A cyclops (/ˈsklɒps/ SY-klops; Ancient Greek: Κύκλωψ, Kyklōps; plural cyclopes /sˈklpz/ 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.[1] The word "cyclops" literally means "round-eyed"[2] or "circle-eyed".[3]

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.[4] Homer described another group of mortal herdsmen or shepherd cyclopes, the sons of Poseidon.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Ancient sources

The Cyclops, gouache and oil by Odilon Redon, undated (Kröller-Müller Museum)[8]

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.[citation needed]

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.”[9]

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.[10] Since Euripides and Theocritus the Sicilian location has become attached to the cyclops story.[11]


Odysseus and his crew are blinding Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic amphora, circa 650 BC. Eleusis, Archaeological Museum, Inv. 2630.

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.[12][13]

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.”[14]

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.[15]


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.[16] 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.


Statue of a Cyclops at the Natural History Museum in London

According to a hymn of Callimachus,[17] 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.[18][19]

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.

Some versions of this myth have it that after Apollo killed the cyclopes, their ghosts dwelt in the caverns of the volcano Aetna.[20]


The Sicilian Greek poet Theocritus wrote two poems (circa 275 BC) concerning Polyphemus' desire for Galatea, a sea nymph, and his strategy for winning her.


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 where some cases have Polyphemus regaining his eyesight.

Nonnus Dionysiaca

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.[21][22] 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,[23] 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.[24] Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was.[25]

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.[26]

Veratrum album, or white hellebore, an herbal medicine used by Ancient Greeks and described by Hippocrates before 400 BC,[27] 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.[28] 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.[29]

Cyclopean walls

Cyclopean walls at Mycenae.

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.

Legends of the Caucasus

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.[30][31]

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.[32][33][34]

One example in a story from Georgia, describes two brothers trapped in the cave of "One-eye". They take the wooden spit from One-eye’s fire, heat it up, stab it into his eye and escape.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Female cyclopes do not occur in any classical sources.
  2. ^ Entry: Κύκλωψ at LSJ
  3. ^ As with many Greek mythic names, however, this might be a folk etymology. Another proposal holds that the word is derived from PIE pḱu-klōps "sheep 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."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2008-01-27.  Note that this would mean that the Cyclopes were regular giants, and the depictions with a singular eye, secondarily motivated by the folk etymology.
  4. ^ Gantz, p. 10; Hesiod, Theogony, 139–146
  5. ^ Gantz, pp. 12–13. These Homeric cyclopes are all presumably the sons of Poseidon, though, only the cyclops Polyphemus is explicitly said to be.
  6. ^ Gantz, p. 12: "the Kyclopes [of Hesiod] could scarcely be more different from those encountered by Odysseus in Book 9 of the Odyssey."; 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."
  7. ^ Strabo, Geography, 373
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Walbank, F.W. A Historical Commentary on Polybius, Vol III. Oxford (1979). ISBN 978-0198140115. page 577.
  10. ^ Hawes, Greta, editor. Myths on the Map: The Storied Landscapes of Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN 9780191062209. pages 56 - 61.
  11. ^ [1] Theocritus. Emonds, John Maxwell, editor and translator. The Greek Bucolic Poets, Volume 28 of Loeb classical library. Publisher W. Heinemann, 1912. ASIN: B000J32Z2O
  12. ^ Homer. The Odyssey. "Introduction" and translation by Fagles, Robert. Penguin, 1997. ISBN 9780140268867. Page 3 - 32.
  13. ^ Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780521509794. page 99 - 106, and 299
  14. ^ Homer, Odyssey 9.331-333.
  15. ^ Bremmer, J. N. Odysseus versus the Cyclops, in Myth and Symbol. Ed. S. des Bouvrie. The Norwegian Institute. (1987) page 135–52.
  16. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 139–146. Arges was elsewhere called Acmonides (Ovid, Fasti iv. 288), or Pyraemon (Virgil, Aeneid viii. 425).
  17. ^ To Artemis, 46f. See also Virgil's Georgics 4.173 and Aeneid 8.416ff.
  18. ^ [2] Euripides. The Cyclops. Text online. Translated by E. P. Coleridge. Digireads. (2012) ISBN 9781420904154
  19. ^ Euripides. Preface by Patterson, John Letcher. The Cyclops of Euripides. Macmillan. (1900)
  20. ^ Graves, Robert (1960). The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books. p. 31. ISBN 9780140171990. 
  21. ^ Burkert (1991), p. 173.
  22. ^ Robson, David. Cyclops; Monsters and mythical creatures. Capstone (2011) ISBN 9781601523570. p. 17
  23. ^ Abel's surmise is noted by Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press) 2000 ISBN 1400838444.
  24. ^ The smaller, actual eye-sockets are on the sides and, being very shallow, were hardly noticeable as such
  25. ^ "Meet the original Cyclops". Retrieved 18 May 2007.
  26. ^ Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press. (2011). p. 192-195. ISBN 9781400838448
  27. ^ "1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, citing Codronchius (Comm.... de elleb., 1610), Castellus (De helleb. epistola, 1622), Horace (Sat. ii. 3.80-83, Ep. ad Pis. 300)". Archived from the original on 2007-02-19. 
  28. ^ Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants; On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body, 2005:68.
  29. ^ Nelson, Edward. 1958. The One-Eyed Ones. Journal of American Folklore Vol. 71, No. 280: 159-161.
  30. ^ Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books. (2012). ISBN 9780863568237. p. 13
  31. ^ Ratcliffe, Jonathan. Arimaspians and Cyclopes: The Mythos of the One-Eyed Man in Greek and Inner Asian Thought. Editor: Mair, Victor. Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 249. University of Pennsylvania Publications. (2014)
  32. ^ Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press (2016). ISBN 9780521509794. p. 106
  33. ^ [3] Rashidvash, Vahid. “The Caucasus, Its Peoples, and Its History”. International Research Journal of Interdisciplinary & Multidisciplinary Studies (IRJIMS). Vol I, Is. IV, February 2015, Scholar Publications. Page No. 30-36. SSN: 2394-7950
  34. ^ Colarusso, John. Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs. Princeton University Press (2002) ISBN 9780691026473
  35. ^ Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books. (2012) p. 220


  • Bachvarova, Mary (2016). From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521509794. 
  • Bremmer, J.N. (1987). Odysseus versus the Cyclops, in Myth and Symbol. The Norwegian Institute. 
  • Burkert, Walter (1982). Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04770-9. 
  • Burkert, Walter (1991). Greek Religion. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-15624-6. 
  • Colarusso, John (2002). Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691026473. 
  • Euripides (1900). The Cyclops. Macmillan. 
  • Euripides (2012). The Cyclops. Digireads. ISBN 9781420904154. 
  • Gantz, Timothy, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, Two volumes: ISBN 978-0-8018-5360-9 (Vol. 1), ISBN 978-0-8018-5362-3 (Vol. 2).
  • Hesiod, Theogony, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.
  • Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Introduction and translation by Fagles, Robert. Penguin, 1997. ISBN 9780140268867.
  • Hunt, David (2012). Legends of the Caucasus. Saqi Books. ISBN 9780863568237. 
  • Mondi, Robert "The Homeric Cyclopes: Folktale, Tradition, and Theme" Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 Vol. 113 (1983), pp. 17–38.
  • Rashidvash, Vahid (2015). The Caucasus, Its Peoples, and Its History. Scholar Publications. 
  • Ratcliffe, Jonathan (2014). Arimaspians and Cyclopes: The Mythos of the One-Eyed Man in Greek and Inner Asian Thought. University of Pennsylvania Publications. 

External links