The Cyclopes were clever and potent giants who had only one eye in their forehead. The ancient myths present them either as benevolent craftsmen aiding the gods or as monsters feasting on human flesh. Yet, another distinction envelops them in the veil of mystery. This latter group is said to have been the builders of many awe-inspiring buildings back in the old days.
|Parents||Uranus and Gaia (Hesiod) | Poseidon and Thoosa (Homer)|
|Region||Underground caverns (Hesiod) | An unknown archipelago (Homer)|
|Siblings||Titans: Coeus, The Intellectual Pillar of the Celestial North, Crius (Krios), The Pillar of the South, Cronus, Hyperion, The Titan Illuminating, Iapetus, Mnemosyne, Oceanus, Rhea, Phoebe, The Luminous Titaness, Tethys, Theia, The Shining Titaness of Light, and Themis Hecatoncheires, The Hundred-Handed Giants: Briareus, Cottus, and Gyges|
|Names||Most noteworthy were Arges, Brontes, and Steropes (Uranus and Gaia’s offspring according to Hesiod) and Polyphemus (Poseidon and Thoosa’s son based on Homer’s Odyssey)|
|Ancient Greek||Κύκλωψ (singular) / Κύκλωπες (plural)|
Origins of the Cyclopes
Hesiod names the first children Gaia had with her consort Uranus as the Cyclopes. Those were Arges, Brontes and Steropes; brawny giants with one eye and remarkable craftsmanship skills. Homer on the other hand tells us that the Cyclopes were a barbarian tribe of shepherds that didn’t care at all for god and man alike. One of the most known Homeric Cyclops was Polyphemus, The One-Eyed Giant, son of the sea god Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa.
Cyclops (plural Cyclopes) means ‘the one with the (circle) round eye’. The definition indicates the legendary one-eyed giant creature of the Greek mythology.
Despite the different natures given by Hesiod and Homer, the Cyclopes creatures made it to our time as giant monsters, often half-witted, who crave for death and destruction. The easy ‘victimization’ and villainous aspect of the Cyclopes was mainly Homer’s fault. After all, Iliad and Odyssey are far more popular than Hesiod’s Theogony.
The Cyclopes were bulky creatures with grim countenances and generally dreadful appearances. Mostly viewed as evil, they are often portrayed as monstrous giants, grabbing humans and devouring them whole. Very few are the examples of the benign Cyclopes creating artifacts or erecting marvelous walls.
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The good Cyclopes
In the beginning, the ‘good’ Cyclopes (Arges, Brontes, and Steropes) were twice imprisoned in Tartarus by Uranus and Cronus respectively. Uranus was appalled by their horrid appearance, and fearing for his dominion, he tossed them into the deepest pits of the Earth. Years later, Cronus freed them and enlisted them in his fight against his father Uranus. But when Cronus gained the throne of the world, he did the same as his father before him, and imprisoned the Cyclopes in Tartarus again.
Soon came Zeus’ turn, and before he attempted to overthrow Cronus, he followed his grandmother Gaia’s advice and released the Cyclopes. To show their gratitude and also help the young god in his struggle the three Cyclopes forge for him the magnificent thunderbolt. When the Titanomachy was over Zeus became the king of the world and set his seat of power at the top of Mount Olympus. He never forgot the Cyclopes and the crucial role they have played in the war against the Titans.
Zeus granted many privileges to Arges, Brontes and Steropes, and even allowed them to stay with him for a while. Being the great craftsmen of light, thunder and lightning as they were, the three Cyclopes taught the god Hephaestus how to build Zeus’ thunderbolts. After that, they left and their traces seem to vanish in the misty halls of myth and legend. Yet, their presence was so loudly announced when the kings of Argos, Tiryns, and Mycenae started talking about their massive walls built by the Cyclopes themselves. Those outstanding structures, known as “The Cyclopean Walls”, would dazzle anyone looking at their unsurpassed craftsmanship.
The bad Cyclopes
In Homer’s Odyssey however, the Cyclopes appear to be quite the opposite of Arges, Brontes and Steropes. As Odysseus and his companions spend a ghastly night with the violent Polyphemus one cannot help but wonder ‘What has happened to the Cyclopes?’ These one-eyed giants are literally monsters, audacious and lawless, eating up humans like grapes.
Odysseus, The Cunning Hero Of The Trojan War, who was a clever man, tricked Polyphemus and got him drunk. He then blinded the brute with a sharp, burning stake and masterfully worked his way out of his cave. Polyphemus tried in vain to seize the man and his crew, who were out and away from danger in no time. Poseidon though, Polyphemus’ father, learned of this insult and vowed to extract his revenge on poor Odysseus.
The bottom line is that this rather vivid adventure was what made the Cyclopes the savage monsters they are today in popular art.
In the old texts
The Cyclopes are mentioned in:
Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica,
Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis, The Great Huntress,
Euripides’ Alcestis, The Woman Of Sacrifice and Cyclops,
Pausanias’ Description of Greece,
and Strabo’s Geography.
‘And again, she bore the Cyclopes, overbearing in spirit,
Brontes, and Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges,
who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt:
in all else they were like the gods,
but one eye only was set in the midst of their foreheads.
And they were surnamed Cyclopes because
one round eye was set in their foreheads.’
Hesiod’s Theogony 139-145
‘beginning with the time when sitting on her father’s knees
—still a little maid—she spoke these words to her sire:
“Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever:
and give me to be of many names, that Phoebus may not vie with me.
And give me arrows and a bow—stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver
or for mighty bow: for me the Cyclopes will straightway fashion arrows
and fashion for me a well-bent bow.’
Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis 4-10
The Cyclopes are attested in:
Hyginus’ Astronomica and Fabulae,
Ovid’s Fasti and Metamorphoses,
Seneca’s Hercules Furens,
Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica,
and Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics.
‘Here then the fire god (Hephaestus) descended from the heavens.
In the huge cave the Cyclopes, Brontes, Steropes,
and bare-limbed Pyrcamon, were forging iron.
They held a lightning-bolt, shaped with their hands,
like many of those the Father hurls from all over
the sky, part of it polished, part still left to do.’
Virgil’s Aeneid 8 423-428
A rather obscure legend mentions that Hades, the god of the underworld, made a deal once with the Cyclopes. He gave them the ability to foresee the day of their demise in exchange for one of their eyes. But, that contradicts with Hesiod’s Theogony, in which the Cyclopes were out and about long before Hades became the king of the underworld. Therefore, it is much more reasonable to say that the Cyclopes were born with only one eye.
It is assumed that the bad Cyclopes died of hunger in their caves a long, long time ago. As for the good ones, they were killed by god Apollo. Apollo’s son Asclepius, the god of medicine had been killed by one of Zeus’ thunderbolt. To take his revenge Apollo killed the Cyclopes, because it was they who had forged the thunderbolt in the first place.
Featured Image Credit: Cornelis Cort, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons