Who are the Cyclopes in Greek Mythology?
The Cyclopes (Singular term: Cyclops), in Greek mythology, were the son of the primordial deities, Uranus and Gaia and the brothers of the Hecatoncheires and the Titans. They were gigantic, one-eyed beings with extraordinary strength. The Cyclopes consisted of three giants named Arges, Steropes, and Brontes. These were initially regarded as creative craftsmen who helped Hephaestus in his volcanic forge, crafting special armour, such as Hades’ invisible helmet, Zeus’ thunderbolt and Poseidon’s trident.
If Greek and Roman mythology is something you studied, read about or perhaps just something you enjoy, then it’s very likely the one-eyed giant figure that is the Cyclops is something you’re more than familiar with.
I know for me growing up, the Cyclops always stuck out more than other creatures, but that might just be because I found a giant with one eye in the middle of its face a bit weird and, honestly, quite disturbing.
What is the Plural for Cyclops?
Before we go any further, there is one thing I’d like to discuss, and it’s something I’ve certainly thought about for a while—the collective or the plural term for a Cyclops. When I was younger, I always referred to them as Cyclopses, but that isn’t correct.
So, when I looked into it further, it appears that people have been debating the correct plural term for some time, and there are some quite interesting ideas. These can range anywhere from a Pack of Cyclops to a Herd, and even Cyclopi, in some cases, which to me just sounds like a one-eyed octopus.
The actual plural term that most people seem to agree on when referring to multiple Cyclops is Cyclopes, and that’s what I’ll be referring to them for the remainder of this article.
Name, Origin and The Titanomachy
The word Cyclops itself, when translated roughly, means circular eyed or round-eyed, which of course refers to the giant eye that sits in the middle of its forehead.
As for the origins of the Cyclopes, they were Uranus and Gaia’s children, making them brothers to the Hecatonchires and the Titans.
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes were seen as monstrous by their siblings and their father. When the titans overthrew their father, Uranus, Cronus then imprisoned both the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes in the darkest pits of Tartarus and placed a dragon outside to ensure that they would never escape. As to why he would do this, there are several potential explanations.
They (the Titans) could have been scared of the Cyclopes and what they were capable of. They could have also shared their father’s hatred, or maybe they just didn’t like the fact that they were different from them. Whatever the reason was, they would rather throw their brothers into Tartarus than rule the earth with them.
The Hecatoncheires and the Cyclopes remained in Tartarus until they heard a voice from above, asking them for assistance. This was the voice of Zeus, who told them that if they help the Olympians defeat the Titans, then he would free them, and they could live normal lives on earth.
Well, as usual as a one-eyed Giants life can get, they accepted Zeus’s offer. When the war was over, the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires were set free, where they would act as the craftsmen and guardians to the gods and their secrets.
The Cyclopes Depictions and their Works
Hesiod referred to three Cyclopes by name, Arges, Brontes, and Steropes. He considered them to be Uranus and Gaia’s children and the craftsman to Olympus. They would often be depicted by their Forge, as their names were closely linked to black smithery and masonry.
Pretty much every trinket, artefact, weapon or piece of armour used by the gods came from either the Cyclopes or Hephaestus. The Greek poet Callimachus described the Cyclopes as the helpers of Hephaestus.
The noise emitting from volcanoes was often explained as the Cyclopes and Hephaestus working at their forge.
They also created Zeus’ Thunderbolt, Poseidon‘s trident and even Hades’ helmet of Darkness. All three of these creations arguably contributed to their success and the dethroning of the Titans.
Zeus’s thunderbolt is an interesting point of discussion because all three brothers came together, each given an element that reflected their name. Arges the bright or the vivid added brightness; Brontes the thundered, added thunder; and Steropes, the lightener, added lightning. Thus, the Cyclopes created Zeus’s iconic thunderbolt was created.
They also made Artemis‘s moonbow and the Sunbow of Apollo, which is quite ironic when we look at the play Alcestis, written by the Greek poet Euripides. In this play, Apollo is so furious that Zeus had struck down his son Asclepius with a thunderbolt that he then turned his attention to its creators.
Rather than retaliate against his father, Zeus, Apollo instead killed the Cyclopes presumably with the bow that they created. This, of course, solves nothing and only served to further anger Zeus, who sent Apollo to Thessaly where he would be the servant of King Admetus for an entire year.
Having grown quite fond of the Cyclopes and wanting to remain loyal because of their assistance, Zeus then travelled to the underworld to resurrect them along with Apollo’s fallen son Asclepius. Some versions of this myth state the Cyclopes were never resurrected; instead, their spirits roam the volcano of Mount Etna in Sicily.
Euripides also wrote a play titled Cyclops, from which he drew inspiration from Homer and his Odyssey. In this play, there is only one Cyclops who lives on Mount Etna. This depiction differs quite drastically from that of Hesiod.
The Cyclops here is an angry, cannibalistic and a rather stupid character who is blinded and punished for not respecting the right of hospitality. This satirical take on the Cyclopes was quite common in response to Homer’s story, which was criticised by quite a few.
The Story of Odysseus and Polyphemus (Cyclops)—Greek
Now, we move on to perhaps the most famous story featuring a cyclops—the encounter between Odysseus and Polyphemus in book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey.
