Myth Man's Greek Mythology

Below is a marvelous essay
by student Anna Baldwin

The Cyclopes were giant beings with a single, round eye in the middle of their foreheads. According to the ancient Greek writer Hesiod, they were strong, stubborn, and “abrupt of emotion.” Their every action ebbed with violence and power and their name means "ring-eyed".

There are actually two generations of Cyclopes in Greek myth. The first generation consisted of three brothers, Brontes (“thunderer”), Steropes (“lightning”), and Arges (“brightness”), who came from the union of Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Sky). The second generation descended from Poseidon, and the most famous of these was Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey.

According to some versions of early Olympian history, the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires (Hundred-handed-ones) were failed attempts by Mother Earth to create a race of mortals to populate the planet.

Brontes, Steropes, and Arges (the three descended from Gaia and Uranus) were the inventive blacksmiths of the Olympian gods. They were skilled metal workers and created Zeus’ thunderbolts, Poseidon’s trident, and Hades’ Helmet of Darkness that was later used by Perseus while on his quest to decapitate Medusa.

However, they spent the majority of their early existence imprisoned. Their father Uranus (sky) hated all of his offspring (the Titans, Cyclopes and Hecatonchires or hundred-handed-ones) and kept them confined deep within Gaia (earth). The defeat of Uranus by his son Cronus (a Titan) freed the Cyclopes for a time, but Cronus was a paranoid ruler. He feared the Cyclopes’ power and cast them into Tartarus (the place of punishment in the underworld) where they remained imprisoned until Zeus (an Olympian and son of Cronus) released them, requiring their aid in the Titanomachy (battle of the Titans).

With the assistance of the Cyclopes and their thunderbolts, Zeus overthrew Cronus and the Titans and became ruler of the cosmos. He was grateful for the Cyclopes’ help and allowed them to stay in Olympus as his armorers and helpers to Hephaestus, god of smiths. The Greeks also credited them with building the massive fortifications at Tiryns and Mycenae in the Peloponnese.

It is said that the god Apollo killed the Cyclopes to avenge the death of his son Asclepius, whom the Cyclopes had killed for bringing mortals back to life. The ghosts of the Cyclopes then went to live in the caverns of volcanic Mount Aetna - this legend served to explain the smoke that frequently rose from that mountain.

Brontes, Steropes, and Arges are mainly mentioned in passing in most of the myths to convey strength in heroes and the fine quality of weapons but are major characters in one other event – their deaths at the hands of Apollo. Zeus struck Asclepius, Apollo’s son, down with a thunderbolt for having risen a person from the dead. Apollo was outraged and killed the Cyclopes who had forged the deadly thunderbolt. It appears that Apollo’s rage was misplaced, yet by killing the Cyclopes, he was indirectly punishing Zeus. The ghosts of Brontes, Steropes, and Arges are said to dwell in Mt. Aetna, an active volcano that smokes as a result of their burning forges.

The second generation of Cyclopes was a band of lawless shepherds living in Sicily who had lost the skill of metallurgy. Polyphemus, son of Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa, is the only notable individual of the lot and figures prominently in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his crew landed on Sicily, realm of the Cyclopes. He and a few of his best men became trapped in Polyphemus’ cave when Polyphemus rolled a large boulder in front of the entrance to corral his sheep while Odysseus was still inside. Polyphemus was fond of human flesh and devoured many of the men for dinner. On the second night, Odysseus told Polyphemus that his name was “Nobody,” and tricked him into drinking enough wine to pass out. While he was incapacitated, Odysseus/Nobody blinded him with a red hot poker. Polyphemus shouted in pain to the other Cyclopes on the island that “Nobody” was trying to kill him, so no one came to his rescue. Eventually, he had to roll away the stone to allow his sheep to graze. Odysseus and the remaining crew clung to the bellies of the exiting sheep where Polyphemus could not feel them as they passed him on their way to pasture and escaped.

As Odysseus sailed away from the island, he shouted to Polyphemus that it was Odysseus who had blinded him. Enraged, the Cyclops threw huge boulders at the ship and shouted to his father, Poseidon, to avenge him.

Recent scholars have hypothesized about the origin of the Cyclopes’ single eye. One possibility is that in ancient times, smiths could have worn an eye patch over one eye to prevent being blinded in both eyes from flying sparks. Also, smiths sometimes tattooed themselves with concentric circles which could have been in honor of the sun which provided the fire for their furnaces. Concentric rings were also part of the pattern for making bowls, helmets, masks, and other metal objects. Notice that the first generation Cyclopes were associated with metal-working while the second generation was not. Apparently, the lawless band of Cyclopes is a later addition to the myths. The incidence with Polyphemus seems to have had an independent existence from the Odyssey before Homer added it to his epic adventure. It was probably told as a separate myth at certain functions.

It is uncertain why the Cyclopes were demoted from the smiths of the gods to a lawless group of monsters with no reverence for the gods. When the universe came into being, there were many monsters and vague forms that were gradually replaced with beings with more human forms. Order was replacing chaos. The monsters were phased out, and this could have lead to the transformation of the “good” Cyclopes to the “evil” Cyclopes that were destined to be fought and defeated by the divine human form.

