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Polyphemus (Greek: Πολύφημος)
Guido Reni - Polyphemus - Google Art Project.jpg
The blinded Polyphemus seeks vengeance on Odysseus: Guido Reni's painting in the Capitoline Museums.
HabitatSicily, Italy

Polyphemus (/ˌpɒlɪˈfməs/; Greek: Πολύφημος Polyphēmos) is the one-eyed giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa in Greek mythology, one of the Cyclopes described in Homer's Odyssey. His name means "abounding in songs and legends".[1] Polyphemus first appears as a savage man-eating giant in the ninth book of the Odyssey. Some later Classical writers link his name with the nymph Galatea and present him in a different light.

Odysseus and Polyphemus[edit]

Greek terracotta figurine, Polyphemos reclining and holding a drinking bowl. Late 5th to early 4th century BC, Boeotia. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Classical accounts[edit]

In Homer's epic, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclopes during his journey home from the Trojan War and, together with some of his men, enters a cave filled with provisions. When the giant Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, he blocks the entrance with a great stone and, scoffing at the usual custom of hospitality, eats two of the men. Next morning, the giant kills and eats two more and leaves the cave to graze his sheep.

The blinding of Polyphemus, a reconstruction from the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, 1st century AD

After the giant returns in the evening and eats two more of the men, Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong and undiluted wine given to him earlier on his journey. Drunk and unwary, the giant asks Odysseus his name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers. Odysseus tells him "Οὖτις", which means "nobody"[2] and Polyphemus promises to eat this "Nobody" last of all. With that, he falls into a drunken sleep. Odysseus had meanwhile hardened a wooden stake in the fire and drives it into Polyphemus' eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help from his fellow giants, saying that "Nobody" has hurt him, they think Polyphemus is being afflicted by divine power and recommend prayer as the answer.

In the morning, the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, feeling their backs to ensure that the men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves to the undersides of the animals and so get away. As he sails off with his men, Odysseus boastfully reveals his real name, an act of hubris that was to cause problems for him later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon, for revenge and casts huge rocks towards the ship, which Odysseus barely escapes.

The story reappears in later Classical literature. In Cyclops, the 5th century BC play by Euripides, a chorus of satyrs offers comic relief from the grisly story of how Polyphemus is punished for his impious behaviour in not respecting the rites of hospitality.[3] In his Latin epic, Virgil describes how Aeneas observes blind Polyphemus as he leads his flocks down to the sea. They have encountered Achaemenides, who re-tells the story of how Odysseus and his men escaped, leaving him behind. The giant is described as descending to the shore, using a "lopped pine tree" as a walking staff. Once Polyphemus reaches the sea, he washes his oozing, bloody eye socket and groans painfully. Achaemenides is taken aboard Aeneas’ vessel and they cast off with Polyphemus in chase. His great roar of frustration brings the rest of the Cyclopes down to the shore as Aeneas draws away in fear.[4]

Artistic representations[edit]

Amphora painting of Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus (Eleusis museum)

The vivid nature of the Polyphemus episode made it a favorite theme of ancient Greek painted pottery, on which the scenes most often illustrated are the blinding of the Cyclops and the ruse by which Odysseus and his men escape.[5] One such episode, on a vase featuring the hero carried beneath a sheep, was used on a 27 drachma Greek postage stamp in 1983.

The blinding was depicted in life-size sculpture, including a giant Polyphemus, in the Sperlonga sculptures probably made for the Emperor Tiberius. This may be an interpretation of an existing composition, and was apparently repeated in variations in later Imperial palaces by Claudius, Nero and at Hadrian's Villa.[6]

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, 1812, Princeton University Art Museum

Of the European painters of the subject, the Flemish Jacob Jordaens depicted Odysseus escaping from the cave of Polyphemus in 1635 (see gallery below) and others chose the dramatic scene of the giant casting boulders at the escaping ship. In Guido Reni's painting of 1639/40 (see below), the furious giant is tugging a boulder from the cliff as Odysseus and his men row out to the ship far below. Polyphemus is portrayed, as it often happens, with two empty eye sockets and his damaged eye located in the middle on his forehead. This convention goes back to Greek statuary and painting[7] and is reproduced in Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein's 1802 head and shoulders portrait of the giant (see below).

Arnold Bocklin pictures the giant as standing on rocks onshore and swinging one of them back as the men row desperately over a surging wave (see below), while Polyphemus is standing at the top of a cliff in Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting of 1902. He stands poised, having already thrown one stone, which barely misses the ship. The reason for his rage is depicted in J. M. W. Turner's painting, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829). Here the ship sails forward as the sun breaks free of clouds low on the horizon. The giant himself is an indistinct shape barely distinguished from the woods and smoky atmosphere high above.

