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The Cyclopes in Greek mythology

Updated on August 29, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Cyclops of Greek Mythology

Despite the passage of time, many of the stories of Greek mythology are still recognisable today, and many of the original characters are still recognisable. The Cyclops from Greek mythology, for example, can easily be described by most people, and most will describe one as a giant with a single eye.

The name Cyclops, or Cyclopes for the plural, can be translated as “round” or “wheel-eyed”, and writers in antiquity would describe the Cyclops of Greek mythology as a strong, stubborn giant. These ancient writers though would also tell of two distinct generations.

The first generation of the Cyclopes would arguably be the more important, but today, it is the second generation who are most famous.

A Cyclops

Polyphemus, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1802 PD-art-100
Polyphemus, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1802 PD-art-100 | Source

The First Generation of Cyclopes

The first Cyclopes in Greek mythology were three brothers, Arges, Brontes and Steropes; sons of Ouranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). This parentage meant that the three were brothers to the Hecatonchires and the Titans.

Ouranus had taken on the mantle of supreme deity, but he was fearful for his position, and so tried to ensure that there was no threat to it. Fearful of the power and might of the Cyclopes and the “hundred-handed” Heactonchires, Ouranus had both sets of brothers imprisoned in Tartarus, the dark area beneath the Underworld.

Upset about the imprisonment of her offspring, Gaia would rouse the Titans to revolt against their father, and so Cronus took up the adamantine sickle to castrate his father; and for a brief period the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires were freed from their prison.

Cronus would become supreme deity, but he was no more secure in the position than his father had been, and so once again the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires were imprisoned in Tartarus. This time the siblings also found that they had a prison guard in the form of the dragon Kampe.

Eventually though, the three Cyclops would be freed as Zeus led an uprising against Cronus and the other Titans. Zeus and his siblings needed all of the allies they could get, and so Zeus descended to Tartarus, killed Kampe, and released the individual Cyclops and the Hecatonchires.

Whilst the Hecatonchires went into battle alongside Zeus, the Cyclopes made use of the blacksmithing skills they had developed in Tartarus, and commenced to make the weapons needed by Zeus and his siblings in the Titanomachy.

The three Cyclopes manufactured the thunderbolts that were wielded by Zeus, and each of the Cyclopes assigned different characteristics. Agres gave them brightness, Brontes added thunder, whilst the lightning was constructed by Steropes.

Other weapons created by the Cyclopes included Hades’ helmet of darkness, Poseidon’s trident, and the later additions of Artemis’ bow and arrow of moonlight, and Apollo’s bow and arrow of sunrays.

The creation of Hades’ helmet of darkness proved pivotal in the war, as its power of allowing the wearer to be invisible allowed Hades to slip into the Titans camp and destroy all of their weapons, bringing an end to the Titanomachy.

With the war ended, a grateful Zeus invited the Cyclopes to live on Mount Olympus. On Mount Olympus the three Cyclopes would work with Hephaestus to create further weapons, gates and trinkets; although the workshops of the god and the Cyclopes were often thought of, as being inside of volcanoes.

During this period the Cyclopes were also credited with the building of large fortifications, including those at Mycenae and Tiryns.

In Greek mythology, a story is told of how the three Cyclopes came to die.

The healing abilities of Asclepius was causing consternation for Zeus, and with the possibility of curing death imminent, Zeus struck Asclepius down with one of his thunderbolts. Asclepius though was a son of Apollo, and in vengeance, Apollo killed the makers of the thunderbolts, and the Cyclopes were struck down.

Polyphemus

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) PD-art-100
Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) PD-art-100 | Source

The Second Generation of Cyclopes

Today, it is not the first generation of Cyclopes who are famous, but rather a distinct second generation. Their fame primarily comes about because of the appearance of Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey, and additional appearances in Virgil’s Aeneid, and a couple of poems by Theocritus.

This generation of Cyclops in Greek mythology were described as having the same physical attributes as their predecessors, but without the blacksmithing skills that had made them important. These new Cyclopes were collectively thought of as offspring of Poseidon, and depicted as lawless shepherds, living in the remote areas of Sicily

Odysseus and the Cyclops –

Odysseus, on his troubled voyage back to Ithaca, would stop on Sicily, and their encounter Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon, and Thoosa, a nereid.

Odysseus, and 12 of his remaining crew, would be trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, when the Cyclops returned unexpectedly. Polyphemus would then feast on them just as Odysseus and his men had feasted on his food.

Odysseus faced a dilemma; whilst he could kill Polyphemus, he would be unable to move the boulder that blocked the entrance to the cave, and so he, and his men, would be trapped.

The cunning Odysseus comes up with a plan, and having got Polyphemus drunk, the Greek hero blinded the Cyclops with a pointed spit. The blind Cyclops rolled the boulder away, allowing his herd to get out, and at the same time, Polyphemus unwittingly let Odysseus and his men out, as they were tied to the underside of the sheep.

Whilst Odysseus had successfully escaped the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops would call on his father, Poseidon, to stop Odysseus from returning to Ithaca.

The island of Polyphemus would subsequently be visited by Aeneas, as he and his followers made their way from Troy. On the island, Aeneas observed the injured Polyphemus, and even rescued Achaemenides, one of Odysseus’ crew who had been left behind.

Polyphemus is also the central character in two poems by Theocritus; with the poems telling of the love of Polyphemus for the sea nymph Galatea, in a time before the arrival of Odysseus.

Skull of a Dwarf Elephant

Source

Potential Origins of the Mythological Cyclops

In recent decades, a certain amount of rationalisation of the Greek myths has occurred, and explanations are often put forward for story origins. As such Centaurs are thought to have been based on the first observations of horse-riding nomads from the east, whilst the monstrous Chimera is an amalgamation of the gas vents of Mount Chimaera and the animals found on the mountain’s slopes.

Two possible explanations have been put forward as to the origin of the Cyclops myth.

One possibility was that in antiquity, smiths would often wear an eye patch, to prevent the possibility of sparks form the metalworking causing blindness in both eyes. Thus metalworkers could be viewed as being one-eyed.

A second explanation could be the discovery of elephant remains, especially dwarf elephant skulls, in antiquity. Dwarf elephants were certainly present throughout the Mediterranean region in prehistory, and remains were found on the island of Sicily, the home of Polyphemus. A skull of an elephant, even a dwarf elephant, would display a large central naval cavity where the trunk was once positioned; and it would be an easy jump to depicting it as the remains of a giant with a single central eye.

The Islands of the Cyclops

Sunrise over the Islands of the Cyclops, Acitrezza, Sicily, Italy - gnuckx - CC-BY-2.0
Sunrise over the Islands of the Cyclops, Acitrezza, Sicily, Italy - gnuckx - CC-BY-2.0 | Source

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Suzette - thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    Colin

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

    Everything I've ever wanted to know about cyclops here in this article. This is interesting and informative. I enjoyed reading this and cyclops are a great part of Greek mythology. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

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