We moderns know relatively little about the true meaning of an ancient satyr play, however in Euripides’s Cyclops we gain a humorous glimpse into the Bacchic drunkenness and unrepentant sexuality that is essential to the satyr play. In fifth century Athens, a satyr play was the fourth and final part of a tetra-logy of plays, the first three being tragedies. The satyr play typically involved a chorus of satyrs, sexually promiscuous woodland creatures, sometimes called the offspring of Dionysus (Bacchus), who engaged in drunken revelry to lighten the tragic tension. The satyr play is currently believed to be derived from ancient Dionysian religious sexual rituals dating back far beyond antiquity. The satyr play is the origin of the Quixotic tragi-comedy and Euripides’s Cyclops is considered the only complete and surviving satyr play that has been brought down to us.
At any rate, the Cyclops is a burlesque re-imagining of the events taking place in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey. It takes place in Sicily, seat of an ancient Greek civilization, under the shadow of Mount Etna (sometimes written as “Aetna”). Odysseus and his men are lost while attempting to return home from plundering Troy and they stop off on an island to find food. Meanwhile, on the island, Silenus and his family of satyrs have been enslaved by Polyphemus the Cyclops. When the two meet for the first time, Silenus trades food for Odysseus’s wine, and Silenus promptly gets drunk. However, soon the Cyclops returns to his cave and devours two of Odysseus’s men in anger. In seeking revenge, Odysseus devises a scheme to get the Cyclops drunk and blinds him. Odysseus comically reveals a fake name: roughly translated as “nobody”. As an added pun, the Greek word for “no man” or “nobody” is the same as the word for cleverness, or art. Odysseus and his remaining men flee the island with the rescued satyrs. The play ends before Polyphemus’s father, Poseidon, can exact his revenge. Notably, the Homeric tale of Odysseus and his men tying themselves underneath Polyphemus’s sheep is missing from Euripides’s satyr play, though the satyrs provide an amusing comic foil to an otherwise grisly story.
All throughout the play, the audience develops a strong antipathy toward Polyphemus – he is barbaric, eats humans, enslaves creatures, and praises his own lack of civilization, celebrating only the pursuit of wealth. Additionally, the modern audience is equally disgusted with his sexual preference for young boys, as he clearly states when calling Silenus his own “Ganymede” (Zeus’s cup-bearing, lover boy) and dragging him off to be raped. However, as is typical in Euripides, the play concludes in a cruel twist of fate. The enemy becomes the victim, and the celebrated hero, in this case Odysseus, is not portrayed in a celebrated way. Instead of simply leaving the island in triumph, Odysseus arrogantly announces his true name to Polyphemus who then proclaims the old prophecy was true – he would be blinded causing a curse on Odysseus. All of the latter atrocities that befall Odysseus and his men result from this poor choice.
One of the great debates of antiquity was regarding the status of Odysseus: was he nothing more than a crafty pirate? Or was he actually a wise and skillful tactician? The Homeric example suggests the latter. After all, Homer credits the winning of the Trojan War not to the ‘wrath of Achilles’, but rather to the craftiness of Odysseus, thanks to his Trojan Horse idea. Thus far, however, in Euripides we are provided with at least two examples where the main hero is looked upon less favorably by the conclusion of the play – recall Heracles in the Heraclidae and Odysseus in the Cyclops. Why would Euripides draw the audience’s attention to the flaws in Athenian heroes? Perhaps the ancient image that has come down to us of Euripides, as a brooding intellectual living out a solitary life in his cave, is not too far off the mark. His goal is to hold up a mirror to the things Athens holds most dear, and expose their tragic flaws. In this way, Aristotle may have been correct to label Euripides as the ‘most tragic of the poets’. Indeed, perhaps Euripides saw a kind of Roussouian honor and simplicity in Polyphemus, the ‘noble savage’, or the solitary sheep-herding giant, freed from the shackles of society. Though he is uncivilized, his very existence recalls a simpler time, devoid of the woes brought on by the politics of the city. This may be a stretch, for as we have seen throughout Euripides, there is no redemption, and no one man is necessarily honored above another. Perhaps, neither Odysseus nor Polyphemus are looked upon as heroes worthy of praise in the Cyclops. Regardless, Euripides was no patriotic poet. There are no Pindaric odes in his works. The well-celebrated Odysseus is duly reconsidered, and brought low, perhaps to be judged by the audience more as a pirate and less a hero.
Note: Percy Bysshe Shelley completed a noted translation of the Cyclops in 1819.