|Habitat||Cyclopean Isles, Sicily, Italy|
Polyphemus (//; 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". 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.
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.
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" 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. 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
Folktales similar to that of Homer's Polyphemus are a widespread phenomenon throughout the ancient world. In 1857, Wilhelm Grimm collected versions in Serbian, Romanian, Estonian, Finnish, Russian, German, and others; versions in Basque, Lappish, Lithuanian, Gascon, Syrian, and Celtic are also known. More than two hundred different versions have been identified, from twenty five nations, covering a geographic region extending from Iceland, England, and Portugal to Arabia, Turkey and Russia. The consensus of current modern scholarship is that these "Polyphemus legends" preserve traditions predating Homer.
Philoxenus of Cythera (c. 435/4 – 380/79 BC) was a poet of ancient Greece. Writing more than three centuries after the Odyssey is thought to have been composed, Philoxenus took up the myth of Polyphemus in his poem Cyclops or Galatea. The poem was written to be performed in a wild and ecstatic song-and-dance form — the dithyramb, but only fragments of it have survived. The time of the story occurs well before the one-eyed monster was blinded by Odysseus. Philoxenus was perhaps the first to provide a female love interest for the Cyclops. The object of Polyphemus’ romantic desire is a beautiful sea nymph named Galatea. In the poem, Polyphemus is not a cave dwelling, monstrous brute, as in the Odyssey, but instead he is rather like Odysseus himself in his vision of the world: He has weaknesses, he is adept at literary criticism, and he understands people.
The date of composition for Philoxenus' Cyclops is not precisely known, but it must be prior to 388 BC, when Aristophanes parodied it in his comedy Plutus (Wealth); and probably after 406 BC, when Dionysius I became tyrant of Syracuse with Philoxenus serving as his court poet. Aristophanes' parody suggests that there had been a recent performance in Athens of Philoxenus' poem.
Philoxenus lived in Syracuse at the court of Dionysius I. According to ancient commentators, either because of his frankness regarding Dionysius' poetry, or because of a conflict with the tyrant over a female aulos player named Galatea, Philoxenus was imprisoned in the quarries and had there composed his Cyclops, a dithyramb about the lovesick Polyphemus and the nymph Galatea; in the manner of a Roman à clef, the poem's characters, Polyphemus, Odysseus and Galatea, were meant to represent Dionysius, Philoxenus, and the aulos-player.
Philoxenus had his Polyphemus play the cithara, a professional lyre requiring great skill. The Cyclops playing such a sophisticated and fashionable instrument would have been quite a surprising juxtaposition for Philoxenus' audience, and perhaps signaled a competition between two genres of performance — the nome (a primitive music form of a poem set to music) and the dithyramb. So the character of the Cyclops, in this interpretation, would not represent Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily, but perhaps instead the cithara-playing poet Timotheus.
The romantic element, originated by Philoxenus, was revived by Hellenistic poets that were to follow, including: Theocritus, Callimachus, Hermesianax, and Bion of Smyrna. Philoxenus' Cyclops is also referred to in Aristotle’s Poetics in a section that discusses representations of people in tragedy and comedy (“tragedy differs from comedy. The latter sets out to represent people as worse than they are to-day, the former as better”). Before making this point, he has indicated that, as in comedy, it is the same in dithyrambic poetry, and cites as examples the Cyclops of both Timotheus and Philoxenus.
The text of Aristophanes’ last extant play Plutus (Wealth) has survived, but with almost all of its choral odes missing. What remains shows Aristophanes (as he does to some extent in all his plays) parodying a contemporary literary work — in this case Philoxenus’ Cyclops. While making fun of literary aspects of Philoxenus' dithyramb, Aristophanes is at the same time commenting on musical developments occurring in the fourth century BC, developing themes that run through the whole play. It also contains lines and phrases taken directly from the Cyclops.
The slave Cario, tells the chorus that his master has brought home with him the god Wealth, and because of this they will all now be rich. The chorus wants to dance for joy. So Cario begins a different kind of performance, parodying Philoxenus' dithyramb. As a solo performer leading a chorus that sings and dances, Cario recreates the form of a dithyramb. He first casts himself in the role of Polyphemus while casting the chorus as his flock of sheep and goats, at the same time imitating the sound of a lyre ("threttanello"), which is thought to be a reference to Philoxenus having Polyphemus play the lyre: "And now I wish — threttanello! — to imitate the Cyclops and, swinging my feet to and fro like this, to lead you in the dance. But come on, children, shout and shout again the songs of bleating sheep and smelly goats." The chorus, however, does not want to play sheep and goats, they would rather be Odysseus and his men, and they threaten to blind Cario (as the drunken Cyclops) with a wooden stake.
