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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Dissecting a Myth - Polyphemus



As I have started watching American Gods, I decided to take some time and look back at some of the ancient Gods and the mysterious lore that surrounds them. Today I will take a journey back into the vaults of time, to an era governed by gods and documented in the mythos. The specimen is a creature so horrible and hideous, his name can still strike fear in the masses. Throughout antiquity, the legend of Polyphemus, a man-eating Cyclops with a single orb-shaped eye set in the middle of his forehead would be heard throughout Trinacria (Sicily) and the Mediterranean world. Today I plan to dissect it for you. 

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the southernmost region of Italy, lying south of mainland Italy separated by the Strait of Messina. This region, consisting of nine provinces: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa, and Trapani, has a vast history and is a modern link to the folklore of an enlightened day. At the heart of this beautiful garden lie Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, and ancient home to our vile destructor. 

"The wild Cyclopes in Aetna’s caverns watch the straits during stormy nights, should any vessel driven by fierce south winds draw nigh, bringing thee, Polyphemus, grim fodder and wretched victims for thy feasting, so look they forth and speed every way to drag captive bodies to their king. Them doth the cruel monarch himself on the rocky verge of a sacrificial ridge, that looms above mid-sea, take and hurl down in offering to his father Neptunus [Poseidon]; but should the men be of finer build, then he bids them take arms and meet him with the gauntlets; that for the hapless men is the fairest doom of death.” - Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4.104

It is said that Polyphemus would feast on raw human flesh, devoured from the unexpecting seafaring merchants that would unwillingly cross his path, washing down their remains with raw milk. This legendary banquet, a typical midnight snack for this creature, held religiously before he retired into the depths of his volcanic lair for the evening amongst his beasts. Unfortunately, this civilization had much to fear besides the Cyclops. In mythological times, great Mount Etna was home to the forges of the Roman god Vulcan, Polyphemus, and the monster Typhon. 

If the seafarers of the day luckily survived an encounter with Polyphemus the penchant of death still burnt bright, with the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis (two of the perils faced by Odysseus in Homer's epic poem Odyssey) surrounding the Strait of Messina 

Fortunately, for us humans, Polyphemus is said to have met his demise at the hands of Odysseus, who once became trapped in the cave of the giant, bearing witness the horror of the Cyclops grand meal (his men). Unable to escape, Odysseus showered him with wine and as he slept and pierced his eye with a burning stake, blinding the great beast. The blind giant attempted to exact revenge by sinking Odysseus' escaping ship with rocks, but failed, ending his reign over humanity and etching his name into infamy.

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