The Greek and Roman mythology are populated by Gods and Giants, overly powerful creatures which dominated the mankind. Amongst the giants there were also the cyclops, huge monsters with human features yet equipped with one eye only. The word comes from the Greek “κυκλος” which means circle and “ωψ”, eye. The most famous one was Polyphemus, from the Odyssey of Homer as one of the antagonists of his hero Ulysses.
Polyphemus appeared even in the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, once again as an antagonist, in the fable of Acis and Galatea where it kills Aci, young partner of Galatea. Despite cyclops are fantastic creatures, some historical references are linked to this character, one of the most mentioned in the ancient mythological tales.
Origin of the Cyclops
The cyclops are generally portrayed as greedy and cruel beings and they were well known for being men eaters. They were working on behalf of Hephaestus, God of fire, and dwelled nearby vulcani. Many historians agrees on identifying Sicily as the geographic area which gave inspiration to Homer for his book and especially the Etna volcano which would host their infernal laboratories.
Below: protoattic amphora from 650 BC. In the scene Ulysses blinds the cyclop. Picture shared via Wikipedia– licence CC BY-SA 3.0
The idea of a cyclop, that is a man with just one eye can have many origins, but there are 2 main ones.
The 1st one is that the cyclops were ancient blacksmiths landed in Sicily from Orient always wearing a patch on their left eye, to save it from the sparks. They were historically active from the IV millennium BC and archeological evidence was found that metalwork was performed inside the caves of the Aeolian Islands. These men had furthermore a circular tattoo on their forehead, which identified them for their profession as well as they would bring homage to the God they worshipped, which was the Sun.
A 2nd hypothesis, which could not exclude a mixture with the 1st one, identifies the skulls of the dwarf elephants, creatures which populated all the Mediterranean area since the Pleistocene, around 11,800 years ago. The skulls of those elephants, recovered in loads of different caves of Sicily and Malta, Cyprus, Crete, Sardinia and in the Cyclades, had a huge central hole, which today it’s known to be functional for the proboscis but probably it was mistaken by the ancients as the cyclop’s eye. This possible resolution to the enigma was suggested in 1914 by the Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel, who bumped into some of those bones during his studies.
Below: skull of a dwarf elephant from Verona Museum. Picture by Ghedoghedo shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Below: dwarf elephant from Malta. Picture by Hamelin de Guettelet shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Could it may be that Homer and the ancient society thought of those skulls, widespread throughout Greece, Sicily and Sardinia as remains of huge one-eyed human beings? Or again, is it possible that they imagined the local blacksmiths from the island to be originally just with one eye and then eventually growing another one? It is likely that a real answer will never be achieved, however the theories of the genesis of such a brutal antagonist are perhaps not too far from reality.
Below: picture by Giovanni dall’Orto shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Below: the scene from the Cyclops Island from Mario Camerini’s Ulysses with Kirk Douglas in 1954: