Teaching Ideas on the Cyclops in "The Odyssey"

The cyclops is a mythological creature with one centrally located eye.
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"The Odyssey" is an epic poem of Ancient Greece written by Homer in about the 8th-century B.C. It is often taught as part of the high school literature curriculum. Students are drawn to the dramatic adventures and the likable hero, Odysseus, in this poem, which makes it a pleasure to teach. One of the more interesting characters in the poem is the Cyclops named Polyphemus.

1 Summary

In this adventure, Odysseus and his men land on the island inhabited by the giant cyclops named Polyphemus, who is a sheepherder. Odysseus is curious about Polyphemus' cave and convinces his men to explore it with him. They enter the cave and wait for Polyphemus to return. When he does, he proves to be an impolite host. He seals off the entrance to the cave and proceeds to eat several of the men. Odysseus must think of a way to escape. He notices that each morning, the cyclops lets his sheep out of the cave and each evening he brings them back in. Odysseus had brought with him some potent wine and offers it to Polyphemus. Once the giant is drunk, Odysseus takes a huge stick and pokes out his eye. He tells Polyphemus that his name is Noman so that when Polyphemus yells for help, he sounds ridiculous, saying, "No man is trying to kill me!" The other cyclops laugh and ignore him. Meanwhile Odysseus devises a means of escape by having his men cling to the underbellies of the sheep as they are let out of the cave the next the morning.

2 Odysseus on Trial

A fun way to explore the issue of responsibility for one's actions is to have a mock trial. A teacher may set up a civil suit in which Polyphemus is suing Odysseus for damages incurred during the incident. She assigns students to be the lawyers for Polyphemus and Odysseus. They will deal with questions such as: Was Odysseus trespassing? Did Polyphemus have a responsibility to ensure the safety of his visitors? Did Odysseus use undue force when he poked out Polyphemus' eye? What compensation should Ployphemus get?

3 An Alternate Plan

Admitting that Odysseus' plan was clever, a teacher may ask students to devise their own escape plans. What if the giant stick had not been available? What if Odysseus hadn't brought the wine? This activity works well as a group project, with students brainstorming ideas for alternate means of escape.

4 Polyphemus' Point of View

As a creative writing project, students can retell the incident from Polyphemus' point of view. They may choose to make him sympathetic or play up his uncivilized nature. Delving into how Polyphemus may have felt during the incident makes an interesting study in character and motivation. Students may even be encouraged to perform their piece as a dramatic monologue.

Diane Kampf has more than 20 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school to college freshmen. She holds a Master of Arts degree in creative writing and English literature and a New York State Secondary Teacher Certificate. She has written educational materials for Learning Express, LLC, Kaplan and Pearson.