This chilling scene on the neck of a Proto-Attic amphora from the early seventh century B.C. portrays the encounter of Odysseus with the giant, Polyphemus, who was called the Cyclops because he had a single eye in the middle of his forehead. Odysseus and his men, trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, managed to escape by getting the giant drunk on wine and then, after he had fallen asleep, blinding him by thrusting a glowing olive wood pole into his eye socket. Homer describes the result in a passage of gruesome intensity (Odyssey, IX: 389–94):

“The blast and scorch of the burning ball singed all his eyebrows and eyelids, and the fire made the roots of his eye crackle. As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges into cold water a great axe or adze which hisses aloud, ‘doctoring’ it, since this is the way that steel is made strong, even so Cyclops’s eye sizzled about the beam of the olive.” (Translation after that by Richard Lattimore)

The Odyssey, although it incorporates older material, was first written down in the late eighth century B.C. Homer’s description of Polyphemus’s agony is the earliest literary description of the quenching of carbonized iron, or steel. So graphic a simile could only have been created by someone who had himself watched the blacksmith at work. It is such passages that make the study of the Homeric poems so complex and yet so important for understanding the transition from bronze to iron and the beginnings of the Iron Age. Homer, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, wrote about a period (during and after the Trojan War) at the end of the Late Bronze Age, and bronze is the metal used by his heroes, both Greek and Trojan. But in vivid descriptive passages, such as this one of the Cyclops, Homer frequently draws upon material from his own daily world, the world of the eighth century B.C. In such passages iron suddenly appears as the metal in common use.

The Polyphemus passage is also important for what it tells us about the development of iron technology. The fact that it was possible to harden a material by plunging it into cold water was obviously a puzzle to Homer. The Greek word that describes this peculiar property of carburized iron (and only carburized iron, because quenching would not change the properties of wrought iron) is translated here as ‘doctoring’ but is etymologically related to English words such as pharmacy. Homer and the inhabitants of Dark Age Greece must have seen the transformation of carburized iron through quenching as something bordering on the magical. They did not understand the exact nature of the physical change created by the act, but they recognized that somehow the metal had been transformed.