A cyclops (/ˈsaɪklɒps/ SY-klops; Ancient Greek: Κύκλωψ,
Kyklōps; plural cyclopes /saɪˈkloʊpiːz/ sy-KLOH-peez; Ancient
Greek: Κύκλωπες, Kyklōpes), in
Greek mythology and later
Roman mythology, is a member of a primordial race of giants, each with
a single eye in the center of his forehead. The word "cyclops"
literally means "round-eyed" or "circle-eyed".
Hesiod described three one-eyed cyclopes who served as builders,
blacksmiths, and craftsmen: Brontes, Steropes and Arges, the sons of
Uranus and Gaia, brothers of the Titans.
Homer described another
group of mortal herdsmen or shepherd cyclopes, the sons of
Poseidon. Other accounts were written by the playwright Euripides,
Theocritus and Roman epic poet Virgil. In Hesiod's Theogony, Zeus
releases three cyclopes from the dark pit of Tartarus. They provide
Zeus' thunderbolt, Hades' helmet of invisibility, and Poseidon's
trident, and the gods use these weapons to defeat the Titans.
In an episode of Homer's Odyssey, the hero
Odysseus encounters the
cyclops Polyphemus, the son of
Poseidon and Thoosa, who lives with his
fellow cyclopes in a distant country. The connection between the two
groups has been debated in antiquity and by modern scholars. It is
upon Homer's account that
Virgil based their accounts of
the mythical creatures.
Strabo describes another group of seven Lycian
cyclopes, also known as "Bellyhands" because they earned from their
handicraft. They had built the walls of
Tiryns and perhaps the caverns
and the labyrinths near Nauplia, which are called cyclopean.
1 Ancient sources
1.7 Nonnus Dionysiaca
3 Cyclopean walls
4 Legends of the Caucasus
5 See also
8 External links
The Cyclops, gouache and oil by Odilon Redon, undated
It is often assumed that
Polyphemus lives, along with the other
cyclopes, on an island. That is a possibility but all that is known
Odyssey is that
Polyphemus resided in a “land”
somewhere farther on from the Lotus-Eaters, in a place that is not
close or distant from an uninhabited, wooded and unexploited island,
Odysseus arrives. The map location that can be drawn from this
episode and the surrounding episodes in the
Odyssey is variously
described and discussed divergently by scholars.
Euripides in his satyr-drama, Cyclops, appears at times to follow
closely the story found in Homer, and at other times contributes
Euripides play there is no mention of the unexploited
Euripides keeps the action of the play in one location —
the place where the cyclopes live, and where Odysseus’ ship landed.
Euripides also makes a significant variation from
Homer to the
setting: he imagines the location to be
Mount Etna “where the
one-eyed sons of the sea god, the man-slaying Cyclopes, live in their
Another source for the story of
Polyphemus is Idyll XI. The
Theocritus (circa 270 BC), in which the cyclopes’ home is, following
Mount Etna in Sicily. Since
Theocritus the Sicilian location has become attached to the cyclops
Odysseus and his crew are blinding Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic
amphora, circa 650 BC. Eleusis, Archaeological Museum, Inv. 2630.
It is estimated that Homer’s
Odyssey was composed sometime in the
50-year period from 725 to 675 BC., and that it shows the influence of
earlier oral poetic traditions of different peoples. In the Odyssey
the episodes that are placed on the Black Sea, which would include the
cyclops story, appear to incorporate parts of the
as well as the Caucasian myths of a one-eyed monster. There are
striking parallels between Homer's story and the Caucasian stories of
Urzmaeg, where the hero outwits a one-eyed giant, and blinds him with
a torch. It is thought that the Caucasian myths probably came to the
Greeks through the epic Anatolian song tradition.
Homer does not specifically state that
Polyphemus has only one eye.
Some scholars suggest this is implied in the passage that describes
Odysseus asking his men to cast lots to select a group that will join
with him “to lift the stake and grind it into his eye when sweet
sleep should come upon him.”
