"Orb-Eyed." That is, creatures with round or circular eyes. The tradition about these beings has undergone several changes and modifications in its development in Greek mythology, though some traces of their identity remain visible throughout.
According to the ancient cosmogonies, the Cyclopes were the sons of Uranus and Gaea; they belonged to the Titans, and were three in number, whose names were Arges, Steropes, and Brontes, and each of them had only one eye on his forehead. Together with the other Titans, they were cast by their father into Tartarus, but, instigated by their mother, they assisted Cronus in usurping the government. But Cronus again threw them into Tartarus, and as Zeus released them in his war against Cronus and the Titans, the Cyclopes provided Zeus with thunderbolts and lightning, Hades with a helmet, and Poseidon with a trident.1 Henceforth they remained the ministers of Zeus, but were afterwards killed by Apollo for having furnished Zeus with the thunderbolts to kill Asclepius.2 According to others, however, it was not the Cyclopes themselves that were killed, but their sons.3
In the Homeric poems the Cyclopes are a gigantic, insolent, and lawless race of shepherds, who lived in the south-western part of Sicily, and devoured human beings. They neglected agriculture, and the fruits of the field were reaped by them without labor. They had no laws or political institutions, and each lived with his wives and children in a cave of a mountain, and ruled over them with arbitrary power.4 Homer does not distinctly state that all of the Cyclopes were one-eyed, but Polyphemus, the principal among them, is described as having only one eye on his forehead.5 The Homeric Cyclopes are no longer the servants of Zeus, but they disregard him.6
A still later tradition regarded the Cyclopes as the assistants of Hephaestus. Volcanoes were the workshops of that god, and Mount Etna in Sicily and the neighboring isles were accordingly considered as their abodes. As the assistants of Hephaestus they are no longer shepherds, but make the metal armor and ornaments for gods and heroes; they work with such might that Sicily and all the neighboring islands resound with their hammering. Their number is, like that in the Homeric poems, no longer confined to three, but their residence is removed from the south-western to the eastern part of Sicily.7 Two of their names are the same as in the cosmogonic tradition, but new names also were invented, for we find one Cyclops bearing the name of Pyracmon, and another that of Acamas.8
The Cyclopes, who were regarded as skillful architects in later accounts, were a race of men who appear to be different from the Cyclopes whom we have considered hitherto, for they are described as a Thracian tribe, which derived its name from a king Cyclops. They were expelled from their homes in Thrace, and went to the Curetes (Crete) and to Lycia. Thence they followed Proetus to protect him, by the gigantic walls which they constructed, against Acrisius. The grand fortifications of Argos, Tiryns, and Mycenae, were in later times regarded as their works.9 Such walls, commonly known by the name of Cyclopean walls, still exist in various parts of ancient Greece and Italy, and consist of unhewn polygones, which are sometimes twenty or thirty feet in breadth.
The story of the Cyclopes having built them seems to be a mere invention, and admits neither of an historical nor geographical explanation. Homer, for instance, knows nothing of Cyclopean walls, and he calls Tiryns merely a πόλις τειχιόεσσα (polis teichioessa).10 The Cyclopean walls were probably constructed by an ancient race of men — perhaps the Pelasgians — who occupied the countries in which they occur before the nations of which we have historical records; and later generations, being struck by their grandeur as much as ourselves, ascribed their building to a fabulous race of Cyclopes.
In works of art the Cyclopes are represented as sturdy men with one eye on their forehead, and the place which in other human beings is occupied by the eyes, is marked in figures of the Cyclopes by a line. According to the explanation of Plato,11 the Cyclopes were beings typical of the original condition of uncivilized men; but this explanation is not satisfactory, and the cosmogonic Cyclopes at least must be regarded as personifications of certain powers manifested in nature, which is sufficiently indicated by their names.
French, early 16th century. Via Latin from Greek Kuklōps, literally "round-eyed," from kuklos, "circle," and ōps, "eye."
The Cyclopes are depicted as one-eyed giants, such as on Etruscan murals and on Greek vases, among which a Chalcidian amphora (ca. 530 BCE; London). They are also depicted with two eyes, such as on a Laconian kylix (ca. 550 BCE; Paris) and on a Roman sarcophagus in the Museo Capitolino in Rome.
Polyphemus as shepherd is shown on a wall decoration in the Casa di Amando Sacerdote (3' style; ca. 25 BCE; Pompeii).
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 1; Hesiod. Theogony, 503.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 10.4.
- Scholiast on Euripides' Alcestis, 1.
- Homer. Odyssey vi, 5; ix, 106 ff., 190 ff., 240 ff.; x, 200.
- Odyssey i, 69, ix; 383 ff.; comp. Polyphemus.
- Odyssey ix, 275; comp. Virgil. Aeneid vi, 636; Callimachus. Hymn to Artemis, 53.
- Virgil. Georgics iv, 170; Aeneid viii, 433; Callimachus. Hymn to Artemis, 56 ff.; Euripides. Cyclops, 599; C. Valerius Flaccus. Argonautica ii, 420.
- Callimachus. Hymn to Artemis, 68; Virgil. Aeneid viii, 425; C. Valerius Flaccus. Argonautica i, 583.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 1.2; Strabo. Geography viii, 373; Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 16.4; Scholiast on Euripides' Orestes, 953.
- Iliad ii, 559.
- On Strabo. Geography xiii., 592.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.