Aristophanes' parody of Cyclops makes a point of having the characters repeatedly use the word 'imitate' to describe the performer's task, which raises questions regarding the mimetic aspect of performance, and the relationship between art and reality. In this way, the dramatist delivers a satirical rebuttal to the dithyrambic form that has wandered into territory more properly the domain of drama.
Theocritus, born c. 300 BC, is credited with creating the genre of pastoral poetry. His works are titled Idylls and of these Idyll 6, and Idyll 11 contain a story of Polyphemus' love for Galatea.
Though Theocritus’ Cyclops derives from Homer, the differences are notable. Odysseus, for example, does not appear in Theocritus’ story; and where Homer’s Cyclops is beastly and wicked, Theocritus’ is absurd, lovesick and comic. A shared aspect is that both Homer and Theocritus include a narrator: Odysseus and Polyphemus, respectively. In Theocritus's Idyll 11, Polyphemus has discovered that music will heal lovesickness, and so he plays the panpipes and sings a comic and sympathetic tale of his woes and of how he is beleaguered and neglected. Polyphemus loves the sea nymph Galatea, but she rejects him because of his ugliness.
However, his boast is that "I am skilled in piping as no other Cyclops here," and (anticipating the Homeric future)
Gladly would I suffer you to singe my very soul,
And this one eye of mine, the dearest treasure I possess.
Ah me, would that my mother at my birth had given me gills,
That so I might have dived down to your side and kissed your hand,
If your lips you would not let me…
A fragment of a lost idyll by Bion of Smyrna also portrays Polyphemus declaring his undying love for Galatea. 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.
Although Polyphemus' love was unrequited in the previously described accounts, the Cyclops’ courtship had a more successful outcome, apparently, in some later accounts. 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." The division of contrary elements between the land-based monster and the sea nymph, in other words, is brought into harmony.
The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) tells the story of Polyphemus and his love for Galatea in his poem Metamorphoses. Ovid's treatment of the story is particularly reliant on Theocritus’ Idylls 11 and 6.
Polyphemus is not the cannibalistic monster of Homer and Virgil who terrorized Odysseus and Aeneas. Instead Polyphemus is lovesick for the sea nymph Galatea who, for her part, prefers Acis:
While I pursued him with a constant love,
the Cyclops followed me as constantly.
And, should you ask me, I could not declare
whether my hatred of him, or my love
of Acis was the stronger. —They were equal.
The image of the hulking monster attempting to play the tender shepherd singing love songs is made a source of humour:
Now, Polyphemus, wretched Cyclops, you
are careful of appearance, and you try
the art of pleasing. You have even combed
your stiffened hair with rakes: it pleases you
to trim your shaggy beard...
Galatea then relates how Polyphemus played his panpipes and sang a love song to her, which she and Acis, lying together hidden by a rock, had overheard. In his song, Polyphemus admires Galatea’s beauty, scolds her for not loving him in return, offers her rustic gifts and points out what he considers his best feature — the single eye that is, he boasts, the size of a great shield. But when Polyphemus discovers Galatea and Acis lying together, he becomes enraged with jealousy. Galatea, terrified, dives into the ocean, while the Cyclops wrenches off a piece of the mountain and crushes Acis with it. But on her return, Galatea changes her dead lover into the spirit of the Sicilian river Acis.
It was Ovid's account which was to have the greatest impact in later ages.
That the story sometimes had a more successful outcome for Polyphemus is also attested in the arts. 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. Other sources credit them with three children, Celtus, Illyrius and Galas, from whom descend the Celts, the Illyrians and the Gauls respectively.
There are indications that Polyphemus’ courtship also 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.
That their conjunction was fruitful is also implied 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."
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. It was written in homage to an earlier and rather shorter narrative with the same title by Luis Carillo y Sotomayor (1611).[nb 1] 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. Later in the century, Jean-Baptiste Lully composed his opera Acis et Galatée (1686) on the theme.[nb 2]
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 3] Initially composed in 1718, the work went through many revisions and was later to be given updated orchestrations by both Mozart and Mendelssohn. 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. 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 4] 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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). 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Polyphemus and Odysseus
Flemish Jacob Jordaens' depiction of Odysseus escaping from the cave of Polyphemus, 1635.
Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein's 1802 head and shoulders portrait of the giant, 1896.
Arnold Bocklin, Polyphemus attempts to crush the boat of the escaping Odysseus,
Polyphemus, Galatea, and Acis
Polyphemus hears of the arrival of Galatea, Fourth Style, 45–79 AD
Nicolas Poussin, Acis and Galatea concealed from the flute-playing Polyphemus, 1630.
Nicolas Poussin's pastoral "Landscape with Polyphemus", 1649.
Gustave Moreau, Polyphemus adores the sleeping Galatea, c.1896
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.
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).
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Specific artworks discussed above
Specific opera and filmworks discussed above