Third Eye Blind: The Cyclops in Late Antiquity

Born around the year 490 CE in the city of Philadelphia, John the Lydian had a lot to say about Roman corruption and civil servants. His book, On the Magistracies of the Roman State, provides insight into the sausage factory that was late antique bureaucracy. Though living in Constantinople at the time, he addressed a story from his hometown (3.59):

“A certain Petronius in my Philadelphia, a man worthy of account and distinguished for family property and learning…was the possessor of precious stones from his ancestors which were numerous and at the same time kept from the sight of private individuals because of their beauty and size. The Cyclops [i.e., the taxman] had him seized and had irons put around him and proceeded to have him scourged” (trans. Maas 1992, 6).

Like John the Lydian, the fourth century rhetorician and orator Libanius (Ep. 15, Or. 62.65) also frequently used the Cyclopes, giants and shepherds from Sicily without laws or institutions, as a representation of savagery and aggression. As these two authors exemplify, learned men continued to read their Homer in Late Antiquity and to use it in both speeches and letters in order to illustrate and advertise their classical education. This assertion is not just predicated on literary texts that allude the poet’s works, it is also evinced from surviving papyri. These papyri favor Homer more than any other writer. The Homeric papyri that survive are abundant and date from the third century BCE to the seventh century CE (Homer Multitext Project Blog), and support the prevalence of Homeric reading in Late Antiquity. Other authors, such as Thucydides, Menander, Euripides, Virgil, and Terrence also prevailed, but none compete (in terms of papyri fragments) with Homer.

The Bankes Papyrus (British Museum Papyrus 114 [2nd c. CE]), columns 1-3. Via the Homer Multitext Project.  (P. Lond. Lit. 28).

The Bankes Papyrus (British Museum Papyrus 114 [2nd c. CE]), columns 1-3. Via the Homer Multitext Project. (P. Lond. Lit. 28).

Another possible place one would think that we can look to in order to see the influence of Homer in Late Antiquity is material culture. A number of mosaics from the high to the later empire, for instance, depict Polyphemus. A beautiful example comes from Cordoba in Spain and is dated to the second century CE. It depicts Polyphemus with Galateia, one of the Nereides who was wooed by Polyphemus’ skills as a musician and his artisanal milks and cheeses (one guesses they were probably sheep cheeses, like say a nice Pecorino?).

Mosaic of Polyphemus and Galateia from Cordoba via Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic of Polyphemus and Galateia from Cordoba via Wikimedia Commons.

One noticeable trait of many of these depictions of Polyphemus the Cyclops is that he has three eyes. What is to account for this apparent deviation from Homer’s one-eyed monster? After some Twitter chatter between Paul Dilley, Dorothy King, and Richard Flower, a number of theories were floated: did it represent ideas of the trinity? Contact with Near Eastern religions? A mistake on the part of the mosaicist? After some reading on the question, I would pose that it is likely that the story of Polyphemus and of the Cyclopes did not just draw from Homer and the Odyssey. There was in fact a strong oral tradition within the Mediterranean surrounding these mythical creatures that sometimes gave them three eyes rather than just one.

Head of Polyphemus. It is dated to the 4th c. CE and comes from the amphitheater at Salona.

Head of Polyphemus. It is dated to the 4th c. CE and comes from the amphitheater at Salona.

As Andrew Alwine alleged in his article on the non-Homeric Cyclops, “In the case of the Cyclopeia in particular, iconographic evidence for the most part does not draw from the Homeric version. Rather than regarding the Homeric epics as the source from which all other epics derive, then, we may envisage a massive stock of story-telling material on which all known epics drew. ” (GRBS 29 [2009], 324) I must say that reading this article completely revised the way I thought about Homer in the later empire. Not even literary thinkers who read Homer and other authors who wrote on the Cyclopes, such as Euripides and Virgil, were able to shut out competing oral traditions it seems. The sixth century CE writer John Malalas contended that the Cyclops in Euripides in fact had three eyes (He was mistakenthe Chorus noted he had one eye).

A 4th c. depiction of Polyphemus from the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

A 4th c. depiction of Polyphemus from the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

When thinking about the story of the Cyclopes, we must then imagine a bunch of competing myths surrounding the giants and particularly Polyphemus, rather than focusing on Homer as the singular narrative. Thus Virgil adds to the myth with his own account in the Aeneid (VIII.416-420):

Insula Sicanium iuxta latus Aeoliamque
erigitur Liparen, fumantibus ardua saxis,
quam subter specus et Cyclopum exesa caminis
antra Aetnaea tonant validique incudibus ictus
auditi referunt gemitus striduntque cavernis

Betwixt Sicilia‘s coasts and Lipare,
Rais’d high on smoking rocks; and, deep below,
In hollow caves the fires of Aetna glow.
The Cyclops here their heavy hammers deal;
Loud strokes, and hissings of tormented steel
(trans. Dryden via Perseus).

Cyclopes forging a thunderbolt for Iuppiter, from Book VIII of the Aeneid (Thugga, Baths of the Cyclopes, 4th c. CE).

Cyclopes forging a thunderbolt for Iuppiter, from Book VIII of the Aeneid (Thugga, Baths of the Cyclopes, 4th c. CE).

To judge from various literary and material references, it appears that there was a tale or tales circulating in both the West and the East that the Cyclopes had three eyes rather than one. The mosaic from Thugga seems to depict them with two eyes, though it is difficult for me to tell from the pictures. This is all just to say that just like today, memory and tradition is often formed from a number of competing narratives rather than only one. It is indeed true that Homer was widely read in the later empire and was in fact an early reading in school, but that does not mean there were not other tales of the Cyclopes that influenced mosaicists, fresco workers, and writers. Art is often a mélange of narratives and influences both oral and written. Like the example from John the Lydian, the Cyclops could represent much more than just a Homeric character and was manipulated in art as he was in the literary tradition. Notably, even with 1, 2, or 3 eyes, Polyphemus appears to have remained recognizable to the viewer.

Polyphemus receives a love-letter from Galatea, a 1st-century AD fresco from Pompeii. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Polyphemus receives a love-letter from Galateia, a 1st-century CE fresco from Pompeii. Via Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Third Eye Blind: The Cyclops in Late Antiquity

  1. aelarsen

    This makes some sense. Think about all the different versions of, say, Dracula in modern cinema. Some of them adhere quite closely to Stoker’s original, but others deviate quite substantially from it. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula introduces the idea that 15th century Dracula loved an earlier incarnation of Mina and so now in the 19th century, he wants her again (that idea is stolen from the Mummy, of course), but the most recent Dracula story has riffed on it again by focusing primarily on the 15th century and then jumping forward to the present where Dracula mets his reincarnated love. So storytellers borrow freely from whatever ideas are circulating in their day and they mix and match as it serves their purpose.

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  2. omnipiterius

    Don’t know if this is of interest to you, but I recall reading a very short legend, in a collection of legends which make up the Turkic Book of Dede Korkut where a hero killed a cyclops on his way back to his wife that was about to be married of to evil suitors. Sound familiar? Granted, its a common theme, but the common details really struck me, and I don’t remember if the cyclops in that story had one or three eyes. That would be the relevant part for you. Link to book here: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Dede-Korkut-Turkish-Epic/dp/0292707878/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484587724&sr=1-1&keywords=book+of+dede+korkut

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Five Pieces Of Classical Mythology In The Personal Drawings And Collection Of Guillermo Del Toro | 4financenews.com

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