Following are excerpts from Thomas Bullfinch's
"Mythology, the Age of Fable"

They next arrived at the country of the Cyclopses. The Cyclopses were giants, who inhabited an island of which they were the only possessors. The name means "round eye," and these giants were so called because they had but one eye, and that placed in the middle of the forehead. They dwelt in caves and fed on the wild productions of the island and on what their flocks yielded, for they were shepherds.

Ulysses left the main body of his ships at anchor, and with one vessel went to the Cyclopses' island to explore for supplies. He landed with his companions, carrying with them a jar of wine for a present, and coming to a large cave they entered it, and finding no one within examined its contents. They found it stored with the richest of the flock, quantities of cheese, pails and bowls of milk, lambs and kids in their pens, all in nice order.

Presently arrived the master of the cave, Polyphemus, bearing an immense bundle of firewood, which he threw down before the cavern's mouth. He then drove into the cave the sheep and goats to be milked, and, entering, rolled to the cave's mouth an enormous rock, that twenty oxen could not draw. Next he sat down and milked his ewes, preparing a part for cheese, and setting the rest aside for his customary drink. Then, turning round his great eye, he discerned the strangers, and growled out to them, demanding who they were, and where from. Ulysses replied most humbly, stating that they were Greeks, from the great expedition that had lately won so much glory in the conquest of Troy; that they were now on their way home, and finished by imploring his hospitality in the name of the gods.

Polyphemus deigned no answer, but reaching out his hand seized two of the Greeks, whom he hurled against the side of the cave, and dashed out their brains. He proceeded to devour them with great relish, and having made a hearty meal, stretched himself out on the floor to sleep. Ulysses was tempted to seize the opportunity and plunge his sword into him as be slept, but recollected that it would only expose them all to certain destruction, as the rock with which the giant had closed up the door was far beyond their power to remove, and they would therefore be in hopeless imprisonment.

Next morning the giant seized two more of the Greeks, and dispatched them in the same manner as their companions, feasting on their flesh till no fragment was left. He then moved away the rock from the door, drove out his flocks, and went out, carefully replacing the barrier after him. When he was gone Ulysses planned how he might take vengeance for his murdered friends, and effect his escape with his surviving companions. He made his men prepare a massive bar of wood cut by the Cyclops for a staff, which they found in the cave. They sharpened the end of it, and seasoned it in the fire, and hid it under the straw on the cavern floor. Then four of the boldest were selected, with whom Ulysses joined himself as a fifth.

The Cyclops came home at evening, rolled away the stone and drove in his flock as usual. After milking them and making his arrangements as before, he seized two more of Ulysses' companions and dashed their brains out, and made his evening meal upon them as he had on the others. After he had supped, Ulysses approaching him handed him a bowl of wine, saying, "Cyclops, this is wine; taste and drink after thy meal of men's flesh." He took and drank it, and was hugely delighted with it, and called for more. Ulysses supplied him once again, which pleased the giant so much that he promised him as a favor that he should be the last of the party devoured. He asked his name, to which Ulysses replied, "My name is Noman."

After his supper the giant lay down to repose, and was soon found asleep. Then Ulysses with his four select friends thrust the end of the stake into the fire till it was all one burning coal, then poising it exactly above the giant's only eye, they buried it deeply into the socket, twirling it round as a carpenter does his auger.

The howling monster with his outcry filled the cavern, and Ulysses with his aides nimbly got out of his way and concealed themselves in the cave. He, bellowing, called aloud on all the Cyclopes dwelling in the caves around him, far and near. They on his cry flocked round the den, and inquired what grievous hurt had caused him to sound such an alarm and break their slumbers. He replied, "O friends, I die, and Noman gives the blow." They answered, "If no man hurts thee it is the stroke of Jove (Zeus), and thou must bear it." So saying, they left him groaning.

Next morning the Cyclops rolled away the stone to let his flock out to pasture, but planted himself in the door of the cave to feel of all as they went out, that Ulysses and his men should not escape with them. But Ulysses had made his men harness the rams of the flock three abreast, with osiers which they found on the floor of the cave. To the middle ram of the three one of the Greeks suspended himself, so protected by the exterior rams on either side. As they passed, the giant felt of the animals' backs and sides, but never thought of their bellies; so the men all passed safe, Ulysses himself being on the last one that passed.

When they had got a few paces from the cavern, Ulysses and his friends released themselves from their rams, and drove a good part of the flock down to the shore to their boat. They put them aboard with all haste, then pushed off from the shore, and when at a safe distance Ulysses shouted out, "Cyclops, the gods have well requited thee for thy atrocious deeds. Know it is Ulysses to whom thou owest thy shameful loss of sight."

The Cyclops, hearing this, seized a rock that projected from the side of the mountain, and rending it from its bed he lifted it high in the air, then exerting all his force, hurled it in the direction of the voice.

Down came the mass, just clearing the vessel's stern. The ocean, at the plunge of the huge rock, heaved the ship towards the land, so that it barely escaped being swamped by the waves. When they had with the utmost difficulty pulled off shore, Ulysses was about to hail the giant again, but his friends besought him not to do so. He could not forbear, however, letting the giant know that they had escaped his missile, but waited till they had reached a safer distance than before. The giant answered them with curses, but Ulysses and his friends plied their oars vigorously, and soon regained their companions.

Thank you Thomas Bullfinch! 



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