Possible origins[edit]

Folktales similar to that of Homer's Polyphemus are a widespread phenomenon throughout the ancient world.[8] In 1857, Wilhelm Grimm[9] collected versions in Serbian, Romanian, Estonian, Finnish, Russian, German, and others; versions in Basque, Lappish, Lithuanian, Gascon, Syrian, and Celtic are also known.[10] More than two hundred different versions have been identified,[11] from twenty five nations, covering a geographic region extending from Iceland, England, and Portugal to Arabia, Turkey and Russia.[12] The consensus of current modern scholarship is that these "Polyphemus legends" preserve traditions predating Homer.[13]

Polyphemus and Galatea[edit]

Literary accounts[edit]

Although there are some earlier references to the story of the love of Polyphemus for the sea-nymph Galatea and her preference for the human shepherd Acis, the best known source is a lost play by Philoxenus of Cythera, of which a few fragments and several accounts are left. Dating from about 400 BC, it links the love story to the arrival of Odysseus and, according to ancient sources, had a witty contemporary subtext. Philoxenos had supposedly had an affair with the mistress of Dionysius I of Syracuse and as a consequence was condemned to work in the stone quarries. Here he is supposed to have composed The Cyclops, with the tyrant cast in the role of the giant, while the successful lovers are the poet and his Galatea.[14]

The Hellenistic poet Theocritus painted a more sympathetic picture of Polyphemus in the following century. The story is recast in the poet's pastoral style, which idealized the simple lives of shepherds. In Idyll XI Polyphemus becomes a young herdsman finding solace in song for his love of the sea-nymph. Its gist centres on the antinomies of earth and water that make them dissimilar and keep them apart, but it concludes on the thought that there are other girls on land who find him attractive.[15] A fragment of a lost idyll by Bion of Smyrna also portrays Polyphemus declaring his undying love for Galatea.[16] Referring back to this, an elegy on Bion's death that was once attributed to Moschus takes the theme further in a piece of hyperbole. Where Polyphemus had failed, the poet declares, Bion's greater artistry had won Galatea's heart, drawing her from the sea to tend his herds.[17]

However, there are indications that Polyphemus’ courtship had a more successful outcome. In one of the dialogues of Lucian of Samosata, one of Galatea's sisters, Doris, spitefully congratulates her on her love conquest and she defends Polyphemus. From the conversation, one understands that Doris is chiefly jealous that her sister has a lover. Galatea admits that she does not love Polyphemus but is pleased to have been chosen by him in preference to all her companions.[18]

In addition, a later development in the courtship is described by Theocritus in his Idyll VI. Here two herdsmen engage in a musical competition, one of them playing the part of Polyphemus, who asserts that since he had adopted the ruse of ignoring Galatea, she has now become the one who pursues him.[19]

Polyphemus receives a love-letter from Galatea, a 1st-century AD fresco from Pompeii

The happy ending to their story was well known in the centuries that followed and is attested in both literature and the arts. In the course of a 1st-century BC love elegy on the power of music, the Latin poet Propertius mentions as one example that "Even Galatea, it’s true, below wild Etna, wheeled her brine-wet horses, Polyphemus, to your songs."[20] The division of contrary elements, in other words, is brought into harmony.

That their conjunction was fruitful is brought out in a later Greek epic from the turn of the 5th century AD. In the course of his Dionysiaca, Nonnus gives an account of the wedding of Poseidon and Beroe, at which the Nereid "Galatea twangled a marriage dance and restlessly twirled in capering step, and she sang the marriage verses, for she had learnt well how to sing, being taught by Polyphemos with a shepherd’s syrinx."[21]

Offspring of Polyphemus and Galatea

In one of the murals rescued from the site of Pompeii, Polyphemus is pictured seated on a rock with a cithara (rather than a syrinx) by his side, holding out a hand to receive a love letter from Galatea, which is carried by a winged Cupid riding on a dolphin.

In another fresco, also dating from the 1st century AD, the two stand locked in a naked embrace (see below). From their union came the ancestors of various wild and war-like races. According to some accounts, the Celts (Galati in Latin, Γάλλοi in Greek) were descended from their son Galatos.[22] Other sources credit them with three children, Celtus, Illyrius and Galas, from whom descend the Celts, the Illyrians and the Gauls respectively.

A different story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses.[nb 1] At its start, the treatment of the story is an extended paraphrase of the two idylls of Theocritus.[23] But in the final passage, Polyphemus spies on the love-making of Acis and Galatea and jealously crushes Acis with a rock. Galatea, who had fled into her native element, returns and changes her dead lover into the spirit of the Sicilian river Acis. It was this account which was to have the greatest impact in later ages.

