The first Great Escape

  • Themes: Greece, History

Reports that a prisoner escaped Wandsworth jail on the underside of a food truck are bound to raise an echo with classicists and readers of ancient Greek literature. It might be the oldest trick in the book.

An Attic black-figured lekythos from the 6th century B.C. depicting the escape from Cyclops in the Odyssey.
An Attic black-figured lekythos from the 6th century B.C. depicting the escape from Cyclops in the Odyssey. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

In Homer’s Odyssey, composed around 700 BC, Odysseus tells his hosts on the magical island of Scheria, where he has landed on the way back from Troy to his home in Ithaca, how he and his men escaped the cave of the Cyclops. It’s a splendidly gory tale, told with verve, wit, and self-congratulation. After landing on the island of the Cyclopes (Trinakria, evidently a mythical version of Sicily) on their way home from fighting at Troy, the cold, hungry sailors find a warm and well-provisioned cave, and gorge themselves on cheese. The cave, however, is the home of the savage one-eyed giant, the Cyclops Polyphemus. When he returns home that evening with his flock and discovers the men, he imprisons them by blocking the entrance with a huge boulder. He then seizes two of them, dashes them against a rock and greedily eats them alive, ‘bones and all’. The following day he has two more men for breakfast, and then heads to the pasture with his sheep, leaving the cave well secured with the boulder before returning at dusk to dine on a further two wretched victims.

Odysseus manages to defer his own potential grisly fate by offering Polyphemus a gift of unmixed wine. Ancient wines were thick and strong, and had to be mixed with water for convivial drinking. Undiluted wine would be bound to have a soporific effect, particularly on a country-dwelling giant used to drinking only milk and water. The Cyclops enjoys the wine and asks Odysseus who he is. Odysseus cunningly replies that his name is ‘Noman’, whereupon Polyphemus offers him a grim reward: Noman, he says, will be the last of the group he will eat. When he has fallen into a heavy, drunken, sleep, Odysseus and four comrades whittle a tree-trunk into a wooden stake, heat up its sharpened tip in the fire, then drive it into the giant’s sole eye. Homer delights in recounting how the huge eye burns and sizzles like a red-hot iron axe, which a blacksmith tempers by dipping it in cold water.

Polyphemus bellows for help, and his fellow Cyclopes rush to investigate the commotion. When they gather around and ask who has harmed him, his reply is ‘Noman did this!’ Odysseus’s ruse has worked and the Cyclopes leave, shaking their heads at Polyphemus’s crazy behaviour. When the blinded giant unblocks the entrance in the morning to let his sheep out, he sits with his arms stretched out to feel for their woolly backs, so as to make sure that his prisoners cannot make a break for it. However, Odysseus and his men have tied rams to each other in threes, so that each man might hold on to the underside of the middle one as they exit the cave. Odysseus himself selects an extra-large ram, and clings on to its underbelly, face up.

There is a poignant moment when the ram, weighed down by its burden, is waddling slowly out of the cave. Polyphemus strokes its back and says (here in Emily Wilson’s translation):

Sweet ram, why are you last today to leave

the cave? You are not normally so slow.

You are the first to eat the tender flower,

leaping across the meadow; first to drink,

and first to want to go back to the sheepfold

at evening time. But now you are the last.

You grieve for Master’s eye; that wicked man,

helped by his nasty henchmen, got me drunk

and blinded me. Noman will not escape!

If only you could talk like me, and tell me

where he is skulking in his fear of me.

Then I would dash his brains out on the rocks,

and make them spatter all across the cave

to ease the pain that no-good Noman brought.’

Stories of wicked giants abound in myths worldwide, and scores of different versions of the story have been identified across numerous cultures. It has been suggested that the archetypal figure of the imaginary one-eyed giant has its origins in the way infants first see a parent’s face close-up, looming above them, with the two eyes converging frighteningly into one. Homer’s Odysseus is a great storyteller, as is the epic poet himself. We never know how much of what Odysseus tells his hosts is meant to be believed, but he makes this story thrillingly believable. At the heart of his clever ruse to avoid identification is a spectacular pun: the Greek word for ‘Noman’ is, in indirect speech, mêtis – and this word is also a noun that in Greek means ‘cunning’, an attribute most frequently applied in the epic to Odysseus himself. The hero who overcomes the giant is cunning personified.

None of these considerations is likely to have occurred to Daniel Khalife, the former soldier who managed to hide beneath the van that drove him undetected out of Wandsworth prison. But it is worth pausing to reflect on the escape device that thrilled the ears of audiences millennia ago in ancient Greece, and to wonder whether there really is anything new under the sun.


Armand D'Angour