Like the stories we’ve just discussed, Odysseus and his men land on the island of the Cyclops, just off Sicily’s coast—Homer described the Cyclopes as giant one-eyed shepherds who were the children of Poseidon and the Nymph Thoosa.
Odysseus and his men came across a cave full of provisions. Being in desperate need, they decide to enter; little did they know that this cave belongs to the Cyclops Polyphemus, who had just returned home with his cattle.
Odysseus and his men would not find the hospitality they were expecting, as Polyphemus blocked the cave entrance with a giant stone and then ate two of his men.
The following day, he ate two more men and left to tend his cattle, which left Odysseus and his men to hatch an escape plan. When the Cyclops returned home that evening, he again ate two more of Odysseus’s men, making it six in total.
Odysseus then offered his captor some wine, but this wine had not been diluted, and the Cyclops was soon drunk. He would then ask Odysseus for his name, promising to give him a gift if he answered, to which Odysseus responded, “my name is Nobody.”
Polyphemus then promised that he would eat “Nobody” last. When the Cyclops passed out, Odysseus took a wooden stake that he had hardened over the fire and drove it through Polyphemus his eye, blinding him in the process.
Polyphemus screamed in agony and alerted the other Cyclopes. Still, his calls for help were ignored as he shouted, “Nobody has hurt me”, “Nobody has blinded me,” leaving the other Cyclopes confused and unsure as to what had indeed happened.
The following day, he let out his sheep and closed the cave entrance once again, not wanting the men to escape. Odysseus and his men, however, had tied themselves to the underside of the Sheep as the blinded Cyclops would never see them.
Once out of the cave, Odysseus and his men returned to their ship and set sail, but not before Odysseus made the mistake of boasting that he had escaped the Cyclops, telling Polyphemus his actual name he may know the man who bested him.
This would ultimately backfire horrendously, as Polyphemus told his father of the man who blinded him. Poseidon then rained down rocks upon his ship, which they were barely able to escape.
The Story of Aeneas and Polyphemus (Cyclops)—Roman
I know whatever I cover Greek myths and stories, there are quite a few people who also like to hear about some of the Roman iterations. So, in response to this story by Homer, the Roman poet Virgil mentions Polyphemus in what he considered to be a sequel to Homer’s story, in his very own epic poem, the Aeneid.
In this story, the hero Aeneas and his crew land on the same island shortly after escaping the Trojan War. They come across a man from Ithaca, who was stranded on the island during Odysseus’s expedition.
The man tells them of Odysseus and his story and how he was able to escape. They then see a one-eyed giant using a tree as a walking stick lead in his cattle to the shore, where he washes his bloody eye socket, letting out groans of pain that can be heard all across the island.
When Polyphemus spots the men in the ship, he begins to give chase. Still, Aeneas’ crew and the man from Ithaca set sail, leaving Polyphemus and the other Cyclopes screaming in the distance.
Polyphemus’ Love Story with Galatea
Polyphemus does also appear in somewhat of a love story, which we can assume took place before he was blinded. This particular story was told by several poets, including Ovid and many playwrights that followed, with George Frideric Handel telling the story in his musical Acis and Galatea, first performed in 1718.
Polyphemus fell in love with a nymph named Galatea, but with the Cyclops not being described as the most respectful or even pleasant individual, his advances were rejected.
Instead, Galatea fell in love with a handsome man named Acis. So Polyphemus did what any decent man or Cyclops would do in this given situation. He accepted the woman he loved didn’t feel the same and just moved on———Naaah! I’m just messing with you.
He took a giant boulder and squashed Acis because there’s no competition if you just smash them with boulders. The blood of Acis would then form a river with the same name, and he would become the spirit of that river—Acis is known in Greek mythology as a river-god of eastern Sicily.
So, the whole ‘me squash your lover, you marry me now’ didn’t work for Polyphemus because he is what we call in mythological terms “a one-eyed twat”—Okay, maybe that’s not a technical term, but you get the point. (Hesiod Cyclopes, pretty cool craftsman; Polyphemus, big angry man-eating dum-dum).
The Cyclops is a creature mentioned by countless Greek and Roman poets. These depictions can vary from brilliant artisans to cannibalistic Giants. In some cases, big fat oafs serve no other purpose but to make us laugh. It is pretty interesting to see such varying descriptions.
Hesiod believed them to be quite intelligent blacksmiths and craftsmen who were civilised and obedient. In contrast, Homer portrays them as wild cannibals who have no laws and who live high in the mountains with little loyalty to even their kind.
The idea of a one-eyed creature or monster is not unique to ancient Greece and Rome. We see one-eyed creatures across many other cultures, with one of my favourites being Balor, the one-eyed Fomorian of Irish mythology, whose eye causes untold destruction in chaos when opened—so pretty much Cyclops from the x-men.
Overall, my opinion on the Cyclopes has changed quite a bit over the years. Having seen them in movies when I was younger, I honestly believe them to be evil monsters, but there is more than meets the eye.
Which version of the Cyclops had you heard of? And which one do you prefer? Monster or craftsman?
Video Source: Samuel Jensen.