Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Two points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea nymph and Acis, the son of a sea nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy, one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, and settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.
The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—lots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. Acis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.
The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” Undoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.
Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. And our spiritual survival depends on it.
Yesterday’s passage from Matthew 25 is the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.
In his prime time speech on immigration reform the other day, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. The outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.