Ulysses and the cyclop Polyphemus

For the ancients, the barbarian was someone who had a speech defect. Barbaros, said the Greeks, was someone who sounded like gibberish. Blabla, bar bar.

A speech defect, therefore a thinking or cognitive defect. A cognitive defect, therefore a substantial or being defect. The barbarians were the utterly different, the utterly alien, utterly on the outside, whether they had a beard, called barba, or not. That’s a different story.

Speech has always been a marker of civilization. Even Homer’s cyclop Polyphemus, savage and agriculturally illiterate as he was, was intelligible, articulate and auricularly attuned. He was not a barbaric creature, but one on the edges of civilization, not quite in and not quite out. Favoured by the gods – a son of Poseidon -, he was all the more terrifying.

Ulysses’ language trick, by introducing himself as ‘Outis’ meaning ‘Nobody’ worked as a charm until the charm was broken by hybris. To escape the cyclop, the Greek hero concealed his true name. Revealing it as he escaped, Ulysses incurred the wrath of Poseidon, the god of the sea, as Polyphemus could name the one who took his eye out, and thus hand him over to his godly father’s revenge.

Language may not move mountains, but it surely can raise a storm. A storm so great that no speech acts can placate.

Post scriptum. Next week I’ll be on the sea, the wine-dark sea, not too far from Ulysses’ wandering tracks. So expect a bunch of sailing-related rants, wandering lines and drifting words. I apologise in advance for anything that might sound like something a Lotus-eater might utter.

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