However others suggest that Homer’s
Polyphemus may have had two
eyes. It is pointed out that in the
Odyssey when the actual blinding
occurs there is a reference to plural brows and lids. Also Homer
describes in some detail the entire race of cyclopes, critiquing their
agricultural techniques, in what may be literature’s first
anthropological study, and never mentions their monocularity. It is
also noted that the first artistic or graphic depiction of the
blinding episode appears on an amphora that was created by the
Polyphemos Painter c. 680-650 B.C., and the artist shows the blinding
stake has two prongs, as though two eyes are being targeted.
Theogony by Hesiod, the cyclopes – Brontes ("thunderer"),
Steropes ("lightning") and Arges ("bright") (Greek: Βρόντης,
Στερόπης and Ἄργης) – were the primordial sons of
Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) and brothers of the
the Titans. As such, they were blood-related to the Titan and Olympian
gods and goddesses. They were giants with a single eye in the
middle of their forehead and a foul disposition. According to Hesiod,
they were strong and stubborn. Collectively they eventually became
synonyms for brute strength and power, and their name was invoked in
connection with massive masonry or blacksmithery. They were often
pictured at their forge.
Uranus, fearing their strength, locked them in Tartarus. Cronus,
another son of Uranus and Gaia, later freed the cyclopes, along with
the Hecatoncheires, after he had overthrown Uranus.
Cronus then placed
them back in Tartarus, where they remained, guarded by the female
monster Campe, until freed by Zeus. They fashioned thunderbolts for
Zeus to use as weapons, and helped him overthrow
Cronus and the other
Titans. The lightning bolts, which became Zeus' main weapons, were
forged by all three cyclopes, in that Arges added brightness, Brontes
added thunder, and Steropes added lightning.
These cyclopes also created Poseidon's trident, Artemis' bow and
arrows of moonlight, Apollo's bow and arrows of sun rays, and Hades'
helm of darkness that was given to
Perseus on his quest to kill
Statue of a
Cyclops at the Natural History Museum in London
According to a hymn of Callimachus, they were Hephaestus' helpers
at the forge. The cyclopes were said to have built the "cyclopean"
Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The noises
proceeding from the heart of volcanoes were attributed to their
Euripides' only extant comedy is his play Cyclops, which was written
in 408 B.C. It is the only complete satyr play of ancient Greece that
has survived. It is based on a story that occurs in book nine of
Homer's Odyssey. It takes place on the island of
Sicily near the
volcano Mount Etna, and the cyclops is portrayed as a cave-dwelling,
violent, cannibalistic, oafish character. This depiction is similar to
Homer’s cyclops, though it differs from the cyclops of Hesiod.
Euripides’ version may have been influenced by the comic handling of
the cyclops found in Cratinus’s play Odysseuses, which is one of
many plays of ancient Greece that are known to have lampooned
Homer’s cyclops story.
According to Euripides' play Alcestis,
Apollo killed the cyclopes, in
retaliation for Asclepius' murder at the hands of Zeus. For this
Apollo was then forced into the servitude of
Admetus for one
year. Other stories after
Euripides tell that
Zeus later revived
Asclepius and the cyclopes. This was after the year of Apollo's
servitude had passed.
Zeus pardoned the cyclopes and
the underworld, despite them being dead, even though
Hades is lord of
the dead and they are his prisoners.
Hades as well does not ever allow
any of his souls to leave the Underworld.
Zeus could not bear the loss
of the cyclopes, for they were the biggest reason the Olympians
assumed power. Also,
Asclepius at the request of
Apollo so that their feud would end.
Some versions of this myth have it that after
Apollo killed the
cyclopes, their ghosts dwelt in the caverns of the volcano Aetna.
The Sicilian Greek poet
Theocritus wrote two poems (circa 275 BC)
concerning Polyphemus' desire for Galatea, a sea nymph, and his
strategy for winning her.
