mythology and later Roman mythology, a cyclops is a member of a primordial race
of giants, each
with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. The classical plural is
cyclopes (pronounced /saɪˈkloʊpiːz/; Greek: Κύκλωπες, Kuklōpes), though the conventional plural
cyclopses is also used in English. The name is widely thought to mean
Hesiod described one group of
cyclopes and the epic poet Homer described
another, though other accounts have also been written by the playwright Euripides, poet Theocritus and Roman epic poet Virgil. In Hesiod's Theogony, Zeus releases three Cyclopes, the sons
of Uranus and
Gaia, 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 a famous episode of Homer's Odyssey, the hero Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and a nereid (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 Euripides and Virgil based their accounts of the mythical
Various ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote about the cyclopes. Hesiod
described them as three brothers who were primordial giants. All the other
sources of literature about the cyclopes describe the cyclops Polyphemus, who lived upon an
island populated by the creatures.
In the Theogony by Hesiod, the Cyclopes – Arges,
Steropes; Ἄργης, Βρόντης, and Στερόπης in Greek – were the primordial sons of Uranus (Sky) and
Gaia (Earth) and
brothers of the Hecatonchires. They were giants with a
single eye in the middle of their forehead and a foul disposition. According to
Hesiod, they were strong, stubborn, and
"abrupt of emotion". Collectively they eventually became synonyms for brute
strength and power, and their name was invoked in connection with massive
masonry. 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 Hecatonchires, after he had overthrown
Uranus. Cronus then placed them back in Tartarus, where they remained, guarded
by the female dragon Campe, until freed by Zeus. They fashioned thunderbolts
for Zeus to use as weapons, and helped him overthrow Cronus and the other Titans. The
thunderbolts, which became Zeus's 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's bow and arrows of moonlight, Apollo's bow and arrows of sun rays, and Hades's helmet of darkness that was given to Perseus on his quest to kill Medusa. According to a hymn of Callimachus,
they were Hephaestus' helpers at the forge.
The Cyclopes were said to have built the "cyclopean" fortifications at Tiryns and Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The noises proceeding from the heart
of volcanoes were attributed to their
According to Alcestis, Apollo killed the Cyclopes, in
retaliation for Asclepius's murder
at the hands of Zeus. According to Euripides' play Alkestis, Apollo was then
forced into the servitude of Admetus for one year. Zeus later returned Asclepius
and the Cyclopes from Hades.
The Sicilian Greek poet Theocritus wrote two poems circa 275 BC concerning Polyphemus' desire for
sea nymph. When Galatea instead married Acis, a Sicilian mortal, a
jealous Polyphemus killed him with a boulder. Galatea turned Acis' blood into a
river of the same name in Sicily.
Virgil, the Roman epic poet, wrote,
in book three of The Aeneid, of how Aeneas and his crew landed on the island of the cyclops
after escaping from 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
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.
among others 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."
Given their penchant for blacksmithing, many scholars believe the legend of the
Cyclopes' single eye arose from an actual 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; 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 originally.
Another possible origin for the Cyclops legend, advanced by the
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 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.
A well traveled fable claims the Cyclops made a deal with Hades in which they
traded an eye for the ability to see the future. Upholding his end of the
bargain, Hades removed an eye and allowed the cyclops to foretell the day of
album, or white hellebore, an herbal medicine described
by Hippocrates before 400
BC, contains the
alkaloids cyclopamine and jervine, which are teratogens capable of causing cyclopia (holoprosencephaly). Students
of teratology have raised the
possibility of a link between this developmental deformity and the myth for
which it was named
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