Libris Monstrum #27: Cyclopes
Hey everyone! Today I am covering a creature from the table and mythology that tends to be well known, but also a bit obscure. Everyone knows what a cyclops is, but how much do you really know about these one-eyed giants? If you are anything like me, it isn’t much. Or…wasn’t. As we get started here I want you to know that for this topic I am going to take the standard myth vs. D&D approach. Before we do though, I want to mention something I never really realized. Or thought about. The plural of cyclops is cyclopes. It isn’t cyclopses, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that is acceptable too. No, the plural is also pronounced unlike what it looks like for English. It is cyclopsees. It sounds so odd, or at least very scientific, but I don’t think I will be able to get it out of my head and I know I will get a weird look the next time I say it out loud.
One Eyed Giants
The single image that everyone knows of the cyclops is that of a pretty standard looking giant humanoid. There really isn’t much that sets them apart from being giant humans. The only real distinguishing feature is that they only have one eye. This is portrayed in two major ways that I have seen. One is the more common look of a single, central eye that replaces the two that humans would have. Another look is that of a more human face with spots where eyes clearly should be and than a single eye resting in the center of the four-head. Honestly, it is a bit creepy. One thing you will notice in looking at renditions of them from mythology is that they often appear a bit goofy or dumb. It is almost as if they were seen as barbaric, lesser beings. But the myths themselves disagree.
Generally speaking there are a few different takes on cyclopes from Greek mythology, as well as tangential mythologies to the Greeks. Much of it depends on the story or region you are focusing on. Of all these versions the cyclopes are much more than their imagery suggests. Sure there are characters within the tales of terrible individuals, cruel and cannibalistic. Cyclopes are also considered to be generally foul of disposition. Still, one group is said to be the children of Poseidon (guy gets around as much as Zeus I swear). These giants are shepherds and farmers. There are also those who are said to work the forges of Hephaestus, aiding him in his blacksmithing. In fact, that myth is perhaps more prevalent than their foul nature. Cyclopes are often described as master blacksmiths and craftsman. Members of the race are even said to have created things such as the helmet of invisibility or Poseidon’s trident. Powerful artifacts indeed.
Another aspect of their origin that needs to be looked at is the fact that they are giants related to the gods and the Titans. What that relationship, as with everything else, varies in detail. Still this accounts for their ability, size, and even temperament. But what if they aren’t one eyed beings? You may have heard that elephant skulls could easily be mistaken for one eyed skulls of giants. That certainly might be true from a perspective. Especially so if you consider the pygmy elephants that would have lived in the region long before hand, whose skulls could have been found. Considering the lack of Greek knowledge of elephants in general, this begins to look even more appealing. Sadly though, from what I have read there really isn’t any evidence to support it. It does sound good and make sense though.
In fact there is plenty of evidence that suggests that the giants aren’t even one-eyed. In many stories, including those that have characters long held and named as cyclopes, there is no mention of the individuals being one-eyed. Of course, this is just more fuel for the debates of moderns scholars about what the cyclopes were and where they come from. This isn’t surprising since ancient scholars didn’t agree as much as you might expect either. In fact the whole god, titan, mortal business is confusing because no one has ever definitively laid out what they are or if they are one thing. Perhaps some cyclopes were the sons and daughters of the Titans and others were not. Perhaps they were just another name for another race of supposed giants of the ancient world. Some old architecture is attributed to them by ancient scholars. But then again dark periods make you forget what your predecessors could do.
Giant, Fey, Or Both?
Things are no less tricky with Dungeons & Dragons. These guys have been around from the very beginning. How could they not be? Giants that were mythologically known to folks and recognizable because of their one eye. Perhaps civilized. Perhaps not. And definitely associated with some classic treasure. Of course they have been around. Who better to blame on ancient, gigantic ruins full of treasure than cyclopes that probably were cool enough to make it all once upon a time? Of course that doesn’t mean they have vast empires in D&D. To be fair, they have received a large variety of treatment. Generally speaking though you can find them with crappy armor / clothes, big clubs or hammers, and an angry demeanor. To my knowledge the cyclops, in general, is not much of a big player at the table. He’s another giant to take down.
Then we get 4E though, and Wizards really worked on spicing up the entire roster. So much so that they tried to give D&D a real base world that wasn’t forged in the history’s of playing at the table or dozens of novels. They wanted a world that was D&D and had its history that was tied only to the D&D name. It worked for a lot of people and some creatures got a lot of love. 4E is an anomaly that far too many dismiss, but here we are.
Obligatory 4E rants aside, cyclopes were one for those creatures that saw their shining moments in those years. These were not just another race of giant that happened to have one eye. These were creatures with a tweaked look to make them stand out and an origin in the Feywild, home to all things magic and nature. They were given some magical abilities with those singular orbs and linked to even bigger problems. As minions of the Fomorians, more strongly represented, and thanks to 4E’s tendancy to have many types of any given monster instead of having the DM make it, cyclopes became in of the strongest middle-game enemies. The only thing that is too bad about the cyclopes is they still kind of get ignored. I don’t hear about them often enough, but they have such potential.
During our revisit I am going to talk about Pathfinder cyclopes and probably bring 5E into things as well. Maybe I will try to find other world’s examples of these things too. If you have any specific cyclopes you want to mention or remember an adventure where they were well featured, please let me know so I can talk about it!