Virgil, the Roman epic poet, wrote, in book three of The Aeneid, of
Aeneas and his crew landed on the island of the cyclops after
Troy at the end of the Trojan War.
Aeneas and his crew
land on the island, when they are approached by a desperate Greek man
from Ithaca, Achaemenides, who was stranded on the island a few years
previously with Odysseus' expedition (as depicted in The Odyssey).
Virgil's account acts as a sequel to Homer's, with the fate of
Polyphemus as a blind cyclops after the escape of
Odysseus and his
crew where some cases have
Polyphemus regaining his eyesight.
The Indian war of
Dionysus was told about when Rhea, the mother of
Zeus, asked a large group of rustic gods and spirits to join Dionysus'
army. The cyclopes played a big part. King Deriades was the leader of
the nation of
India and the cyclopes were said to crush most of his
troops. It is explained in Nonnus
Dionysiaca that the cyclopes killed
many men in the war, which is also the only story that tells how they
Walter Burkert suggests that the archaic groups or societies of lesser
gods mirror real cult associations: "It may be surmised that smith
guilds lie behind Cabeiri, Idaian Dactyloi, Telchines, and Cyclopes."
Burkert also suggests that because cyclops are at times portrayed as
blacksmiths, the legend of their single eye may have arisen from the
practice of blacksmiths wearing an eyepatch over one eye to prevent
flying sparks from blinding them in both eyes. The cyclopes
seen in Homer's
Odyssey are of a different type from those in the
Theogony and they have no connection to blacksmithing. It is possible
that independent legends associated with
Polyphemus did not make him a
cyclops before Homer's Odyssey;
Polyphemus may have been some sort of
local daemon or monster in original stories.
Another possible origin for the cyclops legend, advanced by the
Othenio Abel in 1914, is the prehistoric dwarf
elephant skulls – about twice the size of a human skull – that may
have been found by the Greeks on Cyprus, Crete,
Malta and Sicily. Abel
suggested that the large, central nasal cavity (for the trunk) in the
skull might have been interpreted as a large single eye-socket.
Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were
unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was.
Others have questioned the influence of elephant skulls on the origins
of the cyclops legend.
Adrienne Mayor disagrees with the theory that
prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls were supposedly discovered by the
ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles. According to some sources,
Empedocles mistook the skulls for cyclops bones, and this was
apparently later reported by the Italian Renaissance author Boccaccio.
The story is not accepted as factual, in part because
his surviving writings never mentions skulls, or cyclops, or even
elephants, which were unknown to Greeks at the time; and because
Boccaccio never mentions
Empedocles in this regard. The Boccaccio
reference was added to the story in 1940 by the speculations of
Veratrum album, or white hellebore, an herbal medicine used by Ancient
Greeks and described by
Hippocrates before 400 BC, contains the
alkaloids cyclopamine and jervine, which are teratogens capable of
causing cyclopia and holoprosencephaly, severe birth defects in which
a fetus can be born with a single eye. Students of teratology have
raised the possibility of a link between this developmental deformity
in Ancient Greek infants and the myth for which it was named.
Regardless of the connection between the herb and the birth
abnormalities, it is possible these rare birth defects may have
contributed to the myth. However, a study of deformed humans born with
a single eye all have a nose above the single eye, not below.
Cyclopean walls at Mycenae.
Main article: Cyclopean masonry
After the "Dark Age", when Hellenes looked with awe at the vast
dressed blocks, known as Cyclopean structures, which had been used in
Mycenaean masonry (at sites such as
Tiryns or on Cyprus),
they concluded that only the cyclopes had the combination of skill and
strength to build in such a monumental manner.
