Critics often heap disdain on the Bible because of apparent discrepancies in the synoptic gospels. Some of these include:
- Mark 5:2 has one demoniac, but Matthew 8:28 has two demoniacs
- Matthew 20:29 has Jesus leaving Jericho, but Mark 10:46 has Him entering Jericho
- Matthew 17:1 mentions six days later, but Luke 9:28 gives eight days
I happen to believe that these discrepancies are actually harmonious, and since it has been demonstrated by numerous scholars, I need not labor the issue now. Rather I’d like to highlight Virgil’s remarkable efforts to harmonize with Homer in reference to the Cyclops story.
The similarities of the Cyclops stories in the Odyssey and the Aeneid are quite conspicuous, adding to ease of harmonization between Virgil’s account and Homer’s. Both authors describe the Cyclops Polyphemus—whose name means abounding in songs and legends from πολύς and φήμη —as a gigantic, hideous monster having but one, humongous eye centered on his forehead. In his epithet Homer describes him as “high and mighty” (Odyssey 9:119), and Virgil using hyperbole “his head scrapes the stars” (Aeneid 3:719). Additionally Homer describes Polyphemus as a “man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world” (9:213-14), and Virgil gives the size of Polyphemus’ eye the same dimension of a Greek shield (3:738).
Perhaps the most grueling description of Polyphemus pertains to his unique diet of sheep, goat’s milk and juicy T-bone steaks butchered daily from anthropic meat. In the words of Homer giving the usual, gory details through the lips of Odysseus:
Not a word in reply to that, the ruthless brute.
Lurching up, he lunged out with his hands toward my men
and snatching two at once, rapping them on the ground
he knocked them dead like pups—
their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor—
and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal
he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap,
devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all (9:323-30)!
Hence, Achaemenides, Ulysses’ abandoned comrade according to Virgil, describes the Cyclops’ cavern and his table manners as such:
This gruesome house. Gory for its hideous feasts….He gorges himself
on the innards and black blood of all his wretched victims.
With my own eyes I’ve seen him snatch a pair of our men
in one massive hand and, sprawling amidst his lair,
crush their bodies on the rocks till the cave’s maw
swam with splashing blood. I’ve seen him gnawing limbs,
oozing dark filth, and the warm flesh twitching still
between his grinding jaws (3:717-28).
The outcome of Odysseus-Ulysses’ confrontation with Polyphemus is the same in both accounts of Homer and Virgil. The Greeks make him drunk with wine, stab him in the eye during his sleep and flee from him upon escaping from his cavern. However, in spite of these great similarities in comparison, there are discrepancies or minor differences between the two records of the same event.
To begin, there is a difference in perspectives which naturally accounts for the different details that are stated; Homer tells the narrative through Odysseus, and Virgil through Aeneas. Homer gives the story in book nine of The Odyssey, but Virgil does in book three. Homer wrote in Greek, Virgil in Latin. Whereas Homer gives much more detail of the story through some 500 lines, Virgil chose to tell the story in about 120 lines and thus offered very little insight beyond Homer’s treatment. Homer is witty (“nobody stabbed Polyphemus”), Virgil produces nothing but dread!
The historical contexts are vastly different as well. The narrative in the Aeneid takes place some three months after the event which Homer describes in the Odyssey. Upon escaping from the Cyclops’ cave and being abandoned accidentally by Ulysses (see Aeneid 3:714-15), Achaemenides tells Aeneas and crew, “Three times now the horns of the moon have filled with light / since I’ve dragged out my lonely days through the woods” (Aeneid 3:746-47). It was a time in which Polyphemus was still recovering from his wound: “Soon as the giant gained deep water and offshore swells, / he washed the blood still trickling down from his dug-out socket, / gnashing his teeth, groaning, and wades out in the surf” (Aeneid 3:766-68). Wherefore, Homer states the action as it was occurring, but Virgil tells the story through events happening about three months after the fact.
There is no doubt in my mind that Virgil attempted to harmonize his retelling of the story with the account given by Homer. When reading the story in Homer, one comes away with the idea that all the Greeks still alive managed to escape at sea with Odysseus: “But my sacrifices failed to move the god: / Zeus was still obsessed with plans to destroy / my entire oarswept fleet and loyal crew of comrades” (Odyssey 9:617-19). How then can Achaemenides still be stuck on the Cyclops’ island when Aeneas and his cohorts arrive? The key to harmonization is that Virgil produces Achaemenides as a companion of Ulysses who was accidentally abandoned unbeknownst to him. “But here my comrades left me, forgot me—this monstrous cave of the Cyclops—fleeing in terror from its brutal mouth” (Aeneid 3:714-16).
Though Virgil does a magnificent job at harmonizing with Homer, I believe he made a mistake which escaped his notice, or one that he was unable to fix since he never edited the Aeneid for a final draft. In describing how the sailors cast lots to determine who would stab Polyphemus in the eye, Homer mentions that lots were cast before the Cyclops fell asleep, but Vergil places the lots after the Cyclops fell asleep. In Homer’s account, Odysseus and his cohorts cast lots while Polyphemus was away from his cave tending his flocks (9:370). He later returns after Odysseus has contrived his clever plan and then fell asleep (9:376, 416). But Virgil’s rendition is such:
Soon as the monster gorged himself to bursting,
buried deep in wine, his neck slumping to one side,…
we prayed to the great gods, drew lots, rushed in a
ringaround him there and drilled out with a stabbing spike
his one enormous eye (3:731-37a).
Though Fagle’s translation is a dynamic equivalence, his rendering of the Latin text remains true to the sense of Virgil’s nam simul expletus dapibus uinoque sepultus… /numina sortitique uices una undique circum (III:630-34). The Latin simul, whence the English “simultaneous,” places the events of casting lots at the same time of the Cyclops’ slumber—the adverb expresses contemporaneous action governing several events in the same sphere of time. Lewis and Short offer the meanings “at the same time, together, at once, as soon as” (A Latin Dictionary, 1702).
There are two possibilities in which Virgil can still harmonize with Homer over the issue of the lots, but they are highly unlikely. There could have been two different times in which lots were cast, but this would be superfluous for determining who would drive the spike into Polyphemus’ eye. Or Achaemenides was so wretched, beat-up and distressed that he simply forgot the sequence of events as he tried to relate them nearly three months after the fact. Certainly a minor detail like this is plausible, but one must eisegete this assumption into the text since Virgil nowhere hints this was his intention for the reader to understand. As mentioned above, I think the best answer to the problem is that Virgil simply overlooked this minor detail and would have fixed it if he had an opportunity.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” By this I am convinced that there is value in forming a Christian worldview through everything the believer does, even in harmonizing the works of Homer and Virgil. But how does harmonizing the stories about the Cyclops bring glory to God? Namely this--through such an exercise, the interpreter of God’s word in the Bible gains greater expertise to handle many of the difficulties pertaining to discrepancies in the synoptic gospels. There is no reason for the believer to be intimidated by the scoffers who attack the veracity of the Scriptures.