Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant, first appeared in Homer’s Odyssey. While later writers reimagined him as a hapless romantic, Homer depicted the Cyclops as a brutal and uncultured cannibal.
Odysseus’s captor scorned the gods, but there was one member of the pantheon he prayed to. In seeking vengeance for being blinded, Polyphemus called out to his father.
While he showed no respect for the gods, the giant was the son of the god of the sea.
Blinding Poseidon’s son would lead to the god focusing his hatred on Odysseus. For ten full years, Poseidon would seek to destroy him, only ending his campaign on Zeus’s orders.
The king of the sea seems like an unusual parent for an unsightly monster, though. To find out where Polyphemus really came from, you’ll have to keep reading!
The name Cyclopes was applied to several races of giants in Greek mythology. They were not all closely related, however, and Polyphemus was of a different type than those mentioned in other tales.
The first Cyclopes were three sons of Gaia and Uranus. These Cyclopes were great craftsmen and presented the gods of Olympus with their weapons, most notably Zeus’s thunderbolts and Poseidon’s trident.
A second group of Cyclopes in Greek mythology were masterful builders according to some local legends. The walls of Mycenae and Tiryns were said to have been fitted together by a group of powerful one-eyed giants.
Polyphemus belonged to a third group, most well-known for their appearance in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey.
Homer’s Cyclopes are different from the ones that fought beside the gods against Cronos. Those giants were skilled inventors, while Homer’s giants were uncultured, unintelligent, and cared little for the gods and their laws.
Polyphemus and his brothers were the sons of Poseidon. They lived as shepherds on an isolated island, recognizing the authority of only their father among the gods.
The disregard Polyphemus shows for the gods is made clear in his treatment of Odysseus and his men. While the Greek king expected to be welcomed to the island as a guest, Polyphemus instead imprisoned them and began to cannibalize the trapped men.
Odysseus used his wits to escape the giant’s cave, using a sharpened log to blind him in his sleep. Because he had given the name Nobody, Polyphemus’s brothers believed him to be mad when he shouted, “Nobody has blinded me!”
Odysseus and his men escaped, but the hero decided to yell a final insult back to the Cyclops as they sailed away. In doing so, he gave the giant his real name.
Polyphemus prayed to his father for revenge, asking that Odysseus of Ithaca never be able to reach his homeland again. If he did, Polyphemus asked that it only be after much hardship, the loss of his ship and crew, and to a home that was wracked with troubles.
Poseidon granted his son’s request. For ten long years he would keep Odysseus from his home. When he did return, it was after his men had died and his palace had been overrun with his wife’s ambitious suitors.
It seems unusual for a god to be the father of a monster such as the Cyclops, but Polyphemus was not the only monster associated with Poseidon.
Of course, Poseidon’s son was not the only Cyclops to be born to a great god. Uranus and Gaia had produced several monstrous children, including the first race of one-eyed giants.
The Cyclopes and giants were, therefore, a common element in many Greek myths. They were human enough to be the sons of gods instead of monsters, but lacked the qualities that separated true humans from beasts.
In the case of Polyphemus, Homer comments many times on the giant’s lack of agriculture and building as a sign of his sub-human nature. His disregard for Zeus and his laws truly sets him apart from anything the Greeks would recognize as human.
While Poseidon is associated with some other monstrous offspring, it is possible that the one-eyed giant represents an aspect of the story that predates the god of the sea.
The story of Odysseus is believed to be one of the oldest in the Greek world. Possibly based on a real person from the early Bronze Age, as it was passed down the details grew more fabulous and exaggerated.
They also became more Greek. The story was so old that it predated the gods of Greek mythology, so later retellings often recast old gods and kings as Olympian characters.
This may have been the case with Poseidon. The character could have originally been another pre-Greek god.
The relationship between Polyphemus and Poseidon is never elaborated upon by Homer. While later writers named the giant’s mother as a nymph called Thoosa, the giant’s relationship to Poseidon is referenced in the Odyssey only to advance the plot.
The blinding of Polyphemus is memorable, but the only purpose it serves in the narrative is the make Poseidon the antagonist. Any slight against the sea god could have been substituted with the same result.
Further evidence for the story’s ancient roots comes from the character of Polyphemus himself.
Some mythographers believe that Homer combined two ancient archetypes in the conflict between Odysseus and Polyphemus.
The first type is that of 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 just as Odysseus did.
The second type features a hero who tricks their foe by giving their name as Nobody or Myself. The hero is able to escape because those who hear their opponent cry out are told “Nobody hurt me,” or “I was hurt by Myself!”
Stories from Georgia, Spain, and Ireland provide examples of these motifs.
The character of Polyphemus, therefore, is one that likely far predates the worship of Poseidon in the region. The familiar archetypes were interwoven into the story of the clever sailor, and Poseidon was named as the giant’s father to provide motivation for his hatred.
The one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus showed scorn toward the gods, but did not hesitate to ask his father for help. According to Homer, the giant was the offspring of the god of the sea, Poseidon.
While it was unusual for an Olympian to be the father of a beast such as Polyphemus, it was not without precedent. The first race of Cyclopes had been born to Uranus and Gaia and Poseidon himself had fathered Chrysaor and Pegasus with the Gorgon Medusa.
The giant seems to have little connection to the sea god, however. Their relationship in the Odyssey serves only as a plot device to justify Poseidon’s hatred of Odysseus.
This is likely because Polyphemus appeared in the story long before Poseidon. The god of the sea was written into a tale that had been told long before he was worshipped by the Greek people.
In fact, Polyphemus represents two widespread archetypes in Indo-European mythology. Both his blinding and the way he is tricked by the hero show that the confrontation between Odysseus and the Cyclops is probably one of the oldest scenes in the story of the hero’s long voyage.