Polyphemus in the Odyssey: The Strong Giant Cyclops of Greek Mythology

Polyphemus in the odyssey who is hePolyphemus in the Odyssey was described as a one-eyed giant monster who played an important role in Greek mythology. His appearance may be very different from ours, but like any ordinary human, he knows how to fall in love. 

Let’s discover how, and let’s continue reading to find out how this cyclops loses his eye while living in the island of Sicily.

Who Is Polyphemus in the Odyssey?

Polyphemus in the Odyssey was the most well-known cyclops (one-eyed giant) in the Greek mythology. He is one of the Cyclopean sons of the god of the sea, Poseidon, and the nymph Thoosa. Polyphemus meaning in Greek is defined as “abounding in songs and legends.” His first appearance was in the ninth book of the Odyssey, where he was depicted as a savage man-eating giant.

Polyphemus lived in the Cyclopean Isle near Sicily Italy, specifically in a mountain cave at Mount Etna. This island is where all the cyclopes stayed. Homer did not specify whether all the cyclopes in the mountain possess one eye. This isle is where Polyphemus lived his everyday life, doing things like making cheese, herding sheep, and protecting his own company. Polyphemus and his fellow monsters do not practice councils, laws, or traditions of hospitality and civility.

The book of the Roman poet, Ovid, entitled Metamorphoses stated that Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with a Sicilian Nereid named Galatea, and he was also the killer of Galatea’s lover. Despite Polyphemus’ love for Galatea, this Nereid is attracted to another man who is young and handsome, and his name is Acis.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Polyphemus was described as a harsh and horrible type of monster; he ate visitors. He ate everyone who unluckily reached his borders. This can be seen when Odysseus and his men encountered the giant cyclops. By doing violent actions, Polyphemus violated one of the most divine rules of obligation to which every Greek man and woman is bound: the rule of hospitality.

Who Were the Cyclopes?

In Greek mythology, the cyclopes were defined as giants with a single eye in the middle of the forehead, and the most well-known among them is Polyphemus, the Cyclops in the Odyssey.

The cyclopes were considered the sons of Gaea and Uranus and the laborers of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire. Homer identified the cyclopes as barbarians who refrained from complying with any laws. They stayed in the southwestern part of Sicily while shepherding.

The cyclopes remained as the first creations that were unpunished by Zeus, probably because them being his relatives and sons of the god of the sea, Poseidon. All cyclopes were male, and eventually, they became the gods’ favorites. There were many other cyclopes in the ancient mythology of Greek, but Polyphemus is the best known among them.

However, why did cyclopes have only one eye? According to the legends, it was said that the reason behind cyclopes having one eye is their trade with Hades, the god of the underworld. Each cyclops traded one eye with Hades in exchange for giving them the ability to predict the future and see the day they’d die.

Goddess Galatea and Giant Polyphemus

Polyphemus and galatea mosaicThe admiration of Polyphemus for Galatea was depicted in murals like that at the Casa del Sacerdote Amando at Pompeii. This depiction showed Galatea seating on a dolphin, whereas Polyphemus is represented as a shepherd who watches her. Another depiction is a fresco located at the house of Augustus on the Palatine in Rome, where Polyphemus is standing on water that reaches up to his chest, lovingly eyeing Galatea passing by on her seahorse.

Galateia or Galatea was one of the goddesses of the calm seas or one of the 50 Nereides. She caught the attention of Polyphemus. The one-eyed giant courted Galatea by offering cheese and milk, as well as playing his tunes from his rustic pipes. Unfortunately, this goddess rejected Polyphemus’ love and was consorted instead by Akis (Acis), a handsome Sicilian youth.

Polyphemus became jealous, so he killed Acis by crushing him under a huge rock. Thus, Galatea turned Acis into a river god — they believe that transforming your dead loved one into a tree, flower, river, or rock is a modern term for moving on.

However, there are some traces found in Pompeii depicting that Polyphemus and Galatea actually became lovers.

Who was Goddess Galatea?

The name Galatea is associated with ancient Greek myth; some people think of her as a statue that was brought to life by Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty. However, Galatea is one of the 50 sea-nymph daughters of Nereus. Among her sisters, Amphitrite is the one who would become Poseidon and Thetis’ wife and the mother of Achilles by Peleus.

The Nereids are recognized as part of Poseidon’s court and are thought to always be of help to sailors who ask for guides, as well as to those who are lost and in distress.

Aside from that, Galatea was also known for having a love story with Acis. Their story started on the island of Sicily where Acis worked as a shepherd. Her feelings started with a simple glance at the shepherd boy, and then, later on, Galatea and Acis fell in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Polyphemus was falling in love with Galatea as well, so he gets rid of his rival. Polyphemus would get punished for his actions later on.

Details on this tale are inconsistent, with the other versions of the story stating that Galatea captured the attention of Polyphemus for being sensible, and so the cyclops decided to court Galatea.

Galatea is also associated with the statue created by Pygmalion. The statue was never given a name and was just called Galatea during the Renaissance period. The myth of Galatea and Pygmalion is probably one of the best, most inspiring, and most influential myths in ancient Greek. Eventually, it became the main theme for many movies, plays, and paintings.

Polyphemus and Odysseus on the Island of Sicily

Odysseus was obliged to join the Trojan expedition. On their way home, as they were sailing back from the Trojan War, they saw a remote cave where Polyphemus and other cyclopes lived. They secretly entered the giant’s cave and they feasted.

They encountered the one-eyed giant out of their curiosity; they wanted to raid the cave and leave Polyphemus. Eventually, their decision led to the horrible death of several of Odysseus’ men.

When they entered the cave, they waited for Polyphemus to come, but when he came in, Polyphemus immediately sealed the cave with a huge stone. The giant cyclops asked Odysseus how they arrived, in response to which Odysseus lied, telling Polyphemus that their ship crashed.

Immediately after he answered, Polyphemus snatched the body of Odysseus’ two men and ate them raw — limb by limb. The giant monster ate more men the next day. In total, Polyphemus killed and ate six of Odysseus’ men; for many years, Polyphemus has gained an appetite for raw human flesh.

After being trapped for many days, Odysseus thought of an idea that may allow them to escape from the giant cyclops. Odysseus used his intelligence to deceive Polyphemus and the rest of the cyclopes in the isle of Sicily. To capture Polyphemus, Odysseus gets the giant cyclops drunk. He offered Polyphemus a strong and undiluted wine that made him drunk, eventually causing him to fall asleep.

Polyphemus Gets Blinded by a Man Named “Nobody”

The giant asked Odysseus his name and promised to give Odysseus a Xenia, the offer of hospitality and friendship (guest-gift) if he answers. Odysseus declared that his name was Outis, which means “Nobody” or “No one.”

When the giant fell asleep, Odysseus and the other four men had a chance to execute their plan; they blinded Polyphemus by placing a small sharpened stake into the fire, and when it became red hot, they drove it into the giant Polyphemus’ only eye.

The one-eyed giant shouted and desperately asked for help from the other cyclopes, but when the giant Polyphemus said that “Nobody” hurt him, all the other cyclops from the cave left him alone, thinking that nobody did anything to him. They thought that Polyphemus was being troubled by heavenly power and that prayer is the best-recommended answer.

Polyphemus rolled off the stone the next day to graze his sheep. He stood at the entrance of the cave to find Odysseus and the other men and he examined his sheep’s back to make sure that the men were not escaping. Unfortunately, he did not find any of them because Odysseus and the remaining crew tied their bodies to the sheep’s bellies to escape.

The Escape of Odysseus from the Island of Sicily

When all of the men were on their ship to escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus shouted at the blind one-eyed giant and revealed his name as an expression of arrogance. What Odysseus did not know was the truth behind Polyphemus’ parentage. This giant whom they blinded was the son of Poseidon who will, later on, cause them a big problem.

Polyphemus heard a prophecy from a prophet called Telemus, the son of Eurymos, that someone named Odysseus would make him blind. So when he heard the name of the man who blinded him, Polyphemus gets mad and throws a huge stone into the sea, causing Odysseus’ ship to nearly be grounded. Odysseus and his crew mocked the giant cyclops, Polyphemus.

As the Greek king of Ithaca, Odysseus had the chance to kill the giant cyclops Polyphemus, but he did not prevent them from being stranded forever inside the cave. Remember that Polyphemus locked the cave by rolling a huge stone, and only he can reopen the door.