Later European versions[edit]

During Renaissance and Baroque times Ovid's story emerged again as a popular theme. In Spain Luis de Góngora y Argote wrote the much admired narrative poem, Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, published in 1627. It is particularly noted for its depiction of landscape and for the sensual description of the love of Acis and Galatea.[24] It was written in homage to an earlier and rather shorter narrative with the same title by Luis Carillo y Sotomayor (1611).[nb 2] The story was also given operatic treatment in the very popular zarzuela of Antoni Lliteres Carrió (1708). The atmosphere here is lighter and enlivened by the inclusion of the clowns Momo and Tisbe.

In France the story was condensed to the fourteen lines of Tristan L'Hermite's sonnet Polyphème en furie (1641). In it the giant expresses his fury upon viewing the loving couple, ultimately throwing the huge rock that kills Acis and even injures Galatea.[25] Later in the century, Jean-Baptiste Lully composed his opera Acis et Galatée (1686) on the theme.[nb 3]

Polyphemus discovers Galatea and Acis, statues by Auguste Ottin in the Jardin du Luxembourg's Médici Fountain, 1866

In Italy Giovanni Bononcini composed the one-act opera Polifemo (1703). Shortly afterwards George Frideric Handel worked in that country and composed the cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), laying as much emphasis on the part of Polifemo as on the lovers. Written in Italian, Polifemo's deep bass solo Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori (From horrid shades) establishes his character from the start. After Handel's move to England, he gave the story a new treatment in his pastoral opera Acis and Galatea with an English libretto provided by John Gay.[nb 4] Initially composed in 1718, the work went through many revisions and was later to be given updated orchestrations by both Mozart and Mendelssohn.[26] As a pastoral work it is suffused with Theocritan atmosphere but largely centres on the two lovers. When Polyphemus declares his love in the lyric “O ruddier than the cherry”, the effect is almost comic.[27] Handel's rival for a while on the London scene, Nicola Porpora, also made the story the subject of his opera Polifemo (1735).

Later in the century Joseph Haydn composed Acide e Galatea (1763) as his first opera while in Vienna.[nb 5] Designed for an imperial wedding, it was given a happy ending centred on the transformation scene after the murder of Acis as the pair declare their undying love.[28] Johann Gottlieb Naumann was to turn the story into a comic opera, Aci e Galatea, with the subtitle i ciclopi amanti (the amorous cyclops). The work was first performed in Dresden in 1801 and its plot was made more complicated by giving Polifemo a companion, Orgonte. There were also two other lovers, Dorinda and Lisia, with Orgonte Lisia's rival for Dorinda's love.[29]

After John Gay's libretto in Britain, it was not until the 19th century that the subject was given further poetical treatment. In 1819 appeared "The Death of Acis" by Bryan Procter, writing under the name of Barry Cornwall.[30] A blank verse narrative with lyric episodes, it celebrates the musicianship of Polyphemus, which draws the lovers to expose themselves from their hiding place in a cave and thus brings about the death of Acis. At the other end of the century, there was Alfred Austin's dramatic poem "Polyphemus", which is set after the murder and transformation of the herdsman. The giant is tortured by hearing the happy voices of Galatea and Acis as they pursue their love duet.[31] Shortly afterwards Albert Samain wrote the 2-act verse drama Polyphème with the additional character of Lycas, Galatea's younger brother. In this the giant is humanised; sparing the lovers when he discovers them, he blinds himself and wades to his death in the sea. The play was first performed posthumously in 1904 with incidental music by Raymond Bonheur.[32] On this the French composer Jean Cras based his operatic ‘lyric tragedy’, composed in 1914 and first performed in 1922. Cras took Samain's text almost unchanged, subdividing the play's two acts into four and cutting a few lines from Polyphemus' final speech.[33]

There have also been two Spanish musical items that reference Polyphemus' name. Reginald Smith Brindle's four fragments for guitar, El Polifemo de Oro (1956), takes its title from Federico García Lorca's poem, “The riddle of the guitar”. That speaks of six dancing maidens (the guitar strings) entranced by ‘a golden Polyphemus’ (the one-eyed sound-hole).[34] The Spanish composer Andres Valero Castells takes the inspiration for his Polifemo i Galatea from Gongora's work. Originally written for brass band in 2001, he rescored it for orchestra in 2006.[35]

Painting and sculpture[edit]

Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus, Laconian black-figure cup, 565–560 BC.

