Written Assignments

Negative Cultural Values: Polyphemos


Web Resources for This Assignment

"Polyphemos," from Homer's Odyssey

The Notion of the "Other"

   In your assignment on Gilgamesh, we dealt with the cultural concept of a "hero." The "hero" embodies for a culture what it believes is the highest potential of a human being. You may have noticed that the Hebrew hero (gibbor) is far different from the Mesopotamian hero, for the Hebrews stressed that the highest human ability is to obey Yahweh.
   There is a complementary concept that is the exact opposite of the "hero": the concept of the "other." You can call it what you want: monsters, villains, enemies, etc., but the "other" always represents behaviors and social problems that an individual culture regards as alien to themselves. Cultures make up various people and monsters to serve as a kind of negative definition: we aren't like those people, or, we aren't like this monster.
   Let me give you an example: last summer, Independence Day was one of the most popular films of all time. It was the story of an alien invasion, and the aliens were as different from human beings as you can possibly imagine. Not only were they physically different than human beings, they had values that we don't normally regard as "American" values: they were violent, cold, and they simply used up resources without any concern for the environment. That is, the aliens were the exact opposite of what we believe ourselves to be
   But here's the scary part: Americans, too, are violent, cold, and use up the environment with no concern. So not only does the "other" represent negative qualities which we believe we don't have, sometimes a culture's concept of the "other" is a way of talking about negative qualities within the culture that no-one wants to acknowledge are there. So, Independence Day is in reality a movie about how Americans are wasting the environment, but it talks about the issue by taking that negative quality and pasting it on non-Americans, while we get to still feel good about ourselves.

The Assignment

   On this assignment, I'd like you to focus on the character of Polyphemos in the extract in your reader. Polyphemos as a monster, but one that is almost human, represents the "other" in Homer's narrative, that is, he embodies negative values that Greeks would not identify with themselves. In other words, Polyphemos is the Greek way of saying, "We Greeks aren't like that." Answer three questions in two paragraphs:
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