A cyclops (// SY-klops; Ancient Greek: Κύκλωψ, Kyklōps; plural cyclopes // sy-KLOH-peez; Ancient Greek: Κύκλωπες, Kyklōpes), in Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, is a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the center of his forehead. The word "cyclops" literally means "round-eyed" or "circle-eyed".
Hesiod described three one-eyed cyclopes who served as builders, blacksmiths, and craftsmen: Brontes, Steropes and Arges, the sons of Uranus and Gaia, brothers of the Titans. Homer described another group of mortal herdsmen or shepherd cyclopes, the sons of Poseidon. Other accounts were written by the playwright Euripides, poet Theocritus and Roman epic poet Virgil. In Hesiod's Theogony, Zeus releases three cyclopes 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 an episode of Homer's Odyssey, the hero Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and 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. It is upon Homer's account that Euripides and Virgil based their accounts of the mythical creatures. Strabo describes another group of seven Lycian cyclopes, also known as "Bellyhands" because they earned from their handicraft. They had built the walls of Tiryns and perhaps the caverns and the labyrinths near Nauplia, which are called cyclopean.
It is often assumed that Polyphemus lives, along with the other cyclopes, on an island. That is a possibility but all that is known from Homer’s Odyssey is that Polyphemus resided in a “land” somewhere farther on from the Lotus-Eaters, in a place that is not close or distant from an uninhabited, wooded and unexploited island, where Odysseus arrives. The map location that can be drawn from this episode and the surrounding episodes in the Odyssey is variously described and discussed divergently by scholars.
Euripides in his satyr-drama, Cyclops, appears at times to follow closely the story found in Homer, and at other times contributes variations. In Euripides play there is no mention of the unexploited island, and Euripides keeps the action of the play in one location — the place where the cyclopes live, and where Odysseus’ ship landed. Euripides also makes a significant variation from Homer to the setting: he imagines the location to be Mount Etna “where the one-eyed sons of the sea god, the man-slaying Cyclopes, live in their desolate caves.”
Another source for the story of Polyphemus is Idyll XI. The Cyclops by Theocritus (circa 270 BC), in which the cyclopes’ home is, following Euripides, near Mount Etna in Sicily. Since Euripides and Theocritus the Sicilian location has become attached to the cyclops story.
It is estimated that Homer’s Odyssey was composed sometime in the 50-year period from 725 to 675 BC., and that it shows the influence of earlier oral poetic traditions of different peoples. In the Odyssey the episodes that are placed on the Black Sea, which would include the cyclops story, appear to incorporate parts of the Gilgamesh tradition, as well as the Caucasian myths of a one-eyed monster. There are striking parallels between Homer's story and the Caucasian stories of Urzmaeg, where the hero outwits a one-eyed giant, and blinds him with a torch. It is thought that the Caucasian myths probably came to the Greeks through the epic Anatolian song tradition.
Homer does not specifically state that Polyphemus has only one eye. Some scholars suggest this is implied in the passage that describes Odysseus asking his men to cast lots to select a group that will join with him “to lift the stake and grind it into his eye when sweet sleep should come upon him.”
However others suggest that Homer’s Polyphemus may have had two eyes. It is pointed out that in the Odyssey when the actual blinding occurs there is a reference to plural brows and lids. Also Homer describes in some detail the entire race of cyclopes, critiquing their agricultural techniques, in what may be literature’s first anthropological study, and never mentions their monocularity. It is also noted that the first artistic or graphic depiction of the blinding episode appears on an amphora that was created by the Polyphemos Painter c. 680-650 B.C., and the artist shows the blinding stake has two prongs, as though two eyes are being targeted.
In the Theogony by Hesiod, the cyclopes – Brontes ("thunderer"), Steropes ("lightning") and Arges ("bright") (Greek: Βρόντης, Στερόπης and Ἄργης) – were the primordial sons of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) and brothers of the Hekatonkheires and the Titans. As such, they were blood-related to the Titan and Olympian gods and goddesses. They were giants with a single eye in the middle of their forehead and a foul disposition. According to Hesiod, they were strong and stubborn. Collectively they eventually became synonyms for brute strength and power, and their name was invoked in connection with massive masonry or blacksmithery. 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 Hecatoncheires, after he had overthrown Uranus. Cronus then placed them back in Tartarus, where they remained, guarded by the female monster 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' 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' bow and arrows of moonlight, Apollo's bow and arrows of sun rays, and Hades' helm of darkness that was given to Perseus on his quest to kill Medusa.
