What is a Cyclops?

Homer's "Odyssey" features a famed cyclops.
Hades' helmet was created by Cyclopes.
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In Greek mythology a Cyclops was a one-eyed being, but there are several different traditions that refer to several different types of Cyclops. Hesiod told of three sons of Uranus and Gaea, the Cyclopes — which is the plural form — who each had one eye. They were thrown into Tartarus, but released by Zeus during the overthrow of Cronus.

These three Titans were named Brontes, which means “thunderer;” Steropes, which means “lightner” or maker of lightning; and Arges, which means “bright.” In Hesiod, they were the makers of Zeus’s thunderbolts and lightning, Hades’ helmet, and Poseidon’s trident.

Another tradition has the Cyclopes serving Hephaestus at his forge. In this telling, they are smiths, who stoke the volcanic fires at which Hephaestus makes armor for the gods and goddesses. For example, in a hymn by Callimachus, Artemis asks Zeus for arrows and a bow forged by the Cyclopes. Yet another tradition considers them a tribe from Thrace, named after their king and the builders of the Cyclopean walls.


But perhaps the best-known version of a Cyclops is the one from Homer’s Odyssey. In Odysseus’s journey home, he comes upon a giant race of shepherds who are lawless cave-dwellers. Interested to see what kind of a gift they will give him, Odysseus takes twelve of his men to visit them, and waits in the cave of one for their host’s return. The Cyclops they encounter is the one named Polyphemus. When Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, which spend the night in the cave with him, rather than greeting them and sharing food and gifts and they expect, he imprisons them in the cave and eats two of the men. Odysseus makes a clever plan to escape. He gets Polyphemus drunk, puts out his eye, and helps his men to escape by clinging to the undersides of the flock as they exit the cave in the morning.

Because Odysseus has told Polyphemus that his name is “No Man,” when the Cyclops cries for help, it sounds to his fellow Cyclopes that he is saying that “No Man is killing me” — not a cause for concern. But from aboard his ship, Odysseus reveals his true name, which allows Polyphemus to invoke his father, Poseidon, to avenge him, resulting in a very, very long journey for Odysseus and his shipmates, as Poseidon prevents their homecoming.

This particular Cyclops, Polyphemus, also figures in a poem by Theocritus and a report by Ovid, who tell of the Cyclops’s attempts to woo a nymph named Galatea, after murdering her lover Acis. Galatea was able to turn Acis into a river as he was dying, but she was never interested in Polyphemus. This myth is retold in John Gay’s libretto for Georg Friederich Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea. It was also the subject of an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully with a libretto by Jean Galbert de Campistron called Acis et Galatée.


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