Paintings that include Polyphemus in the story of Acis and Galatea can be grouped according to their themes. Most notably the story takes place within a pastoral landscape in which the figures are almost incidental. This is particularly so in Nicholas Poussin's 1649 "Landscape with Polyphemus" (see gallery below) in which the lovers play a minor part in the foreground.[36] To the right, Polyphemus merges with a distant mountain top on which he plays his pipes. In an earlier painting by Poussin from 1630 (now housed at the Dublin National Gallery) the couple are among several embracing figures in the foreground, shielded from view of Polyphemus, who is playing his flute higher up the slope. Another variation on the theme was painted by Pietro Dandini during this period.

An earlier fresco by Giulio Romano from 1528 seats Polyphemus against a rocky foreground with a lyre in his raised right hand. The lovers can just be viewed through a gap in the rock that gives onto the sea at the lower right. Corneille Van Clève [fr] (1681) represents a seated Polyphemus in his sculpture, except that in his version it is pipes that the giant holds in his lowered hand. Otherwise he has a massive club held across his body and turns to the left to look over his shoulder.

Polyphemus spies on the sleeping Galatea, Gustave Moreau (1880)

Other paintings take up the Theocritan theme of the pair divided by the elements with which they are identified, land and water. There are a series of paintings, often titled "The Triumph of Galatea", in which the nymph is carried through the sea by her Nereid sisters, while a minor figure of Polyphemus serenades her from the land. Typical examples of this were painted by François Perrier, Giovanni Lanfranco and Jean-Baptiste van Loo.

A whole series of paintings by Gustave Moreau make the same point in a variety of subtle ways.[37] The giant spies on Galatea through the wall of a sea grotto or emerges from a cliff to adore her sleeping figure (see below). Again, Polyphemus merges with the cliff where he meditates in the same way that Galatea merges with her element within the grotto in the painting at Musée d'Orsay. The visionary interpretation of the story also finds its echo in Odilon Redon's 1913 painting "The Cyclops" in which the giant towers over the slope on which Galatea sleeps.[38]

French sculptors have also been responsible for some memorable versions. Auguste Ottin's separate figures are brought together in an 1866 fountain in the Luxembourg Garden. Above is crouched the figure of Polyphemus in weathered bronze, peering down at the white marble group of Acis and Galatea embracing below (see below). A little later Auguste Rodin made a series of statues, centred on Polyphemus. Originally modelled in clay around 1888 and later cast in bronze, they may have been inspired by Ottin's work.[39]

A final theme is the rage that succeeds the moment of discovery. That is portrayed in earlier paintings of Polyphemus casting a rock at the fleeing lovers, such as those by Annibale Carracci, Lucas Auger and Carle van Loo. Jean-Francois de Troy's 18th-century version combines discovery with aftermath as the giant perched above the lovers turns to wrench up a rock.

Other uses[edit]

Polyphemus is mentioned in the "Entered Apprentice" chapter of Albert Pike's Morals and Dogma (1871). Within Scottish Rite Freemasonry he is regarded as a symbol for a civilization that harms itself using ill directed blind force.[40]

The Polyphemus moth is so named because of the large eyespots in the middle of the hind wings.[41] A number of ships and English steam locomotives have also been named after the giant.

The Polyphemus episode was featured in the 1905 short film Ulysses and the Giant Polyphemus by Georges Méliès. This combines with the Calypso episode and employs special effects. Other films that include it have been the 1911 Odissea and the 1955 Ulysses (see external links below).

Artistic depictions of Polyphemus[edit]

Polyphemus and Odysseus

Polyphemus, Galatea, and Acis

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Book XIII lines 738–897
  2. ^ Spanish text online Archived 2013-05-12 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1686 opera, Acis et Galatée at PrestoClassical
  4. ^ The text is on the Stanford University site and there is a complete performance on YouTube
  5. ^ Brief excerpts at Classical Archives


