Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 75 – The Wrath of Polyphemus

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ovid’s retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Metamorphoses, Aeneas has just returned from the Underworld with the Sibyl of Cumae as his guide. Ovid then uses two of Ulysses’ men to narrate episodes from Homer’s Odyssey in flashback. The first is Achaemenides, who survived their encounter with Polyphemus.

The Story

Aeneas sailed on from Cumae and reached the coast midway between Naples and Rome, at Caieta (Gaeta). There he went ashore, and Achaemenides, whom Aeneas had rescued from Sicily, happened across Macareus, another survivor of Ulysses’ crew who returned from the Trojan War.

The meeting of these two veterans prompts Achaemenides to give a short account of the encounter between the Cyclops Polyphemus and Ulysses (Odysseus) and his men.

The full story is not given here, but was familiar from the Odyssey.

Polyphemus, a savage one-eyed man-eating giant, spent his days tending his flock of sheep. Polyphemus held Ulysses and his crew captive, then devoured several of them, so Ulysses got the Cyclops drunk in order to engineer their escape. Polyphemus asked Ulysses his name, and the latter replied Οὖτις (Outis, Greek for nobody). Once the giant had fallen into a stupor, Ulysses drove a hardened stake into the Cyclops’ one eye, blinding him.

The following morning, Ulysses and his men tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep in Polyphemus’ flock so that he couldn’t feel them escaping. Recognising that he has lost his captives, Polyphemus called out for help from the other Cyclops, telling them that ‘Nobody’ had hurt him. The other Cyclops therefore didn’t come to his aid.

Achaemenides became separated from the main group, who made their way down to the ship and sailed off into the dawn, deriding the blind Polyphemus as they went. Achaemenides was thus able to see Polyphemus fly into a rage, and hurl huge rocks at Ulysses in his ship:
The shoutings of Ulysses nearly caused
destruction of your ship and there I saw
the Cyclops, when he tore a crag away
and hurled the huge rock in the whirling waves;
I saw him also throw tremendous stones
with his gigantic arms. They flew afar,
as if impelled by catapults of war,
I was struck dumb with terror lest
the waves or stones might overwhelm the ship,
forgetting that I still was on the shore!

The Cyclops then strode the slopes of Mount Etna in his rage, cursing the Greeks in general and Ulysses in particular. Achaemenides felt certain that Polyphemus would discover him, and that he would suffer the same fate as his colleagues who had been eaten alive. He hid:
Most carefully concealed for many days,
trembling at every sound and fearing death,
although desiring death; I fed myself
on grass and acorns, mixed with leaves; alone
and destitute, despondent unto death,
awaiting my destruction I lost hope.
In that condition a long while, at last
I saw a ship not far off, and by signs
prayed for deliverance, as I ran in haste,
down to the shore. My prayers prevailed on them.
A Trojan ship took in and saved a Greek!

This prompted Macareus to tell the story of his survival.

The Paintings

One of the best-known episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, there are some superb paintings telling the story of Ulysses/Odysseus and Polyphemus, but none which makes any reference to Achaemenides, who may just be a narrative device created by Virgil to link his Aeneid with the Odyssey.

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Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus (1812), oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus (1812) shows Ulysses about to make his way out of the Cyclops’ cave, as his captor strokes one of his sheep. With Polyphemus’ face turned away from the viewer, it is difficult to confirm that he has been blinded at this stage, though, making this painting quite hard to read.

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Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus (date not known), oil on canvas, 76 × 96 cm, Pushkin Museum Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens pictures the crew fastening themselves to the underside of the sheep as they prepare to escape, in his Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus, which was probably painted in about 1650. Again, the Cyclops is facing away from the viewer, and it is hard to be sure that this is taking place after his blinding.

Given the difficulties in depicting the moment of escape from their captivity, most artists have opted to show Polyphemus hurling chunks of mountain at Ulysses and his crew.

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Guido Reni (1575–1642), Polyphemus (1639-40), oil on canvas, 52 x 63.5 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Guido Reni’s account in his Polyphemus from 1639-40 is far clearer. The Cyclopean eye socket is now empty, where Ulysses had poked its single eye out. In the distance, Ulysses and his crew are making their way out to their ships in two smaller boats, in their haste to depart. In Reni’s simplicity comes great narrative strength.

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Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896), oil on panel, 66 × 150 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin’s Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896) shows Ulysses’ crew rowing frantically out to sea, through large waves, as Polyphemus prepares to hurl a huge rock at them from the shore. The detailed realism and tight composition make this one of Böcklin’s most dramatic and active paintings, and a vivid account.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

JMW Turner’s magnificent Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus is probably his finest narrative painting, and the product of a long gestation. He seems to have started work on rough sketches for this in a sketchbook which is believed to date to 1807, and this finished painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy over twenty years later, in 1829.

The massive figure of Polyphemus is wreathed in cloud above the wooded coast towards the upper left, as the rays of the rising sun light the whole scene from Apollo’s chariot.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (detail) (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The entire crew is dressing the masts and rigging, and Ulysses brandishes two large flags, to deride the blinded giant. The orange flag on the mainmast bears the Greek letters Οὖτις (Outis), the name that Ulysses told Polyphemus was his. Below it is another flag showing the wooden horse of Troy, a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid. In front of the bows of the ship are ghostly white Nereids and sea creatures, presumably a reference to Neptune, Polyphemus’ father, whose curse results from this incident.

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Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), The Cyclops Polyphemus (1595-1605), fresco, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Image by Study Blue, via Wikimedia Commons.

Annibale Carracci’s fresco of The Cyclops Polyphemus (1595-1605) in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese has sometimes been mistaken for showing this episode from the Odyssey. It actually shows, quite unambiguously, the earlier story in Metamorphoses, in which Polyphemus kills Galatea’s lover Acis. There is no evidence that the Cyclopean eye has been blinded, and closer examination of the fleeing figures shows that the more distant is a woman, Galatea.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.