The Greek Mythological Creature Cyclops

Ulysses giving wine to Polyphemus
Ulysses giving wine to the Cyclops Polyphemus. From “Stories From Homer” by Alfred J. Church, illustration by John Flaxman. Published by Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, London, 1878. whitemay / Getty Images

The Cyclops ("round eyes") were strong, one-eyed giants in Greek mythology, who helped Zeus defeat the Titans and hindered Odysseus from getting home on time. Their name is also spelled Cyclopes, and, as usual with Greek words, the letter K may be used in place of the C: Kyklopes or Kuklopes. There are several different stories in Greek mythology about the Cyclops, and the two main ones appear in the works of Hesiod and Homer, 7th century BCE poets and story tellers about whom little is known.

Key Takeaways: Cyclops

  • Alternate Spellings: Kyklops, Kuklops (singular); Cyclopes, Kyklopes, Kuklopes (plural)
  • Culture/Country: Archaic (8th century–510 BCE), Classical (510–323 BCE), and Hellenistic (323–146 BCE) Greece
  • Primary Sources: Hesiod ("Theogony"), Homer ("The Odyssey"), Pliny the Elder ("History"), Strabo ("Geography")
  • Realms and Powers: Shepherds (Odyssey), Blacksmiths of the Underworld (Theogony) 
  • Family: Son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoosa (Odyssey); Son of Uranus and Gaia (Theogony)

Hesiod's Cyclops

According to the story told in the "Theogony" of the Greek epic poet Hesiod, the Cyclops were the sons of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). The Titans and Hekatoncheiries (or Hundred-handers), both known for their size, were also said to have been the offspring of Uranus and Gaia. Uranus kept all of his children imprisoned inside their mother Gaia and when the Titan Cronus decided to help his mother by overthrowing Uranus, the Cyclops helped. But instead of rewarding them for their assistance, Cronus imprisoned them in Tartarus, the Greek Underworld.

According to Hesiod, there were three Cyclopes, known as Argos ("Vividly Bright"), Steropes ("Lightning Man"), and Brontes ("Thunder Man"), and they were skilled and powerful blacksmiths—in later tales they are said to have assisted the smith-god Hephaistos in his forge under Mt. Etna. These workmen are credited with creating thunderbolts, the weapons used by Zeus to defeat the Titans, and they are also thought to have made the altar at which Zeus and his allies swore allegiance before that war. The altar was eventually placed in the sky as the constellation known as Ara ("Altar" in Latin). The Cyclops also forged a trident for Poseidon and the Helmet of Darkness for Hades.

The god Apollo slew the Cyclops after they struck his son (or were wrongly blamed for) striking his son Aesculapius with lightning.

Cyclops in the Odyssey

Besides Hesiod, the other major Greek epic poet and transmitter of Greek mythology was the storyteller we call Homer. Homer's Cyclopes were the sons of Poseidon, not the Titans, but they share with Hesiod's Cyclopes immensity, strength, and the single eye.

In the tale told in the "Odyssey," Odysseus and his crew landed on the island of Sicily, where resided the seven cyclopes led by Polyphemus. The cyclopes in Homer's tale were shepherds, not metal workers, and the sailors discovered Polyphemus' cave, in which he stored enormous numbers of crates of cheese, as well as pens full of lambs and kids. The owner of the cave was out with his sheep and goats, however, and although Odysseus's crew urged him to steal what they need and run away, he insisted that they stay and meet the shepherd. When Polyphemus returned, he drove his flocks into the cave and closed it behind him, moving a mighty boulder across the entrance.

When Polyphemus found the men in the cave, far from being welcoming, he seized two of them, dashed their brains out and ate them for supper. The next morning, Polyphemus killed and ate another two men for breakfast and then drove the sheep out of the cave blocking the entrance behind him.

Nobody is Attacking Me!

Odysseus and his crew sharpened a stick and hardened it in the fire. In the evening, Polyphemus killed two more men. Odysseus offered him some very powerful wine, and his host asked his name: "Nobody" (Outis in Greek), said Odysseus. Polyphemus grew drunk on the wine, and the men gouged out his eye with the sharpened stick. Screaming in pain brought the other cyclopes to Polyphemus's aid, but when they shouted through the closed entrance, all Polyphemus could respond was "Nobody is attacking me!" and so the other cyclopes returned to their own caves.

The next morning when Polyphemus opened the cave to take his flock out to the fields, Odysseus and his men were secretly clinging to the underbellies of the animals, and thus escaped. With a show of bravado, when they reached their ship, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus, shouting his own name. Polyphemus threw two enormous boulders at the sound of the shout, but could not see to make his targets. Then he prayed to his father Poseidon for revenge, asking that Odysseus never reach home, or failing that, that he should arrive home late, having lost all of his crew, and find trouble at home: a prophecy that did come true.

Other Myths and Representations

The stories of a one-eyed human-eating monster are quite ancient, with images appearing in Babylonian (3rd millennium BCE) art and Phoenician (7th century BCE) inscriptions. In his "Natural History," the first century CE historian Pliny the Elder, among others, credited the Cyclops with building the cities of Mycenae and Tiryns in the style known as Cyclopean—the Hellenists believed that the enormous walls were simply beyond the building capability of normal human men. In Strabo's "Geography," he described the skeletons of the Cyclops and their brothers on the island of Sicily, what modern scientists recognize as the remains of Quaternary vertebrates.

Sources and Further Information