Cyclopes are the only beasts of the first creation that are not punished by Zeus when he overthrows his father, Cronus. This may have something to do with them being his nephews as sons of Poseidon, and no, there are no female cyclopes. They will eventually become favorites of the god, forgers of his thunderbolts, and increase in number from the original three to one hundred. He provides a place of bounty and splendor, full of fruit, crops, and livestock for them to live. There is more than one cyclops in Greek mythology, but Polyphemus sees more action than most.
Polyphemus and Odysseus
Polyphemus has acquired a taste for raw human flesh over the years. His claim to fame is his first run-in with a hero from the Trojan War. When the cyclops detects the strangers in his cave, he demands to know who they are without providing customary hospitality. Without revealing his name, Odysseus pretends that his ship is wrecked on the shores of the island. Polyphemus responds by killing and eating a few of the crew, and blocking the exit to his cave with a huge boulder. Odysseus is known for his wit; it is why he is one of Athena’s favorites.
The crafty hero comes up with a four-part plan to escape by:
- convincing Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody.”
- getting the cyclops drunk on sweet wine.
- helping his crew to blind Polyphemus with a piece of olive wood sharpened to a stake. When Polyphemus’ brothers come to his cave to investigate his monstrous cries, he tells them that nobody is trying to kill him.
- using the cyclops’ sheep to escape the cave. When Polyphemus moves the boulder to let them out to graze, Odysseus and his men crawl out under the sheep. Polyphemus feels for the fleece on their backs to ensure that only sheep leave the cave, but fails to feel their bellies.
Once the surviving members of his crew escape to the ship, Odysseus announces his escape to the cyclops, and that it is he who has tricked him and taken his eye. Polyphemus can only complain to his father, Poseidon, who wages small battles against Odysseus’ protector, Athena.
Some time after his encounter with Odysseus, but not long enough for his oozing eye socket to heal, the hero Aeneas and his men face the fearsome Polyphemus. This time the cyclops is living on the island of Sicily. Aeneas is a Trojan hero who is second in command to Hector of Troy. When Troy falls to the collective soldiers and generals of Greece, Aeneas and some of his fellow Trojans look for a new place to settle. These Trojans fare much better against the fearsome cyclops than do Odysseus and his crew. A survivor from that crew is left for dead on the island, and is able to warn his former enemies about the impending danger. He escapes off the island with Aeneas and his men.
Polyphemus returns in a later story where he has his eye back, but is still living in Sicily. He seems to have mellowed with the passage of time. He is no longer a mindless fury who is readily violent and vicious, but is a love sick oaf for a nymph who does not return his affections. Galatea is a sea nymph who goads and mocks him about his feelings for her. Instead of succumbing to his usual temper tantrums, he finds solace in singing love songs to his beloved. Though he has evened his temper since his early days of eating human flesh, he does kill a young prince in a jealous rage over Galatea, who has expressed her love for him.
Polyphemus Facts Summarized
- Unlike his brethren, Polyphemus is often depicted as a solitary figure, living alone in his cave rather than in a community of Cyclopes.
- Polyphemus’ lineage, as a son of Poseidon, connects him to the sea, a theme that recurs in his myth with Odysseus and his later love story with Galatea.
- The name Polyphemus means “much spoken of” or “famous,” indicating his notoriety among gods and mortals alike.
- In some versions of the myth, Polyphemus is a skilled shepherd, caring for his sheep with a gentle hand, contrasting sharply with his brutal treatment of humans.
- The relationship between Polyphemus and Galatea is one of the classic tales of unrequited love. This story reveals a softer side of the Cyclops rarely seen in other myths.
- Polyphemus’ blindness, inflicted by Odysseus, symbolizes not only physical loss but also a metaphorical blindness to deception and cunning.
- The Cyclops’ diet of raw human flesh highlights the savagery and barbarism often attributed to Cyclopes in Greek mythology.
- Polyphemus’ encounter with Aeneas, another hero of the Trojan War, ties him to the broader narrative of Greek epic and tragedy.
- Polyphemus’ transformation from a fearsome predator to a lovelorn poet reflects themes of change and redemption in mythology.
- The olive wood stake used by Odysseus to blind Polyphemus symbolizes the ingenuity and resourcefulness of humans in the face of divine or monstrous power.
- Polyphemus’ cave, often described in detail, serves as a microcosm of the Cyclopean world, blending elements of pastoral idyll with the horrors of his diet.
- The motif of Polyphemus’ eye, as the singular weak point of a formidable foe, has become a lasting symbol of vulnerability in seemingly invincible beings.
- Despite his brutish behavior, Polyphemus is sometimes portrayed with a degree of sympathy.
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