Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops is interesting to analyse as it is the first indication that not all living beings are inclined to abide by the rules of the gods. It is also a scene during which Odysseus is forced to rely solely on his cunning rather than his physical prowess.
When Odysseus and his crew first alight on shore, they quickly proceed to “plunder” (9.297) the home of the Cyclops. This is not the first instance where Odysseus has been described as being one to take advantage of other people’s demise—he also “plundered the hallowed heights of Troy”(1.2-3), as described in the famous beginning lines of the poem. It is interesting to note that Odysseus is regarded as a classic epic hero in the Odyssey, but he also possesses characteristics that we would not normally associate with a morally sound and admirable figure. He goes on to use “a great cunning stroke…[that] duped” the Cyclops into letting him and his men free from the cave. Odysseus seems capable of using deception in situations of his own interest—a selfish characteristic we would not expect, and something that seems inconsistent with previous descriptions of him as “great” (7.210) and “worldly-wise” (7.200). Instead, he seems just as we would expect any other human being to be.
The Cyclops himself is described as “dead set in his own lawless ways” (9.210). He is a solitary figure living outside of human society, and seems to lead a simple life tending to his animals. He lives a “lawless” life only in comparison to Odysseus’ world—but it is interesting to see how Odysseus is quick to impose his own moral stance on the other being. Because Odysseus is narrating this section of the poem, all of his observations are biased towards his perspective—thus we get the Cyclops portrayed in a very negative light, and Odysseus’ own actions thoroughly justified. Yet Odysseus’ arrival on the island could be argued as one of unnecessary disruption, and we see the repercussions of this in the curse that is brought down upon him by the Cyclops.
The Cyclops’ world is shown to be the first true instance of “otherness” in Odysseus’ journey in his narration of the Odyssey: while he had previously visited other islands, they were generally inhabited by people who had some relation or respect towards the gods. The Cyclops, however, “never blink[s] at Zeus…or any other blessed god” (9.309-10): his actions and existence in the world are entirely independent of the gods’ wills and influence. This is the first indication that the reader gets that the gods may not actually be universally powerful after all.
Thus, the chapter in the Odyssey describing the encounter with the Cyclops is critical in giving the reader an alternative perspective on both Odysseus and some of the greater themes of the poem. Gods, which until this point have often been described as all-powerful and controlling of all aspects of life on earth, are now shown not to be. Odysseus is shown to be clever and deceptive in ways that we were not previously aware of.