Achaemenides, the son of Adamastos of Ithaca, one of Odysseus’ men, re-tells the story of how Odysseus and the other crew members escaped from Polyphemus.

With so much anger and desperation, Polyphemus asked his father, Poseidon, for help. He prayed and asked for revenge for what Odysseus did to him. He asked his father to punish Odysseus by diverting from his planned route. This was where the anger and hate of the god of the seas, Poseidon, toward Odysseus began. Perhaps, this became one of the factors that resulted in Odysseus being lost at sea for so many years.

What Did Polyphemus Pray for to Poseidon?

Polyphemus prayed to his father Poseidon for three things. First, it was to cause Odysseus to never come home. Second, if he were to return home, make his journey take many years. He also prayed for Odysseus’ companions to be lost. Lastly, he prayed for Odysseus to face the “bitter days” by the time he returned home. These prayers of Polyphemus to his father were all granted.

Odysseus experienced the wrath of Poseidon and other Greek gods because of what he did to Polyphemus, so he sailed for many years in the sea on his quest to return home. He was lost for 10 years.

Poseidon sent waves and storms, as well as sea monsters that would undoubtedly bring Odysseus and his crew harm. The ship was destroyed and brought the entirety of Odysseus’ crew to die, with only Odysseus who survived.

When Odysseus returned home, he faced the “bitter days” that Polyphemus prayed for to his father. He disguised himself as a beggar, and when he was introduced to his wife, Queen Penelope, she did not believe in him.

Surprisingly, his wife had many suitors, and his palace was full of rascals who unceasingly ate his food and drank his wine. His wife’s suitors planned to ambush and murder Odysseus.

The Importance of Polyphemus in the Odyssey

Polyphemus, the giant cyclops is one of the cyclops described in The Odyssey. His name has been highly represented in the arts. One of the best examples of his depiction is “The Cyclops” written by Odilon Redon. It depicts the love of Polyphemus for Galatea.

Polyphemus role in the Odyssey became an inspiration for many poems, operas, statues, and paintings in Europe. The story of Polyphemus also became an inspiration in the musical field. An opera by Haydn and a cantata by Handel were inspired by the story of Polyphemus. A series of bronze sculptures based on Polyphemus was released in the 19th century.

A poet named Luis de Góngora y Argote produced Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea in recognition of the work of Luis Carillo y Sotomayor. Polyphemus’ story was given an operatic overhaul that became popular in the 1780s. A condensed version titled Polypheme en furie was released by a composer named Tristan L’Hermite in 1641. There are more musical representations focusing on the story of Polyphemus that was released around the 21st century.

Polyphemus was also portrayed in many paintings and sculptures. Giulio Romano, Nicholas Poussin, Corneille Van Clève, and others like François Perrier, Giovanni Lanfranco, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and Gustave Moreau are among the artists who were inspired by the story of Polyphemus.

The Character Traits That Cyclopes Portray in “The Odyssey”

We can find the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus in the ninth chapter of Homer’s The Odyssey. The cyclopes were described as inhuman and lawless. When Odysseus, alongside his crew, landed on the isle of Sicily where the cyclopes stayed, they waited for Polyphemus to arrive.

Later on, they met the giant cyclops and from there, they knew the cyclops’ characteristics: strong, loud, violent, and murderous. He scared Odysseus. He did not show any sympathy for his visitors; instead, he killed and ate some of them.

Is Polyphemus an Antagonist in The Odyssey?

Polyphemus statueYes, Polyphemus is portrayed as a villain in the Odyssey because Odysseus provoked him to act like a bad guy. If you can remember, Odysseus entered Polyphemus’ cave without permission and feasted on his food. No one can like what Odysseus did to the giant cyclops. Entering someone’s property is like provoking the owner to get angry.

Polyphemus is misunderstood as being a villain because he encountered and fought the ancient Greek hero, Odysseus, on the island of Sicily. Probably, Polyphemus was in shock because of the rudeness shown by these intruders, so he killed and ate some of them. He might be thinking that these intruders were robbers who were trying to invade his territory. So, his initial reaction was to protect himself; he sealed the door of his cave with a huge stone and immediately snatched two of Odysseus’ men and ate them.

