The cyclopes were one-eyed, human-like monsters who are best known from the Greek myths, including stories like The Odyssey. However, one-eyed, cyclops-like creatures also appear in the mythologies of other cultures, including Celtic, Slavic, and Japanese. In this post, you’ll learn about some of the cyclops myths plus cyclops symbolism, meanings, and more.
Table of Contents
- What is a cyclops?
- Cyclopes Quick Facts
- Etymology of the Name “Cyclops”
- Cyclops Mythology
- Babylonian Cyclops
- Other Potential Origins: Pygmy Elephants
- Cyclopes in Greek Mythology
- The Cyclops in Celtic Mythology: Ojáncanu
- Likho, the Cyclops in Slavic Mythology
- Japanese Cyclops: Hitotsume-kozō
- Cyclops Symbolism in Norse Mythology
- Cyclops Symbolism and Meanings
What is a cyclops?
As mentioned above, the cyclopes were human-like monsters. However, their most distinguishing feature was that they had only one eye, which was located in the middle of their foreheads. And while the cyclopes in Greek, Celtic, and Slavic mythology were giants, in Japan, the cyclops-like creatures were the size of human children. Furthermore, depictions of the cyclopes’ mental acuity and other personality traits changed, depending on who was telling the story.
Cyclopes Quick Facts
- Culture of Origins: Historians theorize it was Mesopotamia and then Ancient Greece and beyond.
- Ancestry: In Greek cosmology Gaia (the Earth) was the mother of the cyclopes and Uranus (the sky and heavens) was the father. In later myths, Poseidon was the father to a cyclops named Polyphemus and a nymph named Thoösa was the mother.
- Special Powers: brute strength, blacksmithing, music, psychic abilities
Etymology of the Name “Cyclops”
The word “cyclops” comes from the ancient Greek word kyclopes, which is derived from the words kyklos (“circle” or “wheel”) and ops (“eye”).1 The roots of these words may be familiar to you, as they appear in a number of common terms in the English language, including “cycle,” “bicycle,” and “optometrist.” 2 Generally, in English, the plural for cyclops is spelled cyclopes.
The oldest-known human artifact that bears a resemblance to the cyclops is a Babylonian clay plaque that dates back to 2025-1595 BCE. The plaque depicts a warrior god who is restraining a monster with one hand as he uses his other to stab it with a large blade. The monster’s head is shaped like a sun with 12 points, or rays. Yet what is most intriguing (at least as it relates to this article) is that the monster only has one eye located in the middle of its forehead.
Archeologists refer to the artifact as “God Killing the Cyclops.” One concluded that the cyclops-like monster is a “fire demon” because of the rays projecting from its head.
Still other scholars say the Babylonian monster is the Mesopotamian deity Tiamat, who takes on different forms, including a sea goddess.3 However, there is no writing on the plaque. Thus, its full story remains a mystery.4
Other Potential Origins: Pygmy Elephants
Paleontologists have another theory about the origins of the cyclopes myths – or at least one of the reasons that it’s so enduring. During the Pleistocene Epoch, which occurred from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago,5 sea levels dropped, enabling some land creatures to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The ancestors of African elephants walked or swam across the sea to Europe, some landing on what is now the island of Sicily. As sea levels rose again, a population of the elephants remained on the island. Over time and many generations, with less food available, the elephant species shrunk in size. On Sicily, they evolved to be pygmy elephants who were about 250 pounds and only 3 feet tall.
When the humans arrived…
The pygmy elephants didn’t have any predators until human beings arrived on the scene about 11,000 years ago. Eventually, the humans hunted them to the point of extinction. Some of their bones remained in caves, however, where the early humans had eaten them.
Thousands of years later, the Greeks discovered some of these bones. When they found a pygmy elephant skull, they would have held a skull that was about twice the size of a human skull. However, the pygmy elephant skull had a large hole in the middle of the forehead where the elephant’s trunk had been.
It’s unlikely that most Greeks had ever seen a live elephant, so we can assume they didn’t draw a conclusion that the skull was for that kind of animal. Without knowing what kind of creature the skull actually belonged to, it’s easy to see how the Greeks may have assumed the hole was for a single eye socket.6
Cyclopes in Greek Mythology
For many of us, we first learned about the cyclopes in Greek mythology. The poet Hesiod wrote about them in his foundational compilation of Greek myths called the Theogony, which dates to 750-650 BCE. Yet while the Theogony is around 2,700 years old, it’s likely that the stories of the cyclopes, along with the other Greek myths, are much older. Literacy wasn’t as widespread centuries ago. Thus, traveling bards likely told these stories for centuries before they were ever written down.7
Ancestry of the Greek Cyclopes
According to Greek cosmology, before the world was created, the universe was only chaos. From this chaos, the first female deity, Gaia (who was the Earth itself) was born along with two male deities. These were Tartarus, who was the “pit” or underworld, and Eros, who was the embodiment of love.