Legends of the Caucasus
Caucasus region near the
Black Sea is rich in a folk literature
that contains stories seen as variations of the myths of the ancient
Greeks, including the
Cyclops stories. In
Caucasus these tales have
been handed down as songs and narrative poems by a strong oral
tradition — which is also the tradition of Homer. One reason the
oral tradition is strong is that for most of the languages spoken in
this mountainous region there was no written alphabet until relatively
recently. The stories are not well known to the English speaking
world. They began to be written down and collected in the 1890s, as
Nart saga and the Uryzmaeg stories.
In the cyclops stories of the Caucasus, the cyclops is almost always a
shepherd, and he is also variously presented as a one-eyed,
rock-throwing, cannibalistic giant, who says his name is “nobody”,
who lives in a cave, whose door is blocked by a large stone, who is a
threat to the hero of the story, who is blinded by a hot stake, and
whose flock of sheep is stolen by the hero and his men. These motifs
are also found in the cyclops stories of Homer, Euripides, and
One example in a story from Georgia, describes two brothers trapped in
the cave of "One-eye". They take the wooden spit from One-eye’s
fire, heat it up, stab it into his eye and escape.
List of one-eyed creatures in mythology and fiction
Stereopsis, the ability to see with two eyes information that is
hidden from each eye alone.
Cyclops, one of the founding members of the
X-Men from Marvel Comics.
^ Female cyclopes do not occur in any classical sources.
^ Entry: Κύκλωψ at LSJ
^ As with many Greek mythic names, however, this might be a folk
etymology. Another proposal holds that the word is derived from PIE
pḱu-klōps "sheep thief". See: Paul Thieme, "Etymologische
Vexierbilder", Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 69
(1951): 177-78; Burkert (1982), p. 157; J.P.S. Beekes, Indo-European
Etymological Project, s.v. Cyclops."Archived copy". Archived from the
original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2008-01-27. Note that this
would mean that the Cyclopes were regular giants, and the depictions
with a singular eye, secondarily motivated by the folk etymology.
^ Gantz, p. 10; Hesiod, Theogony, 139–146
^ Gantz, pp. 12–13. These Homeric cyclopes are all presumably the
sons of Poseidon, though, only the cyclops
Polyphemus is explicitly
said to be.
^ Gantz, p. 12: "the Kyclopes [of Hesiod] could scarcely be more
different from those encountered by
Odysseus in Book 9 of the
Odyssey."; Mondi, pp. 17-18: "Why is there such a discrepancy between
the nature of the Homeric cyclopes and the nature of those found in
Hesiod's Theogony? Ancient commentators were so exercised by this
problem that they supposed there to be more than one type of cyclops,
and we must agree that, on the surface at least, these two groups
could hardly have less in common."
^ Strabo, Geography, 373
^ Dated before 1905, possibly a replica of a pastel, according to
Klaus Berger, "The Pastels of Odilon Redon", College Art Journal 16.1
(Autumn 1956:23-33) p. 30f; dated 1898-1900 by David H. Porter,
"Metamorphoses and Metamorphosis: A Brief Response", American Journal
of Philology 124.3 (Fall 2003:473-76); illus. in Sven Sandström, Le
Monde imaginaire d'Odilon Redon: étude iconologique,1955:69.
^ Walbank, F.W. A Historical Commentary on Polybius, Vol III. Oxford
(1979). ISBN 978-0198140115. page 577.
^ Hawes, Greta, editor. Myths on the Map: The Storied Landscapes of
Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press, 2017.
ISBN 9780191062209. pages 56 - 61.
^  Theocritus. Emonds, John Maxwell, editor and translator. The
Greek Bucolic Poets, Volume 28 of Loeb classical library. Publisher W.
Heinemann, 1912. ASIN: B000J32Z2O
^ Homer. The Odyssey. "Introduction" and translation by Fagles,
Robert. Penguin, 1997. ISBN 9780140268867. Page 3 - 32.
^ Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background
of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
ISBN 9780521509794. page 99 - 106, and 299
^ Bremmer, J. N.
Odysseus versus the Cyclops, in Myth and Symbol. Ed.
