‘No Panic, No One Hang Back Now!’

Illustrations of Odyssey Polski: Odyseusz i Po...

Odysseus serving the Cyclops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Assignment 1: Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. …What social norm does this episode legitimize?

A functionalist reading of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops can serve to justify values of prudence and consideration in leadership, even in a society enamored with heroes. Leaders have grave responsibilities; recklessness can lead to ruin.

In Polyphemus’ cave, to the soundtrack of his shrieking men, Odysseus learns vital lessons: First, don’t act rashly; second, never underestimate danger; and third, when resolved, commit to action. He applies these lessons to bloody effect in the climactic books.

The folly of acting rashly is demonstrated to Odysseus within moments of meeting the Cyclops. Odysseus’ men, surveying the fleecy lambs and drying cheeses, propose to burgle the giant’s cave; but our hero compounds that audacious impulse by wanting to wait “till I saw him, saw what gifts he’d give.” He ignores the possibility that the Cyclops would be unaware of, or unconcerned by, the formalities of Grecian hospitality.

Odysseus’ greed leads him to underestimate danger: the giant’s cave he took to be a rustic grocery becomes a trap after the giant shuts himself in for the night. Instead of full bellies and parting gifts, Odysseus and his men spend the night groaning on the floor of a manure-strewn cave.

But Odysseus makes effective use of his time. He contrives a three-pronged plan to disable the giant (by getting him drunk and gouging out his eye), humiliate him (by convincing him that Odysseus’ name is “Nobody”) and complete the burglary that was proposed in the first place (by hiding under the sheep when the giant lets them out in the morning). Though his proposal is complicated, Odysseus is all in, as the card players say. He exhorts his men: “Courage — no panic, no one hang back now!”

Though the lessons take time to sink in — not long afterward, he walks his men into another cannibal ambush — they seem to form a blueprint for his confrontation with the suitors. Odysseus bides his time on Ithaca, collecting information and considering the risks before consummating the awful, final slaughter. Clever, brave Odysseus seems to have learned to value caution as much as courage.