Is There Any Truth to Legends of Mighty Cyclopes from Greek Mythology?
The mysterious, one-eyed creatures revered in Greek and Roman mythologies remain one of the most riveting of the oldest Mediterranean legends. The mighty Cyclopes were members of a race of giants and have been the subject of damning character assassinations throughout history. But, how much truth is there to tales of their existence?
Although most Cyclopes remain anonymous, the ancient sources describe a Cyclops named Polyphemus who lived on an island which is believed to be Sicily. This island was populated by the Cyclopes and other creatures. The name “Cyclops” means “circle-eyed” or “round-eyed.” Their genesis seems to be more complicated than the myths which described them. Searching for any real origins of Cyclopes, and possible evidence of their existence in ancient books, is one of the greatest challenges related to Greek mythology.
Polyphemus the Cyclops from Greek mythology in an 1802 painting by Johann Tischbein. Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name. (Public domain)
Ancient Tales About Cyclopes: What is a Cyclops?
There is no convincing evidence supporting the myths about Cyclopes. However, the stories by famous ancient writers created a legend that blew the minds of generations of people who lived in the Mediterranean area. The imagination of these individuals embellished the literature, making it one of the world’s most famous tales.
Late Classical terracotta satirical depiction of Polyphemus the Cyclops from Greek mythology. (Jmjohnson17 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Two prominent descriptions of the Cyclopes come from Hesiod and Homer. The portrayal that came from their writings affected later texts. Hesiod wrote Theogony between the 8th and the 7th centuries BC. According to the translation by Evelyn White, the ancient Greek writer wrote:
“And again, she [Gaia (Gaea) the Earth] bare [to Ouranos (Uranus) the Sky] the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), overbearing in spirit, Brontes, and Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges, who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt: in all else they were like the gods, but one eye only was set in the midst of their foreheads. And they were surnamed Kyklopes (Orb-eyed) because one orbed eye was set in their foreheads. Strength and might and craft were in their works. And again, three other sons [the Hekatonkheires (Hecatoncheires) were born of Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky)…
For of all the children that were born of Gaia and Ouranos, these [the Hekatonkheires and Kyklopes] were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first [i.e. Father Sky hates the Storm-Giants]. And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Gaia (Earth) so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Ouranos rejoiced in his evil doing.”
Painting by Odilon Redon known as The Cyclops, circa 1914. Hesiod wrote that the Cyclopes were hated by their father, so he hid them away. (Public domain)
Thin Evidence from Homer Relating to Cyclopes in Mythology
In one of the chapters of The Odyssey by Homer, the legendary Odysseus met a Cyclops named Polyphemus. It is significant that Homer didn't write explicitly that Polyphemus only had a single eye. However, some specialists in Homeric writings suggested that this fact was implied in the text. According to them, it was mentioned when Homer wrote “his eye” instead of “his eyes.”
Other authors also wrote about the Cyclopes. For example, Greek author Callimachus mentioned the Cyclopes as the beings who created the fortifications at Mycenae and Tiryns. Around 275 BC, a Sicilian poet named Theocritus wrote two poems related to the story of Polyphemus and his desire for the sea nymph called Galatea. The poet described a plan by the Cyclops to possess her.
The famous Greek writer Euripides wrote the play titled Cyclops in 408 BC. The plot takes place on Sicily, very close to the famous volcano Mount Etna. Virgil, who was a Roman epic poet, as famous as Homer is in Greek literature, wrote the classic book, The Aeneid, where he included the story of how, after the escaping from Troy, Aeneas landed on the island of a Cyclops. The book by Virgil is very similar to The Odyssey, and the story of this Cyclops encounter is the same as that of Polyphemus.
Odysseus and his crew are blinding the most famous of the Cyclopes known as Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic amphora, circa 650 BC. (Napoleon Vier / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hypotheses on the Origins of the Cyclopes
The origins of the mysterious Cyclopes are fascinating. According to paleontologist Othenio Abel, the roots of Cyclopes lie in the prehistoric skulls of dwarf elephants. The animals lived on islands such as Sicily, Malta, Crete, and Cyprus.
According to research from 1914, the large nasal cavities of these dwarf elephant skulls made people think that they belonged to one-eyed creatures. For centuries, people were unable to designate the real origins of the skulls, so the myth about Cyclopes grew.
Dwarf elephant with large nasal cavities from the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse in Italy. (Giovanni Dall'Orto)
Another idea was created by Walter Burkert, a German scholar of cults and mythology. He suggested archaic societies mirror real cult associations, like smith guilds. He believed that the idea of strong one-eyed creatures comes from the blacksmiths’ tradition of wearing an eye-patch on one eye.
However, he notes that the Cyclopes from The Odyssey are described somewhat differently to those in the book by Hesiod. Those described in Theogony are not related to the blacksmith cult, but Burkert believed that there is an explanation for this anomaly. He suggested that is it likely that Polyphemus was initially considered a local demon, and Homer was the one who turned Polyphemus into a Cyclops. Finally, some researchers believe that Cyclopes were simply deformed human beings.
The Blinding of Polyphemus by Alessandro Allori. (Public domain)
The Cyclopes Were Legendary Builders
For centuries, people believed that Cyclopes made the monumental walls of cities and other impressive buildings. Their fame as the architects of many impressive buildings endured. For example, the story of the walls of Mycenae is impossible to break from old legends about Cyclopes.
- Argos Panoptes – The All-Seeing Giant of Greek Mythology
- Mycenae: The Ancient City Founded by Perseus
Whether there are grains of truth to the Cyclopes story and they are based on some creature that once existed is currently unsubstantiated. However, Cyclopes continue to be a fascinating part of ancient traditional folklore. Sadly, unlike many of the other characters from mythological stories, their complicated image makes it hard to cast them as main characters within modern writings.
Top image: Odysseus and Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin. Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name. Source: Public domain
By Natalia Klimczak
Bremmer, J. N. 1987. “Odysseus versus the Cyclops” in Myth and Symbol. The Norwegian Institute.
Greek Mythology. 2017. “Cyclopes” in Greek Mythology. Available at: http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Cyclopes/cyclopes.html
Theoi Project. 2017. “Kyklopes” in Theoi Greek Mythology. Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Kyklopes.html
Greek Gods and Goddesses. 2017. “Cyclopes” in Greek Gods and Goddesses. Available at: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/myths/cyclopes/