S. des Bouvrie. The Norwegian Institute. (1987) page 135–52.
^ Hesiod, Theogony, 139–146. Arges was elsewhere called Acmonides
(Ovid, Fasti iv. 288), or Pyraemon (Virgil,
Aeneid viii. 425).
^ To Artemis, 46f. See also Virgil's Georgics 4.173 and Aeneid
^  Euripides. The Cyclops. Text online. Translated by E. P.
Coleridge. Digireads. (2012) ISBN 9781420904154
^ Euripides. Preface by Patterson, John Letcher. The
Euripides. Macmillan. (1900)
^ Graves, Robert (1960). The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books.
p. 31. ISBN 9780140171990.
^ Burkert (1991), p. 173.
^ Robson, David. Cyclops; Monsters and mythical creatures. Capstone
(2011) ISBN 9781601523570. p. 17
^ Abel's surmise is noted by Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters:
Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press)
2000 ISBN 1400838444.
^ The smaller, actual eye-sockets are on the sides and, being very
shallow, were hardly noticeable as such
^ "Meet the original Cyclops". Retrieved 18 May 2007.
^ Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and
Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press. (2011). p.
192-195. ISBN 9781400838448
^ "1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, citing Codronchius (Comm.... de
elleb., 1610), Castellus (De helleb. epistola, 1622), Horace (Sat. ii.
3.80-83, Ep. ad Pis. 300)". Archived from the original on
^ Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants; On the Form, Varieties and Errors of
the Human Body, 2005:68.
^ Nelson, Edward. 1958. The One-Eyed Ones. Journal of American
Folklore Vol. 71, No. 280: 159-161.
^ Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books. (2012).
ISBN 9780863568237. p. 13
^ Ratcliffe, Jonathan. Arimaspians and Cyclopes: The Mythos of the
One-Eyed Man in Greek and Inner Asian Thought. Editor: Mair, Victor.
Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 249. University of Pennsylvania
^ Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background
of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press (2016).
ISBN 9780521509794. p. 106
^  Rashidvash, Vahid. “The Caucasus, Its Peoples, and Its
History”. International Research Journal of Interdisciplinary &
Multidisciplinary Studies (IRJIMS). Vol I, Is. IV, February 2015,
Scholar Publications. Page No. 30-36. SSN: 2394-7950
^ Colarusso, John. Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends
from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs. Princeton University
Press (2002) ISBN 9780691026473
^ Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books. (2012) p.
Bachvarova, Mary (2016). From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian
Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press.
Bremmer, J.N. (1987).
Odysseus versus the Cyclops, in Myth and Symbol.
The Norwegian Institute.
Burkert, Walter (1982). Structure and History in Greek
Ritual. University of California Press.
Burkert, Walter (1991). Greek Religion. Wiley-Blackwell.
Colarusso, John (2002). Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and
Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs. Princeton
University Press. ISBN 9780691026473.
Euripides (1900). The Cyclops. Macmillan.
Euripides (2012). The Cyclops. Digireads.
Gantz, Timothy, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic
Sources, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, Two volumes:
ISBN 978-0-8018-5360-9 (Vol. 1), ISBN 978-0-8018-5362-3
Hesiod, Theogony, in The
Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English
Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, MA., Harvard
University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Online version
Perseus Digital Library.
Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D.
in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London,
William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. Online version at the
Homer. The Odyssey. Introduction and translation by Fagles, Robert.
Penguin, 1997. ISBN 9780140268867.
Hunt, David (2012). Legends of the Caucasus. Saqi Books.
Mondi, Robert "The Homeric Cyclopes: Folktale, Tradition, and Theme"
Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 Vol. 113
(1983), pp. 17–38.
Rashidvash, Vahid (2015). The Caucasus, Its Peoples, and Its History.
Ratcliffe, Jonathan (2014). Arimaspians and Cyclopes: The Mythos of
the One-Eyed Man in Greek and Inner Asian Thought. University of
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