16 May 2012

Cyclops - did the legend originate with a fossil ?

In Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, a cyclops was a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. The classical plural is cyclopes [you learn something every day...]. The name is widely thought to mean "circle-eyed".

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...
There is another possible origin of the legend:

...prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls – about twice the size of a human skull – that may have been found by the Greeks on Crete and Sicily... 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...
Text from Wikipedia (skull photo color-adjusted). The image is "Marcel Marien, L'introuvable, 1937. Glass, acrylic glass, 11 x 27 x 18 cm. Coll. Sylvio Perlstein, Antwerp © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010," posted at ArtDaily as an example of a surreal art object.  Via Uncertain Times.

Reposted from 2011 to accompany several new posts on Polyphemus.


  1. May also have come from the congenital deformity cyclopia, a rare form of holoprosencephaly.

    Note, the images of this malformation are not for the sensitive/squeamish.

  2. Blacksmiths and foundry men might also use an eyepatch for consistent ability to judge the temperature of metal by it's colour. Changes in ambient light can alter the perception of colour, thereby adding randomness. Solution- lift eyepatch to judge temperature.

  3. On the last part with the prehistoric pygmy elephants, I should note there is is a book about a theory that says all mythological creatures from Ancient Greek and many Middle Eastern mythologies comes from the fossils ancient people found, forgot the name though.

  4. Cloud Sampson, the book you are probably thinking of is "The First Fossil Hunters" by Adrienne Mayor. I read it a couple years ago; it's interesting but I only rated it 2+ on my 0-4+ scale. A much better book by her is this one -


  5. That (pair?) of glasses seems to be made for a cyclope with either a pretty narrow skull... or a very large eye :)

  6. I can certainly understand mistaking the nasal aperture in an elephant skull for an eye - I've had a whole class of children do it when first seeing a mammoth skeleton.

  7. wow! really? is so crazy man...

    best regards from Germany

  8. why couldn't it have come from the imagination of man? Couldn't it have come from Neil Gainman's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather? Couldn't it have just come from 2 guys smoking some funny looking grass?

    1. Sure. Thats where most religions come from.


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