The Cyclopes were giant; one-eyed monsters; a wild race of lawless creatures who possess neither social manners nor fear of the Gods. Cyclopes means ‘round eye.’ Considered the sons of Uranus and Gaea they were the workmen of the God Hephaestus whose workshop was in the heart of the volcanic mountain Etna.
Cyclopes Origins and Myths
Hesiod’s Accout of the Cyclopses
Hesiod, the Greek historian, mentions only three Cyclopes, who were primordial giants; Arges (thunderbolt), Steropes (lightning) and Brontes (thunder) who are all storm deities and were the first smiths. When Cronus was in power, he imprisoned them in Tartarus and upon being freed by Zeus they pledged their allegiance and fought for him against the Titans. As a reward for their freedom, the Cyclopes gave Zeus his weapons of thunder and lightening and continued as his smiths at Mount Olympus forging his thunderbolts. These Cyclopes are also responsible for forging Hades’ helmet of invisibility, Artemis’ bow and arrows of moonlight, Apollo’s bow and arrows of sun rays and Poseidon’s trident.
According to a hymn of Callimachus, the Cyclopes were Hephaestus’ helpers at the forge and were said to have built the fortifications at Tiryns and Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The noises, heat and rumblings of the volcano Etna were attributed to their operations and work in the forges.
In Euripides’ play Alcestis, Apollo killed the Cyclopes in retaliation for his son Asclepius’ murder at the hands of Zeus. For his crime, Zeus sentenced Apollo into the servitude of Admetus for one year. In other versions, Zeus revives the Cyclopes due to how integral they were in the succession of the Titans; and also revives Asclepius to settle his feud with Apollo.
Homer’s Account of the Cyclopes
According to Homer’s Odyssey where he introduced likely the most famous Cyclopes, Polyphemus, Cyclopes were the sons of Poseidon, not Gaea. Homer described the Cyclopes as wild savages, who abstained from agriculture and laws other than every man for himself. They were shepherds who lived in the southwestern part of Sicily, actively ate human beings and lived with their wives and children in caves ruling over them with arbitrary power. The Homeric Cyclopes were not servants of Zeus, and in fact, they mostly disregarded him.
Polyphemus was a man-eating monster with a bloody and barbaric story. He fell in love with a beautiful nymph called Galatea who rejected him in favour for a man named Acis. Polyphemus enraged by the rejection, threw Acis and killed him on a massive rock. The blood of Acis formed a stream, which still bears his name today.
Polyphemus and Odysseus
The Cyclopes encounters Odysseus in Homer’s tale where he is outwitted and blinded by the hero and turns the wrath of his father, Poseidon on Odysseus. Odysseus arrived on the island of the Cyclopes on his way home to Ithica and led his men into a cave full of food unknowing of who the owner was. Polyphemus sealed the cave and the crew within it, eating a few of them.
Odysseus managed to trick the Cyclopes into getting drunk off of strong wine and told the monster his name was ‘No One.’ Polyphemus fell asleep, and the hero blinded him with a wooden stake, when the other giants came to help, Polyphemus told him ‘No One’ had attacked him, and so they left him. Odysseus and his men bound themselves to the bellies of Polyphemus’s sheep and escaped when the giant let them out to graze. Odysseus could not help but boast about his victory over his defeated adversary and told Polyphemus his name which in turn led to Poseidon punishing him and causing him to deviate from his route home even more.
Other Interesting Facts About Greek Cyclopes
- The Roman poet, Virgil, also writes of the hero Aeneas and his crew landing on the Island of the Cyclopes and meeting Polyphemus
- Some historians believe the idea of the Cyclopes may have come from Greek blacksmiths using eye patches to protect one of their eyes while forging
- Another possible origin for the myth of these monsters is Ancient Greeks may have found prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls that had large naval cavities and may have been mistaken for one large eye
- The walls of several ancient cities were said to have been built by Cyclopes, and this is why in modern archaeology the term cyclopean is applied to walling of which the stones are not squared
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