Polyphemus is not unlike most other men in the Met. in that he thinks that he deserves whatever, or whomever, he wants. However, he is unlike the other men in the Met. because he does not seem to be physically violent towards the woman he has fallen in love with.
Galatea is in love with Acis. Polyphemus is in love with Galatea. Galatea rejected Polyphemus. Classic trope. But somehow, he never tries to attack her or conquer her or “get” her. That is unexpected. He is very violent toward her love, Acis, but not towards her. Instead, he sings her a song.
Polyphemus is not known for being intelligent, but he might be known for his violence. I am most familiar with Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey, as I think most people are. Odysseus successfully, and quite easily, outsmarts the cyclops by telling him Odysseus is nobody. Somehow Polyphemus believes this. But before he was tricked, Polyphemus killed and ate several of Odysseus’ men, and had no problem doing so. In one scene, Polyphemus successfully demonstrates his lack of smarts and his aggression.
But instead of following these expectations in Met., Polyphemus does not attack the person who is causing him grief. Most men in the Met. take the women they want, whether the women want it or not. Because Polyphemus is known for being stupid and violent, I expected him to also take the woman he wanted, even though she did not want him. Yet he doesn’t.
Polyphemus is not just a lovelorn cyclops who stands idly by as Galatea cares for someone else, though. He crushes her lover with a boulder, which is pretty brutal. So we finally see Polyphemus fulfilling the expectation of his violence when he finishes his song to Galatea, but not in the way that is expected. Somehow this story is void of sexual violence.
Did Polyphemus do the right thing? Not so much, considering he squished someone with a rock, but it is still shocking that a cyclops had more self control than a grown man when it came to sexual desire. A lot of the sexual violence in the Met. seems to be motivated by love, or at least lust, but I’m not convinced that’s really what it’s about. A lot of the men in Ovid’s writing are hypermasculine and aggressive; the sexual violence is just a derivative of their physical violence.
If these men really cared about the women they attacked, they wouldn’t have attacked them at all. They would have left them alone. Polyphemus seemed to have the right idea, or at least he was on the right track.
7 thoughts on “Polyphemus Defies Expectations. …Kinda?”
He is a rather unique male character in the Met. But I think that it also brings up another trope in popular culture when it comes to physical beauty and personality. From our perspective, it is obvious that Polyphemus is a decent guy, relative to everyone else anyway. However, in Ovid’s time, it may be a way at poking fun towards people who are not attractive enough to be taken seriously by their love interest. He might have killed Acis, but it did nothing to change the fact. Meanwhile, you look at someone like Jason, not too bad either just jockish is doing well by not really doing much.
This brings up an interesting theme that seems to be running throughout the Met, and that is: What is monstrous and who are the real monsters? Throughout Ovid’s works we have read a lot of poems about monstrous types of love and about the transformations that cause people to lose their humanity whether that be literally or figuratively. In this case, the actions of a cyclops are less monstrous than those of mortal men or even gods. This seems to be a critique on the gods’ barbarism and brutality toward mortals, and consequently, Ovid’s thoughts on authority in general. By showing the monstrous natures of the gods in contrast to the less violent Polyphemous.
Polyphemus was a rare case where he didn’t let his sexual desire overtake his actions. He was kind and polite enough to get the hint. When he started singing his song, I was in shock! Instead of lashing out violently or try to get his way, he sings. I felt like he tried to woo Galatea with his singing. It was refreshing to see a male character act in such a benevolent way.
But then, as soon as I was warming up to Polyphemus, he squished Acis. I facepalmed so hard when I came across that. I guess there’s no escaping violent breakouts in Greek myths. Polyphemus was almost the “chosen one.”
I laughed so hard when reading your comment, “he squished Acis” and that you “facepalmed” because that put the reaction I had into words. However the fact that Polyphemus did not exact violence upon his love interest sticks out more.
In a similar manner, this story struck me as odd because Cyclops, in modern tales, are usually depicted as disgusting, barbaric brutes who are rather unintelligent. If this is the original inspiration, where did our modern inspiration? How has society changed to where we see blind rage as a fault where the Met depicts a gentle man as the loser? I wonder if this was intentional satire of the double standard in society?
I also really like this post, and find myself stuck on the idea that Polyphemus is usually perceived as ugly. Does physical appearance have some effect on how one interacts with someone they have a crush on? In the case of the heroes who pursue women, they are hot. They don’t have to prove their attractiveness by being violent towards the woman they’re after. But in the case of Polyphemus, perhaps he is acknowledging his “not-hero” appearance by singing a song. Perhaps by adding some personality to his offer of love, he can somehow be better or more appealing than the heroes who rely on their hotness to win over women?
I really like this post. I find Polyphemus to be… not pathetic, but perhaps one who continually gets the short end of the stick. His song to Galatea is meant to be clunky and almost humorous, but I feel that he’s doing his best to be charming and in the end, it’s not his fault it’s not in his nature. It is definitely his fault that he kills Acis, though, so maybe I shouldn’t be so sympathetic.
Your point that if a non-human can refrain from sexual violence, human men should as well is an important one and something that could help with framing the rest of our reading of the Met. What makes Polyphemus act differently? Should some of these other perpetrators of violence have tried singing a song first (such as, I don’t know, Apollo, god of music)?
Comments are closed.