Gaia produced offspring without the help of a mate. One of her children included Uranus, who was the god of the sky and heavens. Gaia and Uranus then procreated. In doing so, they gave birth to the 12 titan gods as well as to monster gods, including the three hecatoncheires and three cyclopes. Thus, the original cyclopes, along with their siblings, were very ancient beings in Greek mythology.8
Thunder and Lightning Storm Gods
Gaia and Uranus’ three cyclopes children were called Arges and Brontes, who were thunder storm gods, and Steropes, who was a lightning storm god.
As the legend goes, Uranus took a disliking to his monster children, and he blamed Gaia for who they were. Thus, Uranus decided he would imprison them all in the Earth, which so happened to be their mother, Gaia. (By some accounts, this prison was Tartarus.)
Having spirited monster children living inside her caused Gaia a lot of pain. So, she sought the help of her other children to avenge her against Uranus. Gaia’s youngest Titan son, Cronus (whose was Saturn in Roman mythology) agreed to help her. Using a saber, he castrated Uranus and threw his testicles into the sea. The sea foam from the severed testicles gave birth to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. But that’s another story…
Toiling Away in Hell: the Cyclopes as Blacksmiths and Builders
As the cyclopes were imprisoned in the Underworld, they had to find something to occupy their time. So, they began to forge metal from the Earth’s molten core using their storm powers. They also began to build things with stone. The cyclopes grew in strength and honed their craft. (In later Greek myths, volcanic eruptions that spewed lava, sparks, ash, and rocks were said to be from the cyclopes blacksmiths hard at work.)
Meanwhile, back on the surface of the Earth, Cronus had had a son named Zeus. However, Uranus still maintained power as the god of the sky and the heavens. Still resentful of Uranus for the mistreatment of his mother, Cronus plotted to overthrow him and put Zeus in power. But he couldn’t do this alone. So, he freed his three cyclopes siblings on the condition they would help him overthrow their spiteful father.
The cyclopes’ winning combination of smithing skills and storm-god DNA enabled them to create Zeus’ all-powerful weapons: thunder and lightning bolts. With the cyclopes’ help, Zeus was able to overthrow Uranus and become the preeminent god of the universe.
Cyclopes in The Odyssey: Polyphemus
Around the time that Hesiod was writing down the oral stories of the Greek myths, the poet Homer wrote the epic poem The Odyssey (around 725–675 BCE) based on these stories as well.
In The Odyssey, the hero-warrior Odysseus is trying to return home to Ithaca with his fleet of ships after the Trojan War. He and his crew had stopped off at the Land of the Lotus-Eaters (which some historians theorize was on the Mediterranean coast of what is now modern-day Libya.) However, Odysseus had to drag his men away because they were consuming lotus plants (which may have been poppy flowers) with the locals and the narcotic effects were causing his men to lose any desire to leave, let alone work on a ship.
Wheat, Barley, and Vines
After Odysseus had successfully dragged his men back to the ships and returned his fleet to sea, the next stop on their journey was the island of Cyclopes (which some say is modern-day Sicily). The men embarked and set out to look for food and other supplies. As Odysseus and his men were exploring, they are impressed by the riches of the land, especially because the locals, who happened to be cyclopes, didn’t seem to not do much in terms of farming cultivation:
“… we came to the land of the Cyclopes, an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase. Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each one is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.”9
The Cave of Polyphemus
While exploring, the men came upon the cave of a cyclops named Polyphemus. The one-eyed giant seemed friendly, so Odysseus offered him some bread and cheese from their supplies. Polyphemus then welcomed Odysseus and his men into his cave to dine with him. However, once the men were inside the cave, Polyphemus trapped them there, blocking the entrance to the cave with a massive boulder. Polyphemus left the men trapped inside as he went out to tend to his herd of sheep. But when Polyphemus returned to the cave, the real horror began: He ate two of Odysseus’ men.
The cyclops’ nightmarish behavior turned into a pattern, as every morning, he would leave the cave with the men trapped inside, then go tend his sheep, and then return in the evening to eat two more of Odysseus’ men.
An Escape Plan
Fearing for his crew, Odysseus devised a plan. He knew he couldn’t just kill Polyphemus because he would need the cyclops’ help to remove the large boulder so that he and his men could escape.
When evening came and Polyphemus returned to the cave, Odysseus offered him the best wine from his supplies. Polyphemus drank all of the wine greedily and was soon drunk. Now inebriated, he asked Odysseus what his name was. Odysseus replied, “My name is Nobody.” Polyphemus said, “Very well, Nobody, for sharing your wine, I will eat you last.” And then Polyphemus passed out. As soon as he was out cold, Odysseus grabbed a giant stick and drove it into the cyclops’ one eye, blinding him.
