Random thoughts / Weird and Wonderful

Cyclops in Love

As we approach the feast day of St. Valentinus, it seems appropriate to take a look at one of my favourite love stories from classical literature. Not Helen and Paris, both of whom I tend to find annoying. Not Odysseus and Penelope, although that is indeed one of the great love stories of all time. Not even Daphnis and Chloe, though those confused and naive kids occupy a very special place in my heart. No, I’m talking about the star-crossed love of a one-eyed giant for a beautiful sea-nymph.


Landscape with Polyphemus and Galatea: From the “Mythological Room” of the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of 1st century B.C.

In his first appearance in Greek literature, in book 9 of the Odyssey, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in no way a romantic figure. Food, not love, is his goal in life. His cave is stuffed with cheese (9.216-224), and the arrival of travellers he regards simply as an exciting new dining opportunity (9.287-290). The only affection the Homeric Cyclops shows is to his prize ram, which he imagines mourning at the blinding of it’s master (9.447-460).

In the late fifth century, the playwright Euripides picked up the story. In his revisioning of the story in our only surviving Satyr play, the Cyclops’ desires have broadened out a bit. Under the influence of Odysseus’ potent wine, the Cyclops hallucinates that he has been transported to the summit of Olympus. Amazed by the beauty of the gods, he flirts with the Graces, and then drags Zeus’ lover Ganymede into his cave to get better acquainted. The deluded Cyclops’ “Ganymede”–in fact the elderly satyr Silenus–is far from pleased with this development (578-589).


Calyx Krater, showing a scene from Euripides’ Satyr Play “Cyclops”

While Euripides’ Cyclops has gained erotic desire, he is still a far cry from a star-crossed lover. He remains a boor, driven by his basest urges and incapable of civilized behaviour. The most imporant moment in the Cyclops’ transformation into a lover came some decades after Euripides’ death, not in Athens but in the place long-regarded as Polyphemus’ homeland.

The story (preseved in the Greek writer Athenaeus’ wonderfully eclectic miscelleny DeipnosophistaeI, 1.7a) goes that Philoxenus, court poet to the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse, fell in love with a beautiful dancer named Galatea. Unfortunately for the poet, the tyrant also fancied the girl, and to remove his rival he threw Philoxenus into a dungeon. While in prison, Philoxenus composed a poem mocking the tyrant. Since Sicily was by then widely identified with Cyclops’ island in the Odyssey (and, according to John Tzetzes, since Dionysius was near-sighted), it seemed reasonable to place the tyrant in the role of the Homeric monster. The dancing-girl Galatea became a beautiful sea-nymph unwillingly pursued by the  monster.

Philoxenus’ poem does not survive, though it was clearly popular in its own day–a portion of it is satirized in Aristophanes’ Wealth of 388 (290-301). But it was to have a decisive influence on many later poets and writers. From the story of its origins, it does not sound like Philoxenus’ play depicted the Cyclops in a sympathetic light. However, later poets came to see something touching in the bumbling giant, unaccustomed to the refinements of romance, attempting to seduce a gorgeous nymph.

Theocritus, a Sicilian poet writing nearly 200 years after Philoxenus, seems to have begun this trend. He uses the Cyclops to illustrate his statement that singing is the only medicine for unrequited love. Polyphemus’ song begins as the Cyclops bemoans Galatea’s coldness to him, and reminisces about the day he first met her as she picked flowers on Mount Etna’s slopes (Theocritus 11.19-27). He ruefully admits that his looks are not on his side–his single eye, shaggy eyebrow and huge nose all work against him (30-33). But, he tells his absent beloved, he’s rich–he has a thousand sheep (34) which supply him with limitless milk and cheese (36-37). His cave, with all the latest amenities (cold running water, fruit trees close at hand, deer and bear-cubs for pets) is the perfect place to escape the winter seas (40-56). Alas, it does no good. The sea nymph prefers her watery home, and the Cyclops begins to fantasize about learning to swim–if only some sailor could come and teach him (60-77). After blaming his mother for not talking him up enough to Galatea (66-69), the cyclops defiantly rejects his love. If Galatea’s not interested, forget her! Plenty of girls flirt with him, and he’ll find a new, better Galatea in no time (76-79). “And so,” Theocritus concludes, “the Cyclops sang and shepherded his love–an easier cure than one he’d have had to pay for” (80-81).


