Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Cyclopes

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1997134Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology — Cyclopes1870Various Authors

CYCLO′PES (Κύκλωπες), that is, creatures with round or circular eyes. The tradition about these beings has undergone several changes and modifications in its development in Greek mythology, though some traces of their identity remain visible throughout. According to the ancient cosmogonies, the Cyclopes were the sons of Uranus and Ge; they belonged to the Titans, and were three in number, whose names were Arges, Steropes, and Brontes, and each of them had only one eye on his forehead. Together with the other Titans, they were cast by their father into Tartarus, but, instigated by their mother, they assisted Cronus in usurping the government. But Cronus again threw them into Tartarus, and as Zeus released them in his war against Cronus and the Titans, the Cyclopes provided Zeus with thunderbolts and lightning, Pluto with a helmet, and Poseidon with a trident. (Apollod. i. 1; Hes. Theog. 503.) Henceforth they remained the ministers of Zeus, but were afterwards killed by Apollo for having furnished Zeus with the thunderbolts to kill Asclepius. (Apollod, iii. 10. §4.) According to others, however, it was not the Cyclopes themselves that were killed, but their sons. (Schol. ad Eurip. Alcest. 1.)

In the Homeric poems the Cyclopes are a gigantic, insolent, and lawless race of shepherds, who lived in the south-western part of Sicily, and devoured human beings. They neglected agriculture, and the fruits of the field were reaped by them without labour. They had no laws or political institutions, and each lived with his wives and children in a cave of a mountain, and ruled over them with arbitrary power. (Hom. Od. vi. 5, ix. 106, &c., 190, &c., 240, &c., x. 200.) Homer does not distinctly state that all of the Cyclopes were one-eyed, but Polyphemus, the principal among them, is described as having only one eye on his forehead. (Od. i. 69, ix. 383, &c.; comp. Polyphemus.) The Homeric Cyclopes are no longer the servants of Zeus, but they disregard him. (Od. ix. 275; comp. Virg. Aen. vi. 636; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 53.)

A still later tradition regarded the Cyclopes as the assistants of Hephaestus. Volcanoes were the workshops of that god, and mount Aetna in Sicily and the neighbouring isles were accordingly considered as their abodes. As the assistants of Hephaestus they are no longer shepherds, but make the metal armour and ornaments for gods and heroes; they work with such might that Sicily and all the neighbouring islands resound with their hammering. Their number is, like that in the Homeric poems, no longer confined to three, but their residence is removed from the south-western to the eastern part of Sicily (Virg. Georg. iv. 170, Aen. viii. 433; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 56, &c.; Eurip. Cycl. 599; Val. Flacc. ii. 420.) Two of their names are the same as in the cosmogonic tradition, but new names also were invented, for we find one Cyclops bearing the name of Pyraemon, and another that of Acamas. (Cailim. Hymn. in Dian. 68; Virg. Aen. viii. 425; Val. Flacc. i. 583.)

The Cyclopes, who were regarded as skilful architects in later accounts, were a race of men who appear to be different from the Cyclopes whom we have considered hitherto, for they are described as a Thracian tribe, which derived its name from a king Cyclops. They were expelled from their homes in Thrace, and went to the Curetes (Crete) and to Lycia. Thence they followed Proetus to protect him, by the gigantic walls which they constructed, against Acrisius. The grand fortifications of Argos, Tiryns, and Mycenae, were in later times regarded as their works. (Apollod. ii. 1. §2; Strab. viii. p. 373; Paus. ii. 16. §4; Schol. ad Eurip. Orest. 953.) Such walls, commonly known by the name of Cyclopean walls, still exist in various parts of ancient Greece and Italy, and consist of unhewn polygones, which are sometimes 20 or 30 feet in breadth. The story of the Cyclopes having built them seems to be a mere invention, and admits neither of an historical nor geographical explanation. Homer, for instance, knows nothing of Cyclopean walls, and he calls Tiryns merely a πόλις τειχιόεσσα. (Il. ii. 559.) The Cyclopean walls were probably constructed by an ancient race of men—perhaps the Pelasgians—who occupied the countries in which they occur before the nations of which we have historical records; and later generations, being struck by their grandeur as much as ourselves, ascribed their building to a fabulous race of Cyclopes. Analogies to such a process of tradition are not wanting in modern countries; thus several walls in Germany, which were probably constructed by the Romans, are to this day called by the people Riesenmauer or Teufelsmauer.

In works of art the Cyclopes are represented as sturdy men with one eye on their forehead, and the place which in other human beings is occupied by the eyes, is marked in figures of the Cyclopes by a line. According to the explanation of Plato (ap. Strab. xiii. p. 592), the Cyclopes were beings typical of the original condition of uncivilized men; but this explanation is not satisfactory, and the cosmogonic Cyclopes at least must be regarded as personifications of certain powers manifested in nature, which is sufficiently indicated by their names.