Polyphemus awoke, screaming in agony. He screamed so loud that the other cyclopes on the island heard him. But when they called out to him, asking what is wrong, Polyphemus replied, “Nobody has harmed me.” Concluding that nothing was wrong, the other cyclopes did not come to his aid.10
As Polyphemus was now blind, he was unable to catch more men that night. The next morning, he moved the boulder so that he could take his sheep out into the fields. He made sure to feel each sheep’s back to ensure that they were indeed sheep he was letting out, and not any of his human captives. However, unbeknownst to the cyclops, Odysseus and his men snuck out of the cave by clinging on to the underbellies of the sheep.
Once Odysseus and his men had escaped and safely back on their ships and sailing away, Odysseus couldn’t help another jab at Polyphemus. He yelled, “Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it… the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”
Enraged at being duped and then shamed, Polyphemus lamented to his father, the god of the sea – Poseidon, to avenge him. Thus, many of the following trials that Odysseus and his crew faced were blamed on the Poseidon’s wrath for insulting his son.11
The Sin of Hubris and Inhospitableness
The story of Odysseus’ time with Polyphemus underscored two very important values to the ancient Greeks, which they attributed to their gods. One was the value of hospitality. In ancient Greek society, treating guests with respect and care was of the utmost importance. So, when Polyphemus turned on his guests by eating them, he suffered grave consequences. In addition, the Greek gods did not tolerate hubris in human beings. Thus, arrogance was also punished. When Odysseus mocked the cyclops after narrowly escaping death, he showed hubris instead of gratitude and humility. So, he was also punished afterwards.
The Cyclopes as More than Brutes
The cyclopes were not always portrayed as dimwitted brutes, however. It’s true they were credited with building the military strongholds at Tiryns and Mycenae. And to this day, we refer to buildings, walls, and other structures that are built with giant stones as cyclopean masonry.
However, the cyclopes also credited with forging and building some of the most important objects in Greek mythology. Aside from Zeus’ thunder and lightning bolts, they forged Poseidon‘s trident and Artemis’ bow and arrow. In addition, they created the cap of invisibility, also called the helmet of Hades.12
The hero Perseus wore the helmet when he slayed the gorgon Medusa. And Athena, the goddess or wisdom and warfare, wore it in the Trojan War. Furthermore, Hermes, the messenger god, wore it when he battled the giant Hippolytos.13
In addition to their building and smithing skills, the cyclopes could also be quite romantic…
Polyphemus and Galatea
The cyclops Polyphemus from The Odyssey wasn’t just a bloodthirsty man-eater. In other myths, he was depicted as a musician and a romantic suitor. Sometime between 406 – 388 BCE, the poet Philoxenus of Cythera wrote about Polyphemus falling in love with a sea nymph named Galatea. Unfortunately, it was a case of unrequited love, as the sea nymph found him distasteful.
The mismatched pair inspired later poets and playwrights. In some versions of the story, Polyphemus learned to play a flute or lyre to nurse his broken heart. However, he became so adept at the instrument that the beauty of his music lured the nymph out of the water and to his side. 14 (In a way, it was like a classic mermaid tale, but in the reverse.)
When the Roman poet Ovid wrote Metamorphoses in 8 AD, the romantic story became a love triangle. In the story, Galatea falls in love with the mortal man named Acis. Not one to control his angry impulses, Polyphemus becomes so jealous that he kills Acis. However, Galatea turns Acis into an immortal river spirit.15
In the 5th century BCE, another Greek poet, Euripides, was also inspired to write about the cyclopes. Euripides’ Cyclops was what was called a “satyr play” – a prelude to the modern-day satire. As the name implies, satyr plays included satyrs, the mythical half-man and half-goat creatures who enjoyed wine, merrymaking, and bawdy humor. Some say they were the more comical version of the brutish and dangerous centaurs. In Euripides’ version of the cyclopes story from The Odyssey, Polyphemus is far more clever, while the satyrs take on the role of the buffoons.16
The Cyclops in Celtic Mythology: Ojáncanu
The Cantabri, or Cantabrians, were a group of Celtic clans who lived in the
Cantabrian Mountains on the north coast of Spain. They lived freely until they were subjugated by the Romans in 19 BCE. They, too, told tales of one-eyed monsters.
The Cantabrian cyclopes was called the Ojáncanu. An over 10-foot tall monster, the Ojáncanu had one eye and two rows of sharp teeth. They also had 10 fingers on each of their hands and a mane of unruly red hard. The female Ojáncanu, called the Ojáncana, looked just like the males except they didn’t have a beard.
According to the tales, the Ojáncana had long drooping breasts that touched the ground. When they ran, they slung their breasts over their shoulders.
The Cantari described the Ojáncanu as the “embodiment of cruelty and brutality.” They were known to destroy huts and trees, throw boulders, and block rivers from flowing. They also battled bears and bulls.
