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What is a Cyclops?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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In Greek mythology a Cyclops was a one-eyed being, but there are several different traditions that refer to several different types of Cyclops. Hesiod told of three sons of Uranus and Gaea, the Cyclopes — which is the plural form — who each had one eye. They were thrown into Tartarus, but released by Zeus during the overthrow of Cronus.

These three Titans were named Brontes, which means “thunderer;” Steropes, which means “lightner” or maker of lightning; and Arges, which means “bright.” In Hesiod, they were the makers of Zeus’s thunderbolts and lightning, Hades’ helmet, and Poseidon’s trident.

Another tradition has the Cyclopes serving Hephaestus at his forge. In this telling, they are smiths, who stoke the volcanic fires at which Hephaestus makes armor for the gods and goddesses. For example, in a hymn by Callimachus, Artemis asks Zeus for arrows and a bow forged by the Cyclopes. Yet another tradition considers them a tribe from Thrace, named after their king and the builders of the Cyclopean walls.

But perhaps the best-known version of a Cyclops is the one from Homer’s Odyssey. In Odysseus’s journey home, he comes upon a giant race of shepherds who are lawless cave-dwellers. Interested to see what kind of a gift they will give him, Odysseus takes twelve of his men to visit them, and waits in the cave of one for their host’s return. The Cyclops they encounter is the one named Polyphemus. When Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, which spend the night in the cave with him, rather than greeting them and sharing food and gifts and they expect, he imprisons them in the cave and eats two of the men. Odysseus makes a clever plan to escape. He gets Polyphemus drunk, puts out his eye, and helps his men to escape by clinging to the undersides of the flock as they exit the cave in the morning.

Because Odysseus has told Polyphemus that his name is “No Man,” when the Cyclops cries for help, it sounds to his fellow Cyclopes that he is saying that “No Man is killing me” — not a cause for concern. But from aboard his ship, Odysseus reveals his true name, which allows Polyphemus to invoke his father, Poseidon, to avenge him, resulting in a very, very long journey for Odysseus and his shipmates, as Poseidon prevents their homecoming.

This particular Cyclops, Polyphemus, also figures in a poem by Theocritus and a report by Ovid, who tell of the Cyclops’s attempts to woo a nymph named Galatea, after murdering her lover Acis. Galatea was able to turn Acis into a river as he was dying, but she was never interested in Polyphemus. This myth is retold in John Gay’s libretto for Georg Friederich Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea. It was also the subject of an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully with a libretto by Jean Galbert de Campistron called Acis et Galatée.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Jan 04, 2015

@pleonasm - Honestly, though, I don't think there needs to be a concrete origin for this myth. It's not that much of a stretch to imagine a human with only one eye, or a human who is larger than most, even without any examples to draw from.

Mythology contains much stranger things than that which we take for granted as having once come from dreams or even an active imagination or whatever.

By pleonasm — On Jan 03, 2015

@KoiwiGal - There have been cases where humans have been born with a single eye as well. There are conditions where that happens although I think usually the child doesn't live more than a little while after birth.

Considering how little people back then knew about medicine and pregnancy care, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they had a much higher rate of birth defects that could contribute to this kind of mythology.

Even today I've heard of babies in some countries that have been revered or reviled as mythological creatures because they had the misfortune of being born with extra limbs or a tail or whatever else.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 02, 2015

I've heard that there is speculation that the Roman cyclops myth was developed when people saw the skulls of elephants but didn't know what they were. An elephant skull has relatively small sockets for eyes, but a very large one in the middle for the trunk and it's easy to see how someone might mistake that socket for a single, large eye socket.

Since elephants once had a much larger range, there might have been skulls in places where the living creatures weren't around to dispel the notion.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth

Writer

Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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