“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”Aristotle, Politics
Whilst studying Odysseus’ narrative in Books 9–12, my GCSE Classical Civilisation students and I attempted to put each of the characters that delay Odysseus’ journey onto a scale of beast/monster to god, as per Aristotle. Here are our results (from my site GreekMythComix.com) and the arguments behind them.
Hyperion’s cattle: they are representatives of Hyperion, the very sun, and, despite being killed for food, ‘the meat bellowed on the spits’, suggesting they are immortal.
Circe: we’ve put her below Hyperion’s cattle mostly for status’ sake: she’s the daughter of a titan, a lesser god though still immortal, and has an human voice’ which suggests she is closer to humanity. She has the power to use magic (pharmakon) and turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs, but the gods seem to be able to turn people (or themselves) into animals without having to use potions, suggesting she is lesser than them.
Aeolus: he is ‘king of the winds’, and ‘beloved of the gods’, but is not apparently a god himself, or at least is never described as such. He has ‘given his daughters in marriage to his sons’, a level of incest normally only reserved for gods, and lives on an isolated island ringed with a ‘bronze wall riding up from the sheer cliffs’ where every day his whole family is given plentiful meat and mellow wine’, which suggests he is quite a bit higher up than regular mortals, but still not a god himself.
Cicones: they are regular mortals. And they still beat Odysseus in the long run (his men’s fault.)
The Lotus Eaters: while they seem to be mostly human, they do not have the human quality of nostos, the need to return home. They also try to remove it from Odysseus’ men. Thus, a little monstrous.
Polyphemus: He is a cyclops, so not human, but his level of ‘monstrousness’ is negligible.
He does seem to be at least semi-‘civilised’: he is a shepherd who clearly loves his animals, talking affectionately to his biggest ram, whose regular behaviour he monitors; he may not farm or eat bread (apparently civilised behaviour, according to men) but he makes cheese, and has ‘well-made vessels’ that he carries out this procedure in.
However: he does not observe Xenia, he does not respect the gods – except Poseidon, his father, and… then there’s the fact that he eats humans. Technically, this is not cannibalism, as they’re not the same species, but they are all anthropomorphic, so it’s still very, very wrong. Especially as he promises to eat Odysseus last, as a guest-gift.
Laestrygonians: they are apparently human, and they do eat people, so they really are cannibals. And, they let their women out on their own, such as the ‘strong girl’ collecting water (RED FLAG! RED FLAG!) They are further reduced in humanity by their ‘monstrous size’, which seems to grow with each encounters Odysseus’ men seem to have no problem with the ‘strong girl’ but the queen is ‘monstrous’ and then Antiphates the king is able to pin a man down and start gnawing on him, before the rest of his cannibalistic tribe throw rocks at Odysseus fleet and spear three men on one spear ‘like fishermen’, making them sound like giants. They also do not speak: the ‘strong girl’ simply points, Antiphates’ wife only yells his name, and that’s it. A lack of developed verbal communication is surely an indicator of a lack of civilisation. As well as eating people.
The Sirens: these are actually visually monstrous, being only part anthropomorphic with human heads on bird bodies. They do have a voice and the ability to communicate, unlike the Laestrygonians, but use it to lure men to their deaths, thus making their use of voice more like the attractive scent of a Venus Flytrap. Yet, they don’t even seem to eat their prey: ‘about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling’. This wasteful act makes them seem extra monstrous and almost evil.
Scylla and Charybdis: Scylla may have a history of having been a nymph, but now she can only ‘bark’ and eat with her several heads, grabbing prey as it goes past, which also suggests a level of automatic reaction rather than thought.
Charybdis is a whirlpool. 🤷♀️
These creatures have no discernible human characteristics, and seem only to exist to consume.
Do you agree or disagree with my GCSE class’ choices? Is there anything we have missed?
NB: This post originally appeared on Medium and has now been moved to this site in the interests of keeping it as free content.