Polyphemus: The Cyclops of the Odyssey
Polyphemus was a cyclops, a type of one-eyed giant in Greek mythology. He is most famous for his interactions with the hero Odysseus.
In Homer’s legend, Polyphemus is a brutish and unintelligent monster with no concept of civilisation or care for the law. Odysseus is heroic for defeating him with resourcefulness and cunning, even though his arrogance soon causes trouble.
Later stories told a much different version of the giant’s tale, though. He wasn’t a barbaric beast, but a lovesick musician who pined for the beauty of a nymph who would never love him.
How did Polyphemus go from being a vicious monster to a heartbroken poetic ideal? Keep reading to find out all about the most famous one-eyed giant in all of mythology!
The cyclopes were a race of monsters that featured often in Greek mythology. They were not all closely related, however, and Polyphemus was very different than some of the one-eyed giants that were mentioned in other tales.
The first Cyclopes were three sons of Gaia and Uranus. Their imprisonment by their father spurred Gaia to urge her other children to overthrow him.
When the Titans kept the original Cyclopes locked away, Gaia again urged rebellion and back the Olympian gods and Zeus against the Titans.
These Cyclopes were great craftsmen and presented the gods of Olympus with their weapons, most notably the thunderbolts wielded by Zeus.
A second group of Cyclopes in Greek mythology were masterful builders according to some local legends. The walls of Mycenae and Tiryns were made of great limestone boulders said to have been fitted together by a group of powerful one-eyed giants.
Polyphemus belonged to a third group, known by academics as the Homeric Cyclopes. This is because their first and most famous appearance was in Homer’s epic poem Odyssey in which they, and Polyphemus in particular, serve as some of the titular hero’s first antagonists.
Homer’s Cyclopes are different from the ones that Hesiod described in his stories about the early wars of the gods. Those giants were skilled inventors and helpers of the gods, while Homer’s giants were much more brutish and had none of the predecessors’ intelligence.
Polyphemus and his brothers were the sons of Poseidon. They lived as uncultured shepherds on an isolated island, removed from the human world they lived in.
They were savages, as evidenced for the fact that they had no regard for Zeus or any other god besides their father. They had no knowledge of human culture, ships, or agriculture and did not even build houses for themselves.
Homer’s Cyclopes were anarchists who lived apart from one another with no laws or customs. They lived in caves and kept semi-wild sheep that they milked to make cheese or slaughtered for food.
These caves were close enough that the giants could yell to one another, but they had little familiar relationship with their brothers.
Polyphemus and his brothers were wild, brutish monsters that attacked anyone who came to their island. They were the antithesis of the cultured, law-abiding people of Greece.
The most famous visitor to Polyphemus’s home was the Greek hero Odysseus.
Homer’s Odyssey describes the epic ten-year journey the Ithacan king endured in his attempt to return to his home after the Trojan War.
Early in the journey, Odysseus and his fleet arrived at an island that appeared to be uninhabited. They found no buildings or signs of cultivation, just wild sheep.
Odysseus was exploring the island with a dozen of his men when they found a cave filled with provisions, including cheese and milk. They killed a few of the young sheep there and began to build a fire to roast them.
They were surprised when Polyphemus returned with his flocks and, finding the intruders, blocked the cave’s entrance with an enormous boulder.
Polyphemus had no reverence for Zeus and, thus, no respect for the laws of hospitality. The giant grabbed two of the crewmen he had trapped in the cave and ate them alive.
The next morning he ate two more men before leaving with his sheep, again blocking the entrance behind him. Odysseus and his men, however, had begun to plan their escape.
That evening Polyphemus returned and ate to more of the men. Odysseus, however, pretended to be unbothered by the slaughter.
He offered the giant a drink of some strong, undiluted wine he had been given before his journey. Polyphemus, who had no knowledge of wine, was soon drunk.
He asked Odysseus his name, to which the hero replied “Nobody.” Polyphemus said that he would save Nobody and kill him last.
When the giant fell into a drunken sleep, Odysseus launched his attack. Unbeknown to the monster, he had spent the day sharpening a wooden stake and hardening it in the fire.
Odysseus plunged the stake into the giant’s single eye. Polyphemus awoke with a scream of pain and shouted to his brothers for help.
Across the island, the other Cyclopes could hear Polyphemus shouting that he had been attacked. When they asked who had hurt him he replied with the only name he knew to give, Nobody.
Hearing that Nobody had injured their brother, the other Cyclopes ignored his shouts and suggested he pray.
Polyphemus flailed blindly around his cave searching for the men who had attacked him, but could find no trace of them. The next morning he moved the stone and let his sheep out to graze.
Odysseus and his surviving crewmen had clung to the undersides of some of the sheep to hide and were carried out to safety. They quickly made their way to their ship and set sail away from the island.
Odysseus made one error, however, that would result in years of torment and hardship.
As his ship left the island, in a moment of arrogance he yelled back at the blinded giant. He yelled that he was Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and he had gotten the better of the cyclops.
Polyphemus heard the name and cried out to his father for revenge. He asked Poseidon to avenge his blindness and destroy the man who had caused it.
This action of arrogance caused Poseidon to have a long and deadly vendetta against Odysseus.
