Few characters from Greek mythology echo in the mind as resonantly as Polyphemus, the one-eyed, cave-dwelling, human-eating, sheep-and-goat-herding ogre outwitted by the hero Odysseus on his voyage homewards from Troy to Ithaca. As unforgettably recorded in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, this episode involves a succession of key moments: Polyphemus’s imprisoning of the Greek intruders by blocking the entrance to his cavern with a massive boulder; Odysseus’s ruse of getting Polyphemus intoxicated with a gift of potent wine, enabling the hero and his crewmen to blind the ogre with a sharpened wooden stake; the Greeks’ escape from the ogre’s clutches by hanging onto the fleece beneath his sheep, the trick by which Odysseus falsely gives his name as “Nobody”—so that, when Polyphemus calls out to his fellow ogres for help, his cry of “Nobody is killing me” leaves them shaking their heads in puzzlement.
But who was Polyphemus? And who were those fellow ogres? They were known collectively as cyclopes (singular: cyclops), one of the most fascinating monsters to inhabit Greek myths. There were, broadly speaking, three kinds, distinguished by the different sorts of activity that they practised.
First, there were the master masons, who reputedly built mighty (cyclopean) city walls—such as those at Mycenae and Tiryns in the Greek Argolid—out of blocks of rough-hewn stone. Indeed, one interpretation of the name cyclops traces it back to the circular wall or kuklos constructed around a city. But we aren’t told much about the mason cyclopes, nor does any ancient visual image show them in the act of building. What we do know, though, is that they were said to have lived in primordial time: not exactly a time before culture, but a time when culture was in the process of establishing itself.
Equally primordial were the cyclopes of the second type: the mighty blacksmiths, said to have been the offspring of Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), and famous, among other achievements, for fabricating the thunderbolts hurled by Zeus. As the poet Hesiod described them—adopting an alternative etymology—“they were surnamed cyclopes (circle-eyed) because one round eye was set in their foreheads.” Not all their commissions were as formidable as making thunderbolts, though. Another Greek poet, Callimachus, described a visit by the goddess Artemis to the cyclopes’ forge on Mount Etna, where they made a bow and arrows for her. Many other writers located the cyclopes either near, inside, or beneath Etna. Foremost is the Roman poet Virgil, who, in his Aeneid, wonderfully evokes the continuity between the technologically applied fire of the blacksmith’s forge and the natural, volcanic fire which fuels it from below.
Last and certainly not least among the cyclopes come the pastoral ogres, such as Polyphemus, whose parents are said to have been the sea god Poseidon and a nymph. The canonical account of them is in Homer’s Odyssey, but the Polyphemus and Odysseus episode was also reimagined by numerous later authors and artists. A memorable example is the satyr play Cyclops by the Athenian dramatist Euripides (a satyr play was a mythological burlesque featuring the bouncy and rambunctious satyrs). In this case, Polyphemus is portrayed as a cannibal who not only eats his human victims but cooks them first (unlike in the Odyssey, where he eats them raw). Visual artists, too, loved to imagine the hero-versus-ogre encounter. The most popular scenes are the blinding and the under-sheep escape; less common are evocations of Polyphemus’s cannibalism.
Polyphemus’s meeting with Odysseus is not the only aspect of his career that myth-tellers enjoyed recalling. He is also portrayed as a (usually) frustrated lover, the object of his affections being the sea-nymph Galatea. Their relationship is explored most notably in two idylls composed by the Greek pastoral poet Theocritus, where Polyphemus neglects his duties to his flock because he is besotted with the unresponsive Galatea. The Roman writer Ovid would add the figure of Galatea’s lover, the handsome but doomed young shepherd Acis. The jealous Polyphemus obliterated him in typically cyclopean style, by hurling a rock at him.
What do the three types of cyclopes—masons, metal-workers, and herdsmen—have in common? The notion of primordiality is worth reiterating: 015Because pastoralism was often regarded by Greeks as a distinctively early form of subsistence and cave-dwelling was also a marker of “being before” as well as “being outside,” the herding, cave-dwelling cyclopes could be seen as no less primordial than the masons and the blacksmiths. Then there is the overlap between the masons and Polyphemus in their manipulation of big boulders, whether for construction or destruction. Another shared motif is circularity: the city walls and the round eye. Which brings us to what for many has been the point of cyclopean mythology: the single eye.
For some myth-tellers, that eye was what made a cyclops a cyclops. Nevertheless, especially in the visual arts, Polyphemus, or all the cyclopes, are sometimes shown with two eyes. We also find examples of a third eye, centrally positioned above the other two.
Nevertheless, many scholars have regarded monocularity as the origin of the cyclopes. One theory is paleontological: The idea of a cyclops allegedly goes back to observations made in antiquity of the skull of the prehistoric dwarf elephant, notable for the large hole in the middle of its forehead. A second theory is geological: Given the cyclopes’ link with Etna, the image of the circular (eye-like) volcanic crater has been seen as a possible origin for the myth. Third comes medicine: There exists in humans an incredibly rare anatomical abnormality—cyclopia—resulting from a failure of the embryonic forebrain to properly subdivide. Observation of individuals with such an abnormality might, so the argument goes, have generated the mythical image of the cyclops.
None of the three origin-oriented explanations, however, weakens the validity of a more fundamental point: What makes a myth a myth is not its supposed origin, but its meaning, in all its successive retellings. The jury will always be out on the origin, and it doesn’t matter. Far better to imagine a breed of primordial giants with overlapping and paradoxical characteristics, capable of constructiveness but also destructiveness. Indeed, there is much more to the cyclopes than meets the eye.1
Few characters from Greek mythology echo in the mind as resonantly as Polyphemus, the one-eyed, cave-dwelling, human-eating, sheep-and-goat-herding ogre outwitted by the hero Odysseus on his voyage homewards from Troy to Ithaca. As unforgettably recorded in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, this episode involves a succession of key moments: Polyphemus’s imprisoning of the Greek intruders by blocking the entrance to his cavern with a massive boulder; Odysseus’s ruse of getting Polyphemus intoxicated with a gift of potent wine, enabling the hero and his crewmen to blind the ogre with a sharpened wooden stake; the Greeks’ escape from the ogre’s […]