Sketchbook Page 36: C is for Cyclops
May 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Bones from a Bestiary part 3: C is for Cyclops
This is the third in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.
With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …
Hesiod described one group of Cyclopes and the epic poet Homer described another, although other accounts have been written by the playwright Euripides, poet Theocritus and Roman epic poet Virgil. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus releases three Cyclopes, the sons of Uranus and Gaia, from the dark pit of Tartarus. They provide Zeus’ thunderbolt, Hades’ helmet of invisibility, and Poseidon’s trident, and the gods use these weapons to defeat the Titans. In a famous episode of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and Thoosa (a nereid), who lives with his fellow Cyclopes in a distant country. The connection between the two groups has been debated in antiquity and by modern scholars. It is upon Homer’s account that Euripides and Virgil based their accounts of the mythical creatures.
Theories regarding the origins of the cyclopean mythology are plentiful. Walter Burkert, among others, suggests that the archaic groups or societies of lesser gods mirror real cult associations: “It may be surmised that smith guilds lie behind Cabeiri, Idaian Dactyloi, Telchines, and Cyclopes.” Given their penchant for blacksmithing, many scholars believe the legend of the Cyclopes’ single eye arose from an actual practice of blacksmiths wearing an eyepatch over one eye to prevent flying sparks from blinding them in both eyes. The Cyclopes seen in Homer’s Odyssey are of a different type from those in the Theogony and they have no connection to blacksmithing. It is possible that independent legends associated with Polyphemus did not make him a Cyclops before Homer’s Odyssey; Polyphemus may have been some sort of local daemon or monster originally.
Another possible origin for the Cyclops legend, advanced by the paleontologist Othenio Abel in 1914, is the prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls – about twice the size of a human skull – that may have been found by the Greeks on Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Sicily. Abel suggested that the large, central nasal cavity (for the trunk) in the skull might have been interpreted as a large single eye-socket. Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was.
Veratum album, or white hellebore, a herbal medicine described by Hippocrates before 400 BC, contains the alkaloids cyclopamine and jervine, which are teratogens or chemical agents capable of producing congenital abnormalities; specifically cyclopia. Students of teratology have raised the possibility of a link between this developmental deformity in infants and the myth for which it was named. Regardless of the connection between the herb and the birth abnormalities, it is possible these rare birth defects may have contributed to the myth.
See also: Centaur