jump to navigation

Cyclops Origins June 7, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback


Beachcombing has always had a bit of a thing about Cyclops. And who can blame him? After all, the encounter between old Round Eye and that smarty-pants pirate king from Ithica is what most children – genuine or grown – remember about the Odysseus: there is something so Roald Dahlish about the disgusting yet liberating battle of wits undertaken in the Cyclops cave.

But a question that has long nagged irritatingly away is where do Cyclops actually come from? If it is taken for granted that there never were twenty foot one-eyed giants running around the Greek islands – something that even the most enthusiastic cryptozoologist would be unwilling to sustain – then what mythic need did they fulfill or what misunderstanding were they inspired by?

An ingenious solution was offered up a century ago by the Austrian palaeontologist Othenio Abel (obit 1946). Abel suggested that the Cyclops myth was inspired by the discovery of fossilized pygmy elephant skulls. The eyes on such skulls – Beachcombing shamelessly stole the picture of one above – are not particularly prominent, while though the trunk leaves a large ‘nasal cavity’ in the middle of the head – the Cyclop’s ‘eye’. Even better these skulls were typically found with lots of other fossil bones: naturally the Cyclops’ human dinner!

The brilliant WANW Adrienne Mayor (7) has shown that Othenio Abel deserves a serious bout of hand-slapping for confusing scholarship: the Austrian falsely suggested that the Greek writer, Empedocles had seen fossilized remains in Sicilian caves, a factoid that has been endlessly repeated since and one that seemed to affirm his claim.

But this relatively minor misdemeanour must surely not detract from what was a brilliant intuition over Cyclop origins: similar to one that OA had over Pliny’s druid’s egg (another post another day).

Perhaps the only drawback is that OA (and his partisans) suggest that those ‘Greeks’ who discovered the putative elephant skulls did not know elephants. But the legend of the Cyclops in the Mediterranean seems to date back to at least to the seventh-century BC and a Punic inscription from elephant territory, Syria, describing a one-eyed demon who is depicted (curiously with a snake’s head) swallowing a man. Are we perhaps dealing with a particular kind of elephant skull with the Mediterranean pygmy? Are elephant skulls really so very different? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Having said that the other explanations are weaker or at least more abstract/esoteric. There are the  Indo-European (?) myths where a deity barters an eye for wisdom: though Cyclops seem to have been the tabloid readers of the ancient world. There are curious notions about ancient smiths wearing eye patches – Cyclops are sometimes though not universally associated with smithies. Then there is the possibility that occasional cases of human cyclopia, though note that most sufferers of this extremely rare condition do not generally survive the womb or early babyhood. Perhaps the elephants have it then?


17 June 2011: KMH has also been worrying about one-eyed giants ‘Here is a  defense of Cyclops. If we had no physical evidence of the giraffe, I am sure that most learned people would regard it as a physically preposterous myth, violating known laws of biology. If coelacanths had not been discovered living today, we would be certain that they had all died off some 65 million years ago.  Also, if Troy,  Babylon and other sites mentioned in ancient texts hadn’t been unearthed, they would be regarded at present as only mythical (as they were in the 19th century). So, the only thing lacking is a Cyclops skull for examination. We know giants existed in ancient times from the frequent discoveries of their large bones, and accounts of their activities. But what advantage could one eye possibly possess over two?  One explanation is that the Cyclops race didn’t posses a normal eye, rather an abnormally large  pineal gland that functioned perfectly as a “third eye” enabling the Cyclops to see ‘astrally’ rather than physically. The pineal gland is widely regarded as the location of the third eye when it is activated by drugs, or other methods. Its power is greatly increased if the bone in front of the gland is removed. The third eye requires that the two normal eyes be closed for full effectiveness. It isn’t clear if the Cyclops in question was born with a hole in the skull or not, but there may well have been a race of these beings, perhaps a remnant of ancient genetic experimentation. They would have been the only giants we know of who could see in the dark… Hoping you can clearly see my reasoning. Also Cyclops skulls may be more difficult to find than hen’s teeth, but there seem to be rare reports,  I vaguely remember other finds in the 20th century, but at my age any investigation is better left to the younger generation.’ Thanks as always KMH!!!

8 July 2011: Adam C writes in with a reflection on one-eyed sheep, ‘The following [see picture] is an example of the non-human ‘cyclopia’ that occurs in the wild (alongside the human cases you mentioned) and how some areas may even produce whole batches of one-eyed creatures, and is also a slightly bizarre story in itself from Forbes: Idaho sheep ranchers couldn’t figure out why, in the decade after World War II, a random batch of their lambs were being born with strange birth defects. The creatures had underdeveloped brains and a single eye planted, cyclopslike, in the middle of their foreheads. In 1957 they called in scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate. The scientists worked for 11 years to solve the mystery. One of them, Lynn James, lived with the sheep for three summers before discovering the culprit: corn lilies. When the animals moved to higher ground during droughts, they snacked on the flowers. The lilies, it turned out, contained a poison, later dubbed cyclopamine, that stunted developing lamb embryos. The mothers remained unharmed. […]  But now cancer researchers have improbably seized on the obscure plant chemical as the blueprint for a half-dozen promising tumor-fighters. Cyclopamine, it turns out, blocks the function of a gene called Sonic hedgehog that is essential for embryonic development but also plays a lead role in causing deadly cancers of the pancreas, skin, prostate and esophagus.’  Thanks Adam!