Poseidon the Earth-Sustainer is stubborn still in his anger against Odysseus because of his blinding of Polyphemos (Polyphemus), the Kyklops (Cyclops) whose power is greatest among the Kyklopes race and whose ancestry is more than human; his mother was the nymph Thoosa, child of Phorkys (Phorcys) the lord of the barren sea, and she lay with Poseidon within her arching caverns. Ever since that blinding Poseidon has been against Odysseus.
-Homer, Odyssey 1. 68 ff
Poseidon would attempt to destroy Odysseus and his crew many times over the course of their journey. Odysseus would be the only survivor of his voyage and would not reach his homeland until Athena intervened with Zeus on his behalf.
According to some historians, Polyphemus is part of a common type of monster in ancient mythologies from across Europe and the rest of the world.
The idea was first put forward by Wilhelm Grimm, the folklorist famous for his collection of fairy tales. He collected stories similar to that of Odysseus from many different cultures.
His work was continued, and some academics have identified over two hundred stories from more than two dozen countries that fit the archetype of Homer’s Polyphemus.
Scholars believe that Homer combined two existing archetypes in his depiction of the conflict between Odysseus and Polyphemus.
The first theme involves a one-eyed monster who is blinded by the hero of the story. In many cases the hero uses an animal, often sheep or cattle, to aid in their escape.
The second type of story relates to the name Odysseus gives the drunken giant. Many myths from around the world feature a hero who tricks their foe by giving their name as Nobody or Myself.
Some examples of this ancient archetype include:
- A story from Georgian folklore calls the monster One-Eye. He captures a group of brothers and begins to eat them, but the survivors are able to escape by blinding him and sneaking out among his sheep.
- Tepegoz was a one-eyed monster who was said to have terrorized the Oghuz people of Western Turkey by demanding to eat 60 of them each day. His half brother put an end to his life by first blinding him with a stick.
- Balor was a one-eyed giant in Irish mythology who kept his eye closed because his gaze brought destruction. His grandson killed him by ripping out this eye.
- Tartalo was a giant in Basque mythology who captured two brothers who had taken shelter in his cave during a storm. The first brother was eaten, but the second blinded the giant with the roasting spit to escape.
Many characters in Greek mythology evolved through the centuries and came to be represented very differently than they were first shown. Polyphemus was one of these.
About three centuries after Homer wrote the Odyssey, another version of Polyphemus began to become popular in written legend. Philoxenus of Cythera was the first known writer to imagine Polyphemus as a character in love.
The story soon grew in popularity. Polyphemus had fallen madly in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who did not reciprocate his feelings.
The Prometheus imagined in this story of unrequited love is far from the savage brute shown in Homer’s writing. While he is the same creature, he shows an understanding of human nature, civilization, and even literature.
One theory suggests that the characters in Philoxenus’s works were meant to represent himself, a female musician he loved, and Dionysius I, the tyrant king of Syracuse, in a real-life love triangle.
The later pastoral poets expended the story even farther, showing Polyphemus as a character who is so love struck that he becomes comical.
According to most versions of the story of Polyphemus and Galatea, the sea nymph can never love the giant because of his ugliness. He continues to pine for her, however, wishing he could reach her home beneath the water.
In the stories of Polyphemus in love, he eventually turns to music to ease his heartache and express his feelings.
His name translates to “abounding in songs and legends,” so it is probably unsurprising that writers would eventually imagine him as the performing of said songs. Since Philoxeus was a poet writing about the love of a fellow musician, there is even more reason to associate the stories of Polyphemus with song.
While early writers viewed the cyclops’s musicianship as a source of humor, later writers embraced him as a piper and singer. The romantic writers of the pastoral poems viewed music as a cure for love, and claimed Prometheus was smart to turn to it.
One of these pastoral poems claims that Polyphemus may have eventually had better luck in love. Two herdsmen engage in a musical competition to win Galatea’s attentions and one, playing the part of Polyphemus, says that he began ignoring the nymph until she was the one chasing after him.
Some later writers would give Polyphemus a much happier ending with Galatea, but in the works of Ovid he became more like the monster he was in the Odyssey.
Ovid introduced the character of Acis, a man who won Galatea’s heart while she spurned Polyphemus. The giant, still a musician but much less cultured that he had been in Hellenistic pastoral poems, still played her songs in an attempt to win her over.
Oblivious to his ugliness, enormous size, and uncivilized demeanor, Polyphemus played for Galatea even as she was hiding from him with Acis.
When the giant discovered her hiding place, he was enraged and jealous. Galatea dove into the sea for safety, but Acis was crushed when Polyphemus brought boulders smashing down on him.
Polyphemus is best remembered in Greek mythology as the cyclops blinded by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.
Several types of cyclopes existed in Greek myths. Polyphemus was a son of Poseidon and lived an uncultured and savage life on an isolated island.
Odysseus blinded the giant after it had eaten several of his men. Because Odysseus told him his name was Nobody, Polyphemus received no help when he cried out that Nobody had blinded him.
Hubris prevented Odysseus from making a clean escape, though. He called back with his real name, earning the enmity of Poseidon and creating terrible difficulties for the rest of his voyage.
The scene with from the Odyssey has so much in common with other legends from across Europe that some historians are convinced that Homer drew on a more ancient story to create the characters of Odysseus and Polyphemus.
Later writers made Polyphemus more refined and sympathetic, showing his unrequited love for the nymph Galatea. While he was usually unsuccessful in his attempts to woo her, the image of Polyphemus as a love-struck musician provided a stark contrast to Homer’s earlier portrayal of a vicious barbarian monster.