Aside from this, the giant cyclops’ culture and traditional practices on the island of Sicily were different from what other natural humans were practicing. It’s not Polyphemus’ obligation to treat all his visitors on the island of Sicily nicely as cyclopes are not trained to follow such rules.

If we are looking at the lighter viewpoint of the story, Polyphemus was not really a villain but an innocent giant monster who has been bullied by some arrogant men. Odysseus and his men tempted and goaded the giant cyclops into being a villain. This is why Polyphemus was seen as a villain as he ate some of Odysseus’ men.

The Origins of Cyclopes in Ancient Greek

Among all other monsters, the cyclopes are the most well-known and the most identifiable in the tales of Greek myths. Specifically, Polyphemus played a large role in the epic poem of Homer, The Odyssey. These creatures can be called cyclops and pluralized as cyclopes. This name is translated as “round” or “wheel-eyed” to describe the single eye at the center of the forehead of the strong giants.

Among all the cyclopes, Polyphemus is the most famous yet he belongs to the second generation.

First Generation of the Cyclopes

The early characters in ancient Greek mythology before Zeus and other Olympian gods were the first generations of cyclopes. They were the children of the ancient goddesses: Uranus, goddess of the Sky, and Gaia, goddess of the Earth. These three cyclopes were known as three brothers and were named Arges (Thunderer), Brontes (Vivid), and Steropes (Lightner).

These cyclopes were imprisoned by Cronus but later on released by Zeus. Uranus, being the Supreme deity, felt insecure and worried because of the strength the cyclopes possess, so he imprisoned the three cyclopes and the Hecatonchires.

The freedom for the cyclopes was only achieved when Zeus stood up against his father Cronus and asked his father to release the three cyclopes, as these three brothers might bring victory to them in the Titanomachy. Zeus then descended to the dark recess, killed Kampe, and then released his relatives along the Hecatonchires.

Hecatonchires fought in battles alongside Zeus, but the three cyclopes had a more important role. Their role was to craft weapons for battles. During the imprisonment of the cyclopes in Tartarus, they spent their years sharpening their blacksmithing skills. The weapons crafted by the cyclopes became the most powerful weapons created, and the weapons were used by Zeus and his warrior allies.

The three cyclopes were the craftsmen of the thunderbolts used by Zeus throughout Greek mythology. Hades’ helmet of darkness was also crafted by the three cyclopes, and his helmet made the one who wears it invisible. Poseidon’s trident was also made by the three cyclopes. The three cyclopes were also credited for making the arrows and bows of Artemis, and they were also credited for Apollo’s bows and arrows of sunlight.

It was often said that Hades’ helmet of darkness was the reason for Zeus’ victory during Titanomachy. Hades would wear the helmet then sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy the Titans’ armaments.

The Cyclopes in Mount Olympus

Zeus acknowledged the help they received from the cyclopes, so the three brothers, Arges, Brontes, and Steropes, were invited to live on Mount Olympus. These cyclopes worked in Hephaestus’ workshop, crafting trinkets, weapons, and the gates of Mount Olympus.

It was believed that Hephaestus had numerous forges, and these cyclopes worked underneath the volcanoes discovered on earth. The three cyclops brothers manufactured items not just for gods; they were also in charge of building the huge fortifications found at Tiryns and Mycenae.

Meanwhile, the three original cyclopes died at the hands of the Olympians. Arges was killed by Hermes, whereas Steropes and Brontes were killed by Apollo as an act of revenge for the death of his son Asclepius.

The Second Generation of the Cyclopes

The second generation of the cyclopes comprised Homer’s cyclopes in the epic poem, The Odyssey. This new generation of cyclopes comprised the children of Poseidon and was believed to live on the island of Sicily.

When it comes to physical characteristics, cyclopes were believed to have the same appearance as their ancestors, but they were not skilled in terms of metal works. They were good at shepherding on the Italian island. Unfortunately, they were a race of unintelligent and violent creatures.

The second generation of cyclopes is mostly known because of Polyphemus who appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, several poems by Theocritus, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Polyphemus is the most famous among all other cyclopes in the entire history of Greek mythology.