  1. ^ πολύ-φημος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  2. ^ οὔτις and Οὖτις, Georg Autenrieth, A Homeric Dictionary, on Perseus
  3. ^ Translation online
  4. ^ Aeneid Book 3, lines 588–691
  5. ^ Klaus Junker, Interpreting the Images of Greek Myths: An Introduction, Cambridge University 2011, p. 80
  6. ^ Carey, Sorcha, "A Tradition of Adventures in the Imperial Grotto", Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Apr., 2002), pp. 44–61, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, JSTOR
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, New York 2010, “Polyphemus” entry, p. 416
  8. ^ Heubeck and Hoekstra, p. 19 on lines 105–556.
  9. ^ Grimm, "Die Sage von Polyphem".
  10. ^ Frazer, p. 344.
  11. ^ Heubeck and Hoekstra, p. 19 on lines 105–556.
  12. ^ Glenn 1971, pp. 135–136. For examples of the story from the Caucasus, see Hunt, Chapter VII "Legends About Shepherds, Including Cyclops Legends".
  13. ^ Heubeck and Hoekstra, p. 19 on lines 105–556: "Analysis of the folk-tale material shows that the poet was using two originally unconnected stories, the first about a hero blinding a man-eating giant. Consistent features of this story are the hero's use of an animal, usually a sheep, or at least an animal skin, to effect an escape and the giant's attempt to bring the hero back with the help of a magical object. The second story concerns a hero outwitting a monster by giving a false name, usually 'I myself'. The fusion of these two stories is surely the work of the poet himself"; Glenn 1978, p. 141; Glenn 1971, pp. 135–136. Julien d'Huy, Polyphemus (Aa. Th. 1137) A phylogenetic reconstruction of a prehistoric tale, New Comparative Mythology, 1, 2013, speculates that the myth may be palaeolithic.
  14. ^ The introduction to Ovid's Metamorphoses XIII, Cambridge University 2000, pp. 35–36
  15. ^ Text online
  16. ^ ’’The idylls of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus’’, London 1870, Idyll XII, p. 176
  17. ^ ’’The idylls of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus’’, p. 317
  18. ^ Lucian of Samosata from the Greek, Volume 1, translated by William Tooke, London 1820, 15 confabulations of the sea deities, 1. The love of the Cyclops Polyphemus for the Nereid Galatea, pp. 338–40
  19. ^ C.S. Calverly's translation at Guttenberg
  20. ^ Elegies 3.2, online translation by A.S. Kline
  21. ^ Online translation by W.H.D. Rouse, Loeb 1942, 43, lines 390–93
  22. ^ David Rankins, "The Celts through Classical eyes” in The Celtic World, London 2012, chapter 3
  23. ^ A.H.F. Griffin, "Unrequited Love: Polyphemus and Galatea in Ovid's Metamorphoses", Greece & Rome Second Series, Vol. 30.2 1983
  24. ^ Selected Poems of Luis de Góngora, University of Chicago 2008, pp. 176ff
  25. ^ French text
  26. ^ Roberta Montemorra Martin, “Handel’s Acis and Galatea” in Europe, Empire, and Spectacle in Nineteenth-century British Music, Ashgate Publishing 2006, p. 250
  27. ^ "Deep Play": John Gay and the Invention of Modernity, Dianne Dugaw, University of Delaware, 2001, p. 154; there is a performance on YouTube
  28. ^ Rebecca Green, “Representing the Aristocracy”, in Haydn and his world, Princeton University 1997, pp. 167–68
  29. ^ Review by Robert Levine on Classics Today; there is a performance of Polifemo’s aria Fulmine che dal Cielo on YouTube
  30. ^ A Sicilian Story, second edition London 1820, pp. 107ff
  31. ^ Online archive
  32. ^ Paul-André Bempéchat, Jean Cras, Polymath of Music and Letters, Ashgate Publishing 2009, pp. 279–82
  33. ^ Excerpts at Classical Archives
  34. ^ The text and a performance can be found online
  35. ^ José Antonio Hernández Arce, "Reflexiones sobre Polifemo"; there is a performance on YouTube
  36. ^ Helen Langdon, "The Demosthenes of painting” in Translations of the Sublime, Leiden NL, 2012, p. 169
  37. ^ Article on “Galatea” in the Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, New York 2010, p. 175
  38. ^ Article on “Odilon Redon” in Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Boston MA 2006, p. 672
  39. ^ Rodin’s Art, Oxford University 2003, pp. 275–76
  40. ^ Pike, Albert. Morals & Dogma. Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree. Charleston, SC: 1871. Sacred Texts
  41. ^ The article on the moth at the University of Florida site


  • Frazer, J. G., Pausanias's Description of Greece. Translated with a Commentary by J. G. Frazer. Vol V. Commentary on Books IX, X. Addenda, Macmillan, 1898. Internet Archive.
  • Glenn, Justin, "The Polyphemus Folktale and Homer's Kyklôpeia" in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 102 (1971), pp. 133–181. JSTOR 2935942.
  • Heubeck, Alfred, Arie Hoekstra, A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey: Volume II: Books IX–XVI, Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-19-872144-7.
  • Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books. (2012). ISBN 978-0863568237.
  • Grimm, Wilhelm (1857). Die Sage von Polyphem (in German). Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. pp. 1–30. Retrieved August 17, 2011.

External links[edit]

Specific artworks discussed above

Specific opera and filmworks discussed above