Is there any truth to the legends of the mighty Cyclops in Greek mythology?

The mysterious, one-eyed creatures revered in Greek and Roman mythologies remain one of the most fascinating of the oldest Mediterranean legends. The mighty Cyclopes were members of a race of giants and have been the subject of overwhelming assassinations throughout history. But, how much truth is there in the accounts of their existence?

Although most Cyclops remain anonymous, ancient sources describe a Cyclops named Polyphemus who lived on an island believed to be Sicily. This island was populated by Cyclopes and other creatures. The name “Cyclops” means “round eyes” or “round eyes”. Their genesis seems more complicated than the myths that describe them. Finding the true origins of the Cyclopes and possible evidence of their existence in ancient books is one of the greatest challenges related to Greek mythology.

Polyphemus the Cyclops of Greek mythology in an 1802 painting by Johann Tischbein. Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name. ( Public domain )

Ancient Tales of Cyclops: What is a Cyclops?

There is no convincing evidence supporting the Cyclops myths. However, the stories of famous ancient writers have created a legend that has blown away generations of people who lived in the Mediterranean region. The imagination of these individuals has embellished literature, making it one of the most famous tales in the world.

Late Classical satirical terracotta depiction of Polyphemus the Cyclops from Greek mythology.  (Jmjohnson17 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Late Classical satirical terracotta depiction of Polyphemus the Cyclops from Greek mythology. (Jmjohnson17 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Two important 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 7th centuries BC. According to Evelyn White’s translation, the ancient Greek writer wrote:

“And again, she [Gaia (Gaea) the Earth] naked [to Ouranos (Uranus) the Sky] the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), authoritarian in spirit, Brontes, and stubborn-hearted Steropes and Arges, who gave Zeus thunder and made lightning: in everything else they were like the gods, but one eye alone was placed in the middle of their foreheads. And they were nicknamed Kyklopes (Orb-eyed) because an orbital eye was placed on their forehead. Strength, power and skill were in their works. And again, three more 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 in a secret place of Gaia (Earth) as soon as each was born, and did not allow them to rise to the light: and Ouranos rejoiced in his evil deed.

Painting by Odilon Redon known as The Cyclops, circa 1914. Hesiod wrote that the Cyclops were hated by their father, so he hid them.  (Public domain)

Painting by Odilon Redon known as The Cyclops, circa 1914. Hesiod wrote that the Cyclops were hated by their father, so he hid them. ( Public domain )

Thin evidence from Homer regarding Cyclops 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 did not write explicitly that Polyphemus had only one eye. However, some scholars of Homeric writings have suggested that this fact is implied in the text. According to them, it was mentioned when Homer wrote “his eye” instead of “his eyes”.

Other authors have also written about the Cyclopes. For example, the Greek author Callimachus mentioned the Cyclopes as the beings who created the fortifications of Mycenae and Tiryns. Around 275 BC. AD, a Sicilian poet named Theocritus wrote two poems related to the story of Polyphemus and his longing for the sea nymph called Galatea. The poet described a plan of the Cyclops to possess her.

The famous Greek writer Euripides wrote the play titled Cyclops in 408 BC. The plot takes place in Sicily, very close to the famous Etna volcano. 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 escape from Troy, Aeneas landed on the island of a Cyclops. Virgil’s book is very similar to The Odyssey and the story of this encounter with Cyclops is the same as that of Polyphemus.

Odysseus and his crew blind 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)

Odysseus and his crew blind 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 Cyclops

The origins of the mysterious Cyclops are fascinating. According to paleontologist Othenio Abel, the roots of the Cyclopes are found 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 they belonged to one-eyed creatures. For centuries people were unable to pinpoint the true origins of the skulls, so the myth of the Cyclops grew.

Dwarf elephant with large nasal cavities from the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse in Italy.  (Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Dwarf elephant with large nasal cavities from the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse in Italy. ( Giovanni Dal’Orto )

Another idea was created by Walter Burkert, a German specialist in cults and mythology. He suggested that archaic societies reflect true worship associations, such as blacksmith guilds. He believed that the idea of ​​strong one-eyed creatures came from the tradition of blacksmiths wearing an eye patch over one eye.

However, he notes that the Cyclopes of The Odyssey are described somewhat differently from those in the book of Hesiod. Those described in Theogony are unrelated to the cult of the blacksmith, but Burkert thought there was an explanation for this anomaly. He suggested that it is likely that Polyphemus was initially thought to be a local demon, and Homer was the one who turned Polyphemus into Cyclops. Finally, some scholars believe that the Cyclopes were simply deformed human beings.

The Blinding of Polyphemus by Alessandro Allori.  (Public domain)

The Blinding of Polyphemus by Alessandro Allori. ( Public domain )

The Cyclops were legendary builders

For centuries, people believed that the Cyclopes made the monumental walls of cities and other impressive buildings. Their fame as architects of many impressive buildings has endured. For example, the story of the walls of Mycenae is impossible to break with the old legends about the Cyclopes.

That there are grains of truth in the Cyclopes story and that they are based on a creature that once existed is currently unsubstantiated. However, the Cyclopes continue to be a fascinating part of ancient traditional folklore. Unfortunately, unlike many other characters in mythological stories, their convoluted image makes it difficult for them to be incorporated as main characters in modern writings.

Top image: Ulysses and Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin. Polyphemus is one of the only Cyclopes recognized by name. Source: Public domain

By Natalia Klimczak