polyphemus is a Cyclops.' and 'Polyphemus has two eyes.'

  • 'Polyphemus has one eye.' and 'Polyphemus has two eyes.'

  • 'Polyphemus is a Cyclops.' and 'Polyphemus is a giant.'

  • 'Polyphemus is a Cyclops.' and 'Polyphemus has only three fingers on each hand.'

  • 'Polyphemus is a Cyclops.' and 'Polyphemus is a unicorn.' 

Download Nobody's Home (The Cyclops)