BMCR 2021.07.10

Cyclops: the myth and its cultural history

, , Cyclops: the myth and its cultural history. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 436. ISBN 9780198713777 $45.00.

Part scholarly monograph, part love letter to a monster, this book is an exhaustive account of ancient stories about one-eyed giants, their depiction in classical art, and their reception in the western tradition from antiquity to the twentieth century. With their enormous size and their distinctive single eye, the Cyclopes are perhaps the most easily recognizable monsters of the Greek world. The story of Polyphemus’s ill-fated encounter with Odysseus in Book 9 of the Odyssey earned them a prominent place in the western literary canon, but the character of these creatures was a source of endless fascination for premodern commentators. While the Homeric tradition played an important role in shaping ancient perceptions of the Cyclopes, it has also overshadowed other sources for the history of these monocular brutes. As Aguirre and Buxton show in this accessible, learned, and often humorous volume, there is more to this monster than meets the eye.

Cyclops is divided into two parts. Part One (“The Cyclopes in Antiquity: Themes and Variations”) contains nine chapters of varying length. We learn that there were, in fact, three kinds of Cyclopes in the ancient world: (1) the pastoral ogre encountered by Odysseus; (2) the giant metalworkers who forged the weapons of the gods at the forge of Vulcan; and (3) the monstrous builders responsible for the “Cyclopean” stone walls of Tiryns and Mycenae. After surveying modern discussions of these monsters, which examine their place in folklore, the possible locations of their lairs, their way of life, their representation in art, the symbolism of their single eye, and their reception among ancient authors, Aguirre and Buxton approach the history of the Cyclopes from a number of complementary vantage points. Long chapters explore the landscapes in which they lived and worked (Chapter 3), which range from pastoral hillsides to active volcanos; the dominant aspects of their physique (Chapter 4), including their size, hairiness, and ugliness, alongside their glaring monocularity; and aspects of their lifestyle (Chapter 5), including what they ate. These details lead to ruminations on whether they were humans or monsters. There is no clear answer; ambivalence and ambiguity surround them. A brief litany of shorter chapters follows on the relationship between the Cyclopes and the gods (Chapter 6), the names by which they were known (Chapter 7), and the tragic love life of Polyphemus, who in some traditions longs for a nymph named Galatea and kills her lover Acis in a fit of jealousy (Chapter 8).

The second part of the book (“After Antiquity: New Life in Old Ogres”) comprises two long chapters. Chapter 9 (“From the Medieval to the Baroque”) makes passing reference to the place of the Cyclopes among the monstrous races in the early medieval imagination and the allegorical understanding of these ogres in the fifth-century Exposition of the Content of Virgil by Favius Planciades Fulgentius, but for the most part, medieval Christians were not as enchanted with the travels of Odysseus and the creatures he encountered as they were with Iliadic narratives about the Trojan War, like The History of the Destruction of Troy by Dares the Phrygian.[1] The Cyclopes gained new admirers in the early modern period, when images of them featured prominently in early printed editions and translations of Ovid. Renaissance artists found inspiration in the story of the love triangle between Polyphemus, Acis, and Galatea, but also introduced new compositions depicting the Cyclopes at the forge of Vulcan, while poets like Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) evoked the unfulfilled desires of Polyphemus in his sonnet included among his “Woodland Verses.” The final chapter of the book (“The Modern Cyclops”) considers the impact of the Cyclopes in visual art and literature from the eighteenth century to the present. Most of this chapter feels like a learned excursion through a curated exhibit called “The Art of the Single Eye.”  Modern artists from Odilon Redon to Marc Chagall found inspiration in the stories of Polyphemus’s fateful encounter with Odysseus or his longing for Galatea. The chapter concludes with reworkings of the story of Cyclopes in modern cinema, from low budget science fiction films like The Cyclops (1957) about a test pilot who transforms into a one-eyed giant after exposure to radiation, to classics of mythological fantasy like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), featuring a colossal cyclops animated by the stop-motion special effects of Ray Harryhausen.

This far-ranging book succeeds admirably in providing readers with a survey of the representation of the Cyclopes in art and literature from antiquity to the present. Historians of myth, monsters, and the reception of classical culture will find many riches in its pages. Although their treatment of this topic is exhaustive in almost every way, it is surprising that Aguirre and Buxton did not devote any attention to the depiction of Cyclopes in modern video game franchises. From the monstrous Gronn who inhabit cavernous lairs in the Blade’s Edge Mountains of Outland in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade (2007) to the three Cyclops “bosses” (Brontes the Thunderer, Steropes the Lightning Bringer, and Arges the Bright One) in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018), which is set at the time of the Peloponnesian War, modern video games have rendered these one-eyed monsters in exquisite digital detail and thereby introduced millions of young gamers to their age-old stories.


[1] On the reception history of this late antique forgery, see now Frederic Clark, The First Pagan Historian: The Fortunes of a Fraud from Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).