According to a hymn of Callimachus, 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.
Euripides' only extant comedy is his play Cyclops, which was written in 408 B.C. It is the only complete satyr play of ancient Greece that has survived. It is based on a story that occurs in book nine of Homer's Odyssey. It takes place on the island of Sicily near the volcano Mount Etna, and the cyclops is portrayed as a cave-dwelling, violent, cannibalistic, oafish character. This depiction is similar to Homer’s cyclops, though it differs from the cyclops of Hesiod. Euripides’ version may have been influenced by the comic handling of the cyclops found in Cratinus’s play Odysseuses, which is one of many plays of ancient Greece that are known to have lampooned Homer’s cyclops story.
According to Euripides' play Alcestis, Apollo killed the cyclopes, in retaliation for Asclepius' murder at the hands of Zeus. For this crime, Apollo was then forced into the servitude of Admetus for one year. Other stories after Euripides tell that Zeus later revived Asclepius and the cyclopes. This was after the year of Apollo's servitude had passed. Zeus pardoned the cyclopes and Asclepius from the underworld, despite them being dead, even though Hades is lord of the dead and they are his prisoners. Hades as well does not ever allow any of his souls to leave the Underworld. Zeus could not bear the loss of the cyclopes, for they were the biggest reason the Olympians assumed power. Also, Zeus resurrected Asclepius at the request of Apollo so that their feud would end.
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).
The Indian war of Dionysus was told about when Rhea, the mother of Zeus, asked a large group of rustic gods and spirits to join Dionysus' army. The cyclopes played a big part. King Deriades was the leader of the nation of India and the cyclopes were said to crush most of his troops. It is explained in Nonnus Dionysiaca that the cyclopes killed many men in the war, which is also the only story that tells how they fight.
Walter Burkert 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." Burkert also suggests that because cyclops are at times portrayed as blacksmiths, the legend of their single eye may have arisen from the 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 and 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 in original stories.
Another possible origin for the cyclops legend, advanced by the paleontologist Othenio Abel in 1914, 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. Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was.
Others have questioned the influence of elephant skulls on the origins of the cyclops legend. Adrienne Mayor disagrees with the theory that prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls were supposedly discovered by the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles. According to some sources, Empedocles mistook the skulls for cyclops bones, and this was apparently later reported by the Italian Renaissance author Boccaccio. The story is not accepted as factual, in part because Empedocles in his surviving writings never mentions skulls, or cyclops, or even elephants, which were unknown to Greeks at the time; and because Boccaccio never mentions Empedocles in this regard. The Boccaccio reference was added to the story in 1940 by the speculations of another author.
Veratrum album, or white hellebore, an herbal medicine used by Ancient Greeks and described by Hippocrates before 400 BC, contains the alkaloids cyclopamine and jervine, which are teratogens capable of causing cyclopia and holoprosencephaly, severe birth defects in which a fetus can be born with a single eye. Students of teratology have raised the possibility of a link between this developmental deformity in Ancient Greek infants and the myth for which it was named. Regardless of the connection between the herb and the birth abnormalities, it is possible these rare birth defects may have contributed to the myth. However, a study of deformed humans born with a single eye all have a nose above the single eye, not below.
After the "Dark Age", when Hellenes looked with awe at the vast dressed blocks, known as Cyclopean structures, which had been used in Mycenaean masonry (at sites such as 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.
The Caucasus region near the Black Sea is rich in a folk literature that contains stories seen as variations of the myths of the ancient Greeks, including the Cyclops stories. In Caucasus these tales have been handed down as songs and narrative poems by a strong oral tradition — which is also the tradition of Homer. One reason the oral tradition is strong is that for most of the languages spoken in this mountainous region there was no written alphabet until relatively recently. The stories are not well known to the English speaking world. They began to be written down and collected in the 1890s, as the Nart saga and the Uryzmaeg stories.
In the cyclops stories of the Caucasus, the cyclops is almost always a shepherd, and he is also variously presented as a one-eyed, rock-throwing, cannibalistic giant, who says his name is “nobody”, who lives in a cave, whose door is blocked by a large stone, who is a threat to the hero of the story, who is blinded by a hot stake, and whose flock of sheep is stolen by the hero and his men. These motifs are also found in the cyclops stories of Homer, Euripides, and Hesiod.
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