If only I could swim… (Domenico Fetti “Galatea and Polyphemus” 1621-1622)

Theocritus’ Cyclops is a far cry from the Homeric cannibal. He comes across as a sensitive, awkward young man, deeply insecure but trying valiantly to compensate. This picture was clearly irresistable to the Roman poet Ovid, writing two hundred years after Theocritus. Ovid’s Cyclops (introduced in Metamorphoses 13.750 onward) bares a close resemblance to the self-promoting, but ultimately hapless lover of the poet’s earlier Amores. Falling for Galatea, the giant attempts to tidy up his appearance, coming his hair with a rake and trimming his beard with scythes (764-766). Lashing 100 reeds together to form panpipes (784), Ovid’ Cyclops, like Theocritus’ proceeds to serenade his beloved.


Etching by Antonio Tempesta, 16th Century

Unlike Theocritus’ Cyclops, but like the hapless narrator of Ovid’s Amores, this Cyclops has a rival. Galatea loves the shepherd-boy Acis–indeed, it is while lying in his arms that she listens to the Cyclops’ hearfelt song (787-788). Spotting the lovers together, the Cyclops loses control. His attempts at urbanity forgotten, he seizes a huge rock (as his Odyssean original did) and crushes Acis under its weight (881-884). The distraught Galatea uses her sea-nymph’s magic to transform her beloved into a stream, which flows down the mountain to mingle with the sea-water in which she lives (885-898).


Another etching by Antonio Tempesta

The influence of Ovid on Western literature has made his the canonical version of the story. It has inspired numerous paintings (pretty much every picture in this article is based on his poem) and was, in the early 18th century made into an opera with music by Handel and words by many of the best writers of the time, John Dryden and John Gay among them. It’s a beautiful work, by the way, the highlight of which is definitely the Cyclops’ song to Galatea (performed by Bryn Terfel here:

Indeed, in any decent production Polyphemus will utterly steal the show from the title characters.

Ovid’s version is not my favourite telling of this myth, however.  Galatea, who narrates it, comes of as patronizing and disdainful.  The horrific act of violence at the end shatters all the sympathy that the Cyclops’ beautiful song has built up.  Yes, I know there are deliberate literary devices.  But I don’t like it.  Theocritus has made me like Polyphemus, and I don’t want Ovid to come and ruin that.

In point of fact, Theocritus’ version doesn’t even get my full approval.  That is reserved for a much less-known, but utterly delightful dialogue by the third-century AD prose stylist Lucian. The first of a series of Ἐνάλιοι Διαλόγοι –“Conversations in the Sea”–this dialogue shows not a disdainful Galatea, but one who has succumbed to her one-eyed lover’s charms. Galatea hotly defends Polyphemus from the sneers of her fellow sea-nymph Doris. The Cyclops’ shagginess and lack of refinement make him not ugly, as Doris thinks, but masculine; his single eye looks no worse on him than two do on others; and, to top it all off, he’s musical!


Ladies. (Odilon Redon, “Smiling Cyclops” 1883)

Galatea completes her defense of the Cyclops with an artful jab at the single Doris:

“Well, Doris, why don’t you show us your boyfriend who’s so much handsomer and a better singer and knows how to play the lyre so much better!” Burn. But Doris remains unbowed. She’d rather have no boyfriend, she says, than one who smells like a goat and eats his meat raw.

There’s something inexpressibly charming about Lucian’s dialogue. After four hundred years of getting the cold shoulder, it’s a pleasant change to see him defended by a Galatea who’s clearly crazy about him. Nor are Lucian and I alone in a sentimental desire to see an earnest, if awkward Cyclops get the girl. Though his is the only extant work uniting the two, we know that others existed. The Greco-Roman historian Appian reports a legend that the Gauls (Galatai, in Greek) were the descendants of Polyphemus and Galatea (Illyrica 3.3). A Roman wall-painting from Pompeii (House of the Colored Capitals (VII, 4, 48), room 15, south wall) shows the nymph and the Cyclops in a passionate embrace. Polyphemus’ pipes rest nearby–this time, his music has done the trick.


6 thoughts on “Cyclops in Love

  1. Nice article. My only exposure to this was via Theocritos but I always liked it too. That’s the one where he compares her complexion to cottage cheese, isn’t it?

    How did you embed that Youtube video, by the way? I spent ages trying to do that on mine but couldn’t work it out.

  2. In Theocritus, she looks like cottage cheese (11.20); in Ovid she’s as soft as cottage cheese (13.796).
    To insert a video: click on “Add Media”, then “Insert from URL” Copy and paste the youtube URL; in the editing screen, it’ll just show up as text, but when you publish it embeds the video.

  3. To carry on the cheese comparisons, in Lucian Doris says that the only reason Polyphemus likes Galatea, who is far too pale to be truly pretty, is that never sees anything but milk and cheese (paragraph 3).

    • I should really read some Lucian at some point. To revive a conversation from a few weeks ago, he is of course our first known science-fiction writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s