Greek MythologyMythology

The Role of Cyclopes in Greek Mythology

Cyclopes occupy an interesting place in Greek mythology. Pop culture shows them simply as monsters and it’s easy to see why, but this is inaccurate. In the mythology they’re more like demigods, or even gods in their own right, though I don’t recall them ever receiving worship like the deities. Let’s look at some of the portrayals.

Theogony

These were the first cyclopes, and they were far from monsters. 

Hes. Th. 139

And again, she bore the Cyclopes, overbearing in spirit, [140] Brontes, and Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges,1who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt: in all else they were like the gods, [145] but one eye only was set in the midst of their foreheads. And they were surnamed Cyclopes (Orb-eyed) because one orbed eye was set in their foreheads. Strength and might and craft were in their works. 

γείνατο δ᾽ αὖ Κύκλωπας ὑπέρβιον ἦτορ ἔχοντας,
140Βρόντην τε Στερόπην τε καὶ Ἄργην ὀβριμόθυμον,
οἳ Ζηνὶ βροντήν τε δόσαν τεῦξάν τε κεραυνόν.
οἳ δή τοι τὰ μὲν ἄλλα θεοῖς ἐναλίγκιοι ἦσαν,
μοῦνος δ᾽ ὀφθαλμὸς μέσσῳ ἐνέκειτο μετώπῳ.
Κύκλωπες δ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ ἦσαν ἐπώνυμον, οὕνεκ᾽ ἄρα σφέων
145κυκλοτερὴς ὀφθαλμὸς ἕεις ἐνέκειτο μετώπῳ:
ἰσχὺς δ᾽ ἠδὲ βίη καὶ μηχαναὶ ἦσαν ἐπ᾽ ἔργοις.

Hesiod. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

What they were was craftsmen, children of Gaia and Ouranos, and brothers of the Titans. They fought with Zeus in the Titanomachy and gave him his iconic thunderbolts. They also built the altar upon which the gods swore allegiance before the battle.

Later myths had them as helpers to Hephaestus in his forge and are also responsible for making Poseidon’s trident and Hades’ helm.

Apollod. 1.2.1

And the Cyclopes then gave Zeus thunder and lightning and a thunderbolt,4 and on Pluto they bestowed a helmet and on Poseidon a trident.

 καὶ Κύκλωπες τότε Διὶ μὲν διδόασι βροντὴν καὶ ἀστραπὴν καὶ κεραυνόν, Πλούτωνι δὲ κυνέην, Ποσειδῶνι δὲ τρίαιναν:

Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes.

We see the theme of them as builders and craftsmen in later legends as well. The so-called “cyclopean walls” of some cities, most notably Mycenae, were so-named before it was believed that only the cyclopes would have been able to build them.

Homer

We see a different kind of cyclopes portrayed in the Odyssey: Polyphemus and his kin. Here they lose their abilities as builders. Still divine (he was, he was explicitly a son of Poseidon and they lived overall blessed lives) but much more monstrous, as recounted by Odysseus:

Hom. Od. 9.82

“Thence we sailed on, grieved at heart, and 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, [110] 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 [115] to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.

ἔνθεν δὲ προτέρω πλέομεν ἀκαχήμενοι ἦτορ:
Κυκλώπων δ᾽ ἐς γαῖαν ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων
ἱκόμεθ᾽, οἵ ῥα θεοῖσι πεποιθότες ἀθανάτοισιν
οὔτε φυτεύουσιν χερσὶν φυτὸν οὔτ᾽ ἀρόωσιν,
ἀλλὰ τά γ᾽ ἄσπαρτα καὶ ἀνήροτα πάντα φύονται,
110πυροὶ καὶ κριθαὶ ἠδ᾽ ἄμπελοι, αἵ τε φέρουσιν
οἶνον ἐριστάφυλον, καί σφιν Διὸς ὄμβρος ἀέξει.
τοῖσιν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
ἀλλ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
115παίδων ἠδ᾽ ἀλόχων, οὐδ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσιν.

Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.

Conclusion


Like all things in greek mythology, nothing is really set. And definitively saying what something is is impossible. But we have enough portrayals to say what some things aren’t. It seems safe to say that the cyclopes weren’t monsters (though monstrous in some aspects, perhaps). They were typically relatives of the gods, though lacking the same levels of power and worship. They played a crucial role in the earliest myths and help set the foundations for the later world.

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