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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kronian Festivals and Cyclopes

Wine has always played a role in festivals and ceremonies and is usually associated with celebration. However, I believe it is working in a slightly different way in the Polyphemus episode and acts more like the catalyst for the change in power between the Cyclopes and Odysseus, creating a “topsy turvy” effect on the scene, as well as on the characters themselves. However, before I am able to prove this, I must first argue using H. S. Versnel’s essay Greek Myth and Ritual: The Case of Kronos that Polyphemus can be likened to Kronos, and Odysseus to Zeus, and through these hierarchical roles of father/son and master/slave, they participate in a kind of Kronian festival where in a time of chaos, the roles are reversed.
Since Kronos is part of the creation story for the Greeks, he plays a significant, and yet contradictory role in Greek culture. As Versnel says, “Kronos is, on one hand, the god of an inhumanely cruel era without ethical standards; on the other he is the king of a Golden Age of abundance, happiness and justice.” (126) Concerning the negative portrayal, it is easy to see how the Cyclopes is reminiscent of Kronos and projects a tyrant’s approach to the ruling of his island when he kills and eats several of Odysseus’ men. However, Polyphemus also shows a kinder side when we see how he treats his sheep, milking them every morning and allowing them to graze in the mountains. In this way, he is portrayed as the loving father to his children and tends to them regularly. So, we have the tyrant and the father, but for the sake of this short essay, and as it relates to the Odyssey, I will be examining the more ruthless side of Polyphemus.
Odysseus plays the role of the servant/son, since his only role before the Cyclopes drank the wine was to serve him his dinner by delivering his men to the cave. But after Odysseus serves the wine, the power dynamic changes. The wine acts as a catalyst for the role reversal, which was the foundation of the Kronian festivals where the king takes on the role of the slave and the slaves become free. Versnel says, “as in the case of carnival…social and hierarchical roles are reversed: the fool is king and rules at will.” (136) Odysseus was the fool who led his men into the cave unable to escape. But once the wine is consumed, his fate changes. It is at this time that Odysseus gains the advantage and plunges the rod into the Cyclopes eye. In this way, Odysseus emasculates the Cyclopes of his power, similar to when Zeus dethroned Kronos and claimed his seat at Olympus and freed the other gods who had been eaten. Odysseus has transcended his inferior role and is now master over his former king. As Versnel says, “reversal rituals are found predominately in the ceremonies accompanying a critical passage…or the accession of a new ruler.” (138) The physical wine makes the Cyclopes’ world topsy-turvy because of the alcohol, but it also holds a symbolic meaning of a transition from what is familiar to something new.
Wine was often used to commemorate a change, whether it was to celebrate the harvest, or marriage, or to honor a death. Specifically in the Kronian festival, the familiar roles that women, children and slaves played was reversed in order to celebrate a change in the status quo, to welcome a new ruler, or just to recognize the ending of one period and the beginning of the next. I believe this is what is happening in book 9 of the Odyssey. The time before the wine consumption is a time of chaos; Odysseus’ men and being eaten one by one, and there is no hope of escape. However, after the Cyclopes drinks the wine, a new master arises, and Odysseus is able to dethrone the master/father-like figure.

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