Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon and Thoosa and the most feared of the Sicilian Cyclopes—brutish, one-eyed shepherds who lived far from civilization. He is best known for his role in the myth of Odysseus’ wanderings. When Odysseus stopped at the island of the Cyclopes on his way home from Troy, Polyphemus imprisoned him and his men; he undoubtedly would have eaten them all had Odysseus not blinded him and escaped.
Later traditions imagined Polyphemus in a somewhat pathetic love triangle involving the beautiful Galatea.
The name “Polyphemus” is fairly straightforward: it is made up of the Greek words polys, meaning “many,” and phēmē, meaning “voice.” Polyphemus is thus “the many-voiced one” or “the one much spoken of”—perhaps a reference to his famous role in the “much spoken of” Homeric epic, the Odyssey.
[pol-EE-fee-muhs, pol-uh-FEE-muhs] /ˌpɒlɪˈfiːməs, ˌpɒl əˈfi məs/
Titles and Epithets
In Homer’s Odyssey, Polyphemus is called by a handful of epithets, including pelōrios (“massive”), agrios (“wild”), and antitheos (both “godlike” and “enemy of the gods”).
Attributes and Iconography
Ancient sources classified Polyphemus as one of the Sicilian Cyclopes. This was to distinguish him (and his brethren) from the Uranian Cyclopes, most famous for fashioning Zeus’ thunderbolts.
Like all Cyclopes, Polyphemus was a massive creature who mostly resembled a human, except for the one large eye in the middle of his forehead. Uncivilized and cruel, Polyphemus had no respect for the gods and displayed cannibalistic tendencies, eating several of Odysseus’ men when they sought shelter on his island.
The Odyssey gives a powerful description of Polyphemus as
a monstrous man…who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness. For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest.
Polyphemus also performed impressive feats of strength. In the Odyssey, for example, he trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave by covering the entrance with a “great door-stone, a mighty rock” which “two and twenty stout four-wheeled wagons could not lift…from the ground.”
In ancient art, Polyphemus was represented much like other Cyclopes: with a giant body and one large eye set in his forehead (and, sometimes, with two horizontal slits where his other eyes would have been). Polyphemus’ showdown with Odysseus was a common subject for painters, potters, and sculptors from the very beginning, with the myth of Polyphemus and Galatea becoming popular later on.
Unlike the Uranian Cyclopes, who were sons of Gaia and Uranus, Polyphemus was the son of the sea god Poseidon and Thoosa, a daughter of Phorcys. He lived on a western island— usually identified as Sicily—with the other so-called Sicilian Cyclopes.
- Sicilian Cyclopes
Polyphemus and Odysseus
Polyphemus, the most powerful and savage of the Sicilian Cyclopes, is best remembered for his brutal behavior towards Odysseus. Driven by a dangerous combination of hunger, curiosity, and bad luck, Odysseus and his men landed on the island inhabited by Polyphemus on their way home from the Trojan War. Upon discovering Polyphemus’ cave, they were amazed at the size and quantity of the cheeses and farm animals kept inside and quickly made themselves at home.
When Polyphemus returned to his cave, however, he trapped Odysseus and his men inside and sneered at their request for hospitality. Odysseus tried to remind the Cyclops that the gods look kindly on those who treat foreigners gently, but Polyphemus responded with even more ridicule:
A fool art thou, stranger, or art come from afar, seeing that thou biddest me either to fear or to shun the gods. For the Cyclopes reck not of Zeus, who bears the aegis, nor of the blessed gods, since verily we are better far than they.
Having thus revealed his complete and utter disregard for the gods, Polyphemus seized two of Odysseus’ men, “dashed [them] to the earth like puppies,” and ate them. He then kept the men trapped in his cave—he closed off the entrance with a huge boulder that only he could move—and continued to pick them off at his leisure.
Odysseus, however, devised a cunning escape. He and his remaining men sharpened a large log that they found in the cave, then proceeded to get Polyphemus drunk on wine. After the Cyclops fell asleep, the men drove the sharpened stake into his one eye.
Polyphemus woke up screaming and called out to the other Cyclopes for help. But Odysseus had told him earlier that his name was “Nobody” (outis in Greek); thus, when Polyphemus cried out that “Nobody” was hurting him, the Cyclopes assumed he was simply having a bad dream.
The next morning, Polyphemus opened the cave to pasture his sheep. Blind but eager to retain his prisoners, he carefully positioned himself in the middle of the exit and felt the backs of his sheep as they passed to make sure Odysseus and his men were not slipping away. But Odysseus once again outsmarted the Cyclops: he fastened himself and his men underneath the bellies of Polyphemus’ giant sheep so as to avoid his grasp.
Once Odysseus was back on his ship, however, he could not resist taunting Polyphemus. The Cyclops responded by launching a massive boulder at the ship, sending up a wave that nearly sank Odysseus and his men. Egged on, Odysseus cried out again:
Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.
This proved to be a terrible mistake: now that he knew Odysseus’ name, Polyphemus begged his father, Poseidon, to punish the man who had blinded him. As a result, Poseidon became Odysseus’ mortal enemy and prevented him from returning to Ithaca for ten long years.
Polyphemus and Galatea
A very different kind of story about Polyphemus emerged in the fourth century BCE, telling of his hopeless and unrequited love of the sea deity Galatea. Galatea was repulsed by the hideous Cyclops and rejected his advances, even as he serenaded her with musical instruments such as the cithara and panpipes.
In later sources for the story, Galatea sometimes had her own lover, Acis, whom Polyphemus killed in a jealous rage. But in even later versions, Polyphemus did win Galatea in the end and even made her his wife.
Polyphemus has regularly featured in modern pop culture adaptations of the myth of Odysseus, such as the 1955 film Ulysses and the 1997 miniseries The Odyssey.