The Important Aspects of the Odyssey

The Odyssey’s most important aspects are as follows:

  • The epic The Odyssey is a long poem focusing on a single topic. The epic, The Odyssey, was probably written for it to be performed with musical accompaniment.
  • The 10-year journey of Odysseus originally should have taken weeks. He encountered many hurdles throughout his journey that made his expedition longer than it was supposed to be. One of these hurdles is the god Poseidon, along with many other mythical creatures.
  • The most memorable characteristic of Odysseus is not his strength and bravery. Although he is brave and strong, his most memorable characteristic is his cleverness.

Other Versions of Polyphemus’ Story

A Trojan hero named Aeneas and his men faced the fearful Polyphemus sometime after Odysseus and Polyphemus’ encounters. Surprisingly, the giant cyclops had his eye back when he returned in the story and was still living on the island of Sicily. The difference with this version is that this fearsome giant seemed soft, mature, and nonviolent.

A lot of things changed in Polyphemus’ character, but his admiration for Galatea was still the same. However, although his character had been changed, he still killed a person out of love and jealousy. He killed the shepherd boy, Acis.

Other Portrayals of Polyphemus

There are several other accounts with different versions of a giant cyclops. Several authors were inspired by these and made a connection between Galatea the nymph and Polyphemus, portraying the cyclops with a different type of behavior.

The Philoxenus of Cythera is the most well-known among these accounts. This play was made around 400 BC, and it shows the connection between these people: Dionysus I of Syracuse, the author, and Galatea. The author is portrayed to be Odysseus, and the king is cyclops, alongside two lovers who are escaping.

Polyphemus in this play was portrayed to be a shepherd who discovers comfort in songs about his love for Galatea. The author, Bion of Smyrna, was much nicer in portraying Polyphemus and his love and affection for the nymph, Galatea.

The version of Lucian of Samosata indicates the more successful relationship between Polyphemus and Galatea. Many versions of Polyphemus’ story may have the same theme. Ovid’s Metamorphoses states that Polyphemus crushed the mortal Acis using a huge rock due to his anger upon seeing Acis with the nymph Galatea.

“Acis, the lovely youth, whose loss I mourn,

From Faunus, and the nymph Symethis born,

Was both his parents’ pleasure; but, to me

Was all that love could make a lover be.

The Gods our minds in mutual bands did join:

I was his only joy, and he was mine.

Now sixteen summers the sweet youth had seen;

And doubtful down began to shade his chin:

When Polyphemus first disturb’d our joy;

And lov’d me fiercely, as I lov’d the boy.” [Ovid, Metamorphoses]

Polyphemus Songs for Galatea

Polyphemus remained in love with Galatea. He found comfort in singing love songs to his loved one.

“Galatea, whiter than the snowy privet petals,

     taller than slim alder, more flowery than the meadows,

     friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal,

     smoother than shells, polished, by the endless tides;

     more welcome than the summer shade, or the sun in winter,

     showier than the tall plane-tree, fleeter than the hind; 

     more than ice sparkling, sweeter than grapes ripening,

     softer than the swan’s-down, or the milk when curdled,

     lovelier, if you did not flee, than a watered garden.

    Galatea, likewise, wilder than an untamed heifer,

    harder than an ancient oak, trickier than the sea;

    tougher than the willow-twigs, or the white vine branches,

    firmer than these cliffs, more turbulent than a river,

    vainer than the vaunted peacock, fiercer than the fire;

    more truculent than a pregnant bear, pricklier than thistles,

    deafer than the waters, crueler than a trodden snake;

    and, what I wish I could alter in you, most of all, is this:

    that you are swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking,

    swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze.” [Bk XIII:789-869 The song of Polyphemus, Ovid Metamorphoses]

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of information about how Polyphemus is portrayed in The Odyssey. Let’s find out if we covered everything we need to know about these cyclops who played an interesting role in the ancient history of Greek mythology.

  • Polyphemus in the odyssey why was he blindedPolyphemus is a man-eating giant cyclops with one eye at the center of his forehead.
  • Polyphemus and Odysseus encountered each other on the island of Sicily, where they revealed their true identities.
  • This giant cyclops is truly in love with Galatea.
  • Polyphemus and other cyclopes played an important role in Greek mythology and in The Odyssey.
  • We are now familiar with how Polyphemus’ character is portrayed in the epic poem of Homer, The Odyssey.

So, keep on reading and learning! Try to explore the history of Polyphemus and the other cyclopes and discover how they contributed to ancient Greek mythology despite their looks and violent nature.

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