Mythology Summary and Analysis
Europa; the Cyclops Polyphemus
Cupid hits Zeus with an arrow, and the god instantly falls in love with a pretty mortal maiden, Europa. That morning, Europa awakens from a strange dream in which two different continents were fighting over her. She goes down to the ocean with her friends to bathe and pick flowers, and Zeus arrives disguised as a magnificent bull. Europa climbs on top of his back, and as soon as she does, Zeus gallops away. Europa clings tightly to his horn as they gallop over the ocean. Terrified, she understands that this must be a god, and she begs Zeus to let her go. But Zeus comforts Europa, explaining that he loves her and will bring her to his home island, Crete. When they arrive, Zeus transforms himself into a human and makes love to her. The people of Crete greet Europa with a bridal ceremony. She settles on the island and eventually bears Zeus two sons.
At the creation of the world, there were only three Cyclops, but they reproduced and had many offspring. They crafted Zeus's thunderbolts and were known for their strength and hostility to strangers. Thus, when Odysseus (Ulysses) sails for home from Troy and beaches his boat on their shore, great dangers await. Odysseus and his crew see a cave on the beach and walk inside to explore. The enormous Polyphemus pushes a huge rock over the cave's opening, effectively trapping the men inside. He eats a few men and falls asleep. The situation seems hopeless, but Odysseus comes up with a plan. He finds an enormous timber and sharpens the end of it. Odysseus then offers Polyphemus his wine, which the beast drinks. The Cyclops promptly falls asleep. As the Cyclops sleeps, Odysseus and his men heat the tip of the sharpened log in a fire and then ram it into Polyphemus's eye, blinding him. Polyphemus is still determined to kill all the men, but they escape from the cave under the bellies of Polyphemus's rams, which are out at pasture.
Like the story of Io, the story of Europa depicts Zeus in desperate desire of a mortal maiden. But unlike Io, Europa never suffers much. Hamilton notes that it is unclear why Hera never opposes this relationship. Is she just preoccupied? Does the fact that Cupid was the agent mean that Zeus is not responsible? Or perhaps, since Hera is a strong and crafty woman, she was preoccupied with some mischief of her own. The myth leaves this issue for the reader to interpret.
This story also provides a good example of a human who trusts the gods. Although she is frightened to ride on a bull across the ocean, Europa trusts Zeus when he says he loves her and will not do her harm. Note that this is one of many myths in which a god appears to a human in animal or human form. In such cases it is clear that the divine nature is not lost, though the god picks up, for a time, some of the qualities of the animal.
Also, note that Zeus is identified here with a particular place on earth, the island of Crete. The gods are not really everywhere at all times as in some religious traditions; they tend to be in one place or another like mortal beings are, even though they also can act at a distance when necessary.
The theme of reciprocity arises throughout Greek mythology, and in Europa's trusting nature, it is evident. Only good things come to her when she trusts Zeus: she bears children and lives a happy life on Crete. The question then arises whether it is better to give in to the gods against one's wishes or to suffer the consequences of fighting for what one wants. The question is complicated because of the varying kinds of punishments that are meted out against the unfaithful, sometimes very severe.
The tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops is one of the most classic stories of the Greek tradition. It is told in Homer’s Odyssey, which details Odysseus's various adventures while journeying home from war. This story shows the heroism and craftiness of Odysseus. Although Odysseus also is very strong, the story demonstrates the advantage of clever thinking in addition to brute strength.
The story of Polyphemus also reveals important aspects of Greek heroism: leadership and courage under pressure. None of Odysseus's men has the sense to plot an escape from the cave; only their leader creates the plan and engages in the main execution of the plan. While some traits of Greek heroes serve to humble the heroic characters and bring them down to an accessible level, in this case Odysseus shows that he is truly greater than the average man.
Polyphemus himself provides an interesting example of a villainous monster. Although demons pepper the myths, Polyphemus stands out as particularly memorable for his vicious, man-eating behavior. Ugly, enormous, and terrifying, he symbolizes all the difficult challenges that threaten mankind. Importantly, Odysseus uses his mind to overcome these challenges, and thus the myth suggests that human ingenuity is our greatest asset in the face of danger.
Mythology Essays and Related Content
- Mythology: Major Themes
- Mythology: Questions
- Mythology: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Edith Hamilton: Biography
- Mythology Summary
- About Mythology
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Persephone; Dionysus (Bacchus)
- Summary and Analysis of The Creation of the Earth
- Summary and Analysis of Prometheus; Pandora; Prometheus and Io
- Summary and Analysis of Europa; the Cyclops Polyphemus
- Summary and Analysis of Narcissus; Hyacinth; Adonis
- Summary and Analysis of Cupid and Psyche
- Summary and Analysis of Pyramus and Thisbe; Orpheus and Eurydice; Ceyx and Alcyone; Pygmalion and Galetea
- Summary and Analysis of Baucis and Philemon; Endymion; Daphne; Alpheus and Arethusa
- Summary and Analysis of Phaethon; Pegasus and Bellerophon
- Summary and Analysis of Otus and Ephialtes; Daedalus
- Summary and Analysis of Perseus
- Summary and Analysis of Theseus
- Summary and Analysis of Hercules; Atalanta
- Summary and Analysis of The Quest for the Golden Fleece
- Summary and Analysis of Tantalus and Niobe; Iphigenia Among the Taurians
- Summary and Analysis of Oedipus; Antigone
- What Is True about a Myth?
- Related Links on Mythology
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
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