In addition, the Ojáncanu displayed a bizarre reproduction process. Instead of mating, they would take the guts out of a deceased Ojáncanu and strew them around the forest. Then, they would bury the rest of the Ojáncanu’s body under an oak or yew tree.17
The Ojáncanu could be defeated, however. All that had to be done was that a brave soul get close enough to pluck a single white hair from the Ojáncanu’s beard. Or, they could enlist the help of the Anjanas, who were the benevolent Cantabrian fairies.18
Likho, the Cyclops in Slavic Mythology
The ancient Slavs told tale of their own cyclops-like monster, whom they called Likho. Described in a number of ways, Likho might be a giant whose head rises above the treetops, an evil, scary-looking man, or an emaciated old woman. What all of these descriptions had in common was that Likho had only one eye and was the embodiment of evil fate and misfortune.
One of Likho’s tricks was to jump on their victim’s back and cling to it. If the victim jumped into a body of water in an effort to drown the Likho and be free of it, they would usually be the ones who ended up drowning. In other versions of the myth, some seemingly brave souls set out to find and battle the Likho. However, they were usually punished for their hubris and ended up meeting a tragic fate. The moral of many Likho stories was to not intentionally seek out evil or indulge odd curiosities.19
Japanese Cyclops: Hitotsume-kozō
Not all cyclops-like creatures are malevolent toward human beings. The Japanese tell stories of enigmatic one-eyed creatures they call Hitotsume-kozō, which translates to “one-eyed boys.” Hitotsume-kozō are more mischievous than evil.
Hitotsume-kozō are also unlike the other cyclopes-like creatures in that they aren’t giants. Rather, they are the size of human children. According to Japanese legends, they resemble Buddhist monks with shaved heads and they have only one eye and a long tongue.
The Hitotsume-kozō are not completely innocent, however. While they may not attack people, they love to scare them. In addition, encountering one is bad luck. So, the Japanese have a way of warding them off, which is to put a bamboo basket out in front of the home or other building. Apparently, the Hitotsume-kozō think the holes in the basket are the eyes of another creature. The Hitotsume-kozō are so intimidated by the creature’s many eyes that they run away.20
Cyclops Symbolism in Norse Mythology
While there isn’t a cyclops monster in Norse mythology, some scholars compare the cyclopes to the Norse god Odin. In Norse mythology, Odin sought the power of cosmic forces and universal wisdom. In short, he wanted to know everything about everything. So, to demonstrate that he was worthy of such power, he made great sacrifices. One of those sacrifices was that Odin gave one of his eyes to Mirmir, the wisest of gods. He did this in exchange for drinking from Mirmir’s well of wisdom, or the Well of Urd.
In losing one of his eyes, Odin consolidated his power. In other words, he lost some of his sight but gained even greater insights.21 In this way, Odin shares symbolism with the cyclopes. Both make gains as a result of their limitations. For the Greek cyclopes, they created magical objects, including Zeus’ weapons, Artemis’ bow and arrow, and the invisible helmet – all which shaped universal events.
Cyclops Symbolism and Meanings
As distinguishing characters whose stories have withstood the test of time, the cyclopes have come to symbolize many things in our modern world. Cyclopes symbolism and meanings include:
The cyclopes possess the attribute of all-powerful brute strength, the kind that human beings can only aspire to.
As expert blacksmiths and builders, the cyclopes represented the power of skills and perfecting one’s craft.
As in the love triangle between Polyphemus, Galatea, and Acis – the cyclops reminds us of the toxicity of jealousy and its destructiveness.
Polyphemus commits a universal affront: He doesn’t treat his guests with care or respect.
The cyclops also demonstrates both the power and the drawbacks of intense focus. While his one eye demonstrates the advantages of eliminating needless distractions; it also shows the danger of tunnel vision and being too narrow-minded.
Some scholars theorize that the cyclopes also symbolizes the sun and solar power. The cyclops Polyphemus was the son of Zeus. And for the ancient Greeks, the sun was the eye of Zeus. Thus the cyclops embodied the power of the sun and the aspect of their god Zeus that was fire and light.22
The Third Eye, or Psychic Abilities
For some, the cyclops also represents the power of the third eye, or our psychic abilities. In many cultures around the world, particularly those in the East, there is a concept that we process extra-sensory information through the crown and front of our heads.
For those who believe in the idea of chakras, or seven distinct energy centers in our bodies, the third eye is connected to the sixth chakra. This chakra governs our endocrine system, including our pineal gland, which resides in the middle of our brains. Some philosophers, including Rene Descartes, theorized that our soul resided in the pineal gland. Thus, this was how we connected to universal wisdom.23
So, like the story of Odin, for some, the cyclops symbolizes our ability to connect to God or Source, no matter our Earthly limitations.