Is There Any Truth to the Existence and Damning Character Assassinations of Mighty Legendary Cyclopes?
The mysterious, one-eyed creatures revered in Greek and Roman mythologies remain one of the most interesting creatures spoken of in the oldest Mediterranean legends. They were members of the race of giants, whose roots come from the most bygone times in the history of the world.
Although most Cyclopes remain anonymous, the ancient sources describe a cyclops named Polyphemus. He 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 out of ancient books, is one of the greatest challenges related to mythology.
Polyphemus, Johann Tischbein. (1802) ( Public Domain ) Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name.
Ancient Tales About Cyclopes
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.
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.''
The Cyclops, Odilon Redon, circa 1914. ( Public Domain ) Hesiod wrote that the Cyclopes were hated by their father, so he hid them away.
Thin Evidence from Homer on a Cyclops
In one of the chapters of ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, the legendary Odysseus met the 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''.
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Odysseus and his crew are blinding the most famous of the Cyclopes, Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic amphora, circa 650 BC. Eleusis, Archaeological Museum. (Napoleon Vier/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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 in the Cave of Polyphemus, Jacob Jordaens. ( Public Domain )
The Origins of 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 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.
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Dwarf Elephant with large nasal cavities Syracuse, Italy – Museo archeologico regionale Paolo Orsi . ( 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 made Polyphemus a Cyclops. Finally, some researchers believe that Cyclopes were simply deformed human beings.
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.
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 them difficult to be used as a main character in modern writings.
Top Image: Odysseus and Polyphemus, Arnold Böcklin. Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name. Source: Public Domain
J.N. Bremmer, ‘Odysseus versus the Cyclops’, in Myth and Symbol, 1987.
Greek Mythology (2017) ‘Cyclopes,’ available at: http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Cyclopes/cyclopes.html
Theoi Project (2017) ‘Kyklopes,’ available at: http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Kyklopes.html
Greek Gods and Godesses (2017) ‘Cyclopes,’ available at: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/myths/cyclopes/