The cyclops Polyphemus, 1802 depiction by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

In Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, a cyclops (pronounced:ˈsaɪklɒps; Greek: Κύκλωψ, Kuklōps), was 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). The name is widely thought to mean "circle-eyed".[1]

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.[2] It is upon Homer's account that Euripides and Virgil based their accounts of the mythical creatures.

Ancient sources

1914 Redon Zyklop anagoria

The Cyclops, gouache and oil by Odilon Redon, undated (Kröller-Müller Museum)[3]

In the Homeric poems the Cyclopes are a gigantic, insolent, and lawless race of shepherds, who lived in the south-western part of Sicily, and devoured human beings. They neglected agriculture, and the fruits of the field were reaped by them without labour. They had no laws or political institutions, and each lived with his wives and children in a cave of a mountain, and ruled over them with arbitrary power. (Hom. Od. vi. 5, ix. 106, &c., 190, &c., 240, &c., x. 200.) Homer does not distinctly state that all of the Cyclopes were one-eyed, but Polyphemus, the principal among them, is described as having only one eye on his forehead. (Od. i. 69, ix. 383, &c.; comp. Polyphemus.) The Homeric Cyclopes are no longer the servants of Zeus, but they disregard him. (Od. ix. 275; comp. Virg. Aen. vi. 636 ; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 53.)

A still later tradition regarded the Cyclopes as the assistants of Hephaestus. Volcanoes were the workshops of that god, and mount Aetna in Sicily and the neighbouring isles were accordingly considered as their abodes. As the assistants of Hephaestus they are no longer shepherds, but make the metal armour and ornaments for gods and heroes; they work with such might that Sicily and all the neighbouring islands resound with their hammering. Their number is, like that in the Homeric poems, no longer confined to three, but their residence is removed from the south-western to the eastern part of Sicily (Virg. Georg. iv. 170, Aen. viii. 433; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 56, &c.; Eurip. Cycl. 599; Val. Flacc. ii. 420.) Two of their names are the same as in the cosmogonic tradition, but new names also were invented, for we find one Cyclops bearing the name of Pyracmon, and another that of Acamas. (Calim. Hymn. in Dian. 68; Virg. Aen. viii. 425; Val. Place. i. 583.)

The Cyclopes, who were regarded as skilful architects in later accounts, were a race of men who appear to be different from the Cyclopes whom we have considered hitherto, for they are described as a Thracian tribe, which derived its name from a king Cyclops. They were expelled from their homes in Thrace, and went to the Curetes (Crete) and to Lycia. Thence they followed Proetus to protect him, by the gigantic walls which they constructed, against Acrisius. The grand fortifications of Argos, Tiryns, and Mycenae, were in later times regarded as their works. (Apollod. ii. 1. § 2; Strab. viii. p. 373; Paus. ii. 16. § 4; Eurip. Orest. 953.) Such walls, commonly known by the name of Cyclopean walls, still exist in various parts of ancient Greece and Italy, and consist of unhewn polygones, which are sometimes 20 or 30 feet in breadth. The story of the Cyclopes having built them seems to be a mere invention, and admits neither of an historical nor geographical explanation. Homer, for instance, knows nothing of Cyclopean walls, and he calls Tiryns merely a polis teichioessa. (Il. ii. 559.) The Cyclopean walls were probably constructed by an ancient race of men--perhaps the Pelasgians--who occupied the countries in which they occur before the nations of which we have historical records; and later generations, being struck by their grandeur as much as ourselves, ascribed their building to a fabulous race of Cyclopes.

In works of art the Cyclopes are represented as sturdy men with one eye on their forehead, and the place which in other human beings is occupied by the eyes, is marked in figures of the Cyclopes by a line. According to the explanation of Plato (ap. Strab. xiii. p. 592), the Cyclopes were beings typical of the original condition of uncivilized men ; but this explanation is not satisfactory, and the cosmogonic Cyclopes at least must be regarded as personifications of certain powers manifested in nature, which is sufficiently indicated by their names


In the Theogony by Hesiod, the Cyclopes – Arges,[4] Brontes, and 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 lightning bolts, 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,[5] 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 operations.

According to Euripides' play Alcestis, Apollo killed the Cyclopes, in retaliation for Asclepius' murder at the hands of Zeus. 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 BCE concerning Polyphemus' desire for Galatea, a 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 Odyssey).

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.


Walter Burkert 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."[6] 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.

The Victorian writer Godrey Higgins suggested in his religious book Anacalypsis that the origins of the myth were in Alexander the Great's attempt to conquer the Indian sub-continent, where, Higgins claimed, he found a culture that painted a third eye upon their forehead, and who defeated the Greeks in battle. The claim would appear to be severely anachronistic, since Homer's story of the cyclops Polyphemus (described by the noun κύκλωψ) predates Alexander's life by many centuries.

Another possible origin for the Cyclops legend, advanced by the paleontologist Othenio Abel in 1914,[7] 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, Malta 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.[8] Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was.[9]

A well-travelled 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 their death.

Veratrum album, or white hellebore, an herbal medicine described by Hippocrates before 400 BCE,[10] 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.[11]

"Cyclopean" walls

After the "Dark Age", when Hellenes looked with awe at the vast dressed blocks, known as Cyclopean structures that had been used in Mycenaean masonry, at sites like Mycenae and Tiryns or on Cyprus, they concluded that only the Cyclopes had the combination of skill and strength to build in such a monumental manner.


  1. As with many Greek mythic names, however, this might be a folk etymology. Another theory holds that the word is derived from Proto Indo-European kuh-klops -- "cattle thief". See: Paul Thieme, "Etymologische Vexierbilder", Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 69 (1951): 177-78; Burkert (1982), p. 157; J.P.S. Beekes, Indo-European Etymological Project, s.v. Cyclops.[1]
  2. Mondi, pp. 17-18: "Why is there such a discrepancy between the nature of the Homeric Cyclopes and the nature of those found in Hesiod's Theogony? Ancient commentators were so exercised by this problem that they supposed there to be more than one type of Cyclops, and we must agree that, on the surface at least, these two groups could hardly have less in common."
  3. Dated before 1905, possibly a replica of a pastel, according to Klaus Berger, "The Pastels of Odilon Redon", College Art Journal 16.1 (Autumn 1956:23-33) p. 30f; dated 1898-1900 by David H. Porter, "Metamorphoses and Metamorphosis: A Brief Response", American Journal of Philology 124.3 (Fall 2003:473-76); illus. in Sven Sandström, Le Monde imaginaire d'Odilon Redon: étude iconologique,1955:69.
  4. Arges was elsewhere called Acmonides (Ovid, Fasti iv. 288), or Pyraemon (Virgil], Aeneid viii. 425).
  5. To Artemis, 46f. See also Virgil's Georgics 4.173 and Aeneid 8.416ff.
  6. Burkert (1991), p. 173.
  7. Abel's surmise is noted by Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press) 2000.
  8. The smaller, actual eye-sockets are on the sides and, being very shallow, were hardly noticeable as such
  9. "Meet the original Cyclops". Retrieved 18 May 2007.
  10. "1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, citing Codronchius (Comm.... de elleb., 1610), Castellus (De helleb. epistola, 1622), Horace (Sat. ii. 3.80-83, Ep. ad Pis. 300).". 
  11. Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants; On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body, 2005:68.


  • Burkert, Walter (1982). Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520047709. 
  • Burkert, Walter (1991). Greek Religion. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631156246. 
  • Mondi, Robert "The Homeric Cyclopes: Folktale, Tradition, and Theme" Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 Vol. 113 (1983), pp. 17–38.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Cyclops. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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