In Homer's epic, Odysseus lands on the island of The Cyclops 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 now 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 rights of hospitality. In his Latin epic, Virgil describes how Aeneas observes 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 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.
Julien d'Huy speculates that the myth may be palaeolithic. Elements of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus are recognizable in the folklore of many other European groups. Wilhelm Grimm collected versions in Serbian, Romanian, Estonian, Finnish, Russian, and German. Versions in Basque, Lappish, Lithuanian, Gascon, Syrian, and Celtic are also known.
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 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, "Odysseus 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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." 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."
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.
A different story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. At its start, the treatment of the story is an extended paraphrase of the two idylls of Theocritus. 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.
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). 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.
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. 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. 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 Garcia 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 (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 adoring attendants while a minor figure of Polyphemus serenades her from the land. Typical examples of this were painted by Francois 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 painting of 1900 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 about 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 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.
The Polyphemus moth is so named because of the large eyespots in the middle of the hind wings. A number of ships and English steam locomotives have also been named after the giant.
The scientific name of the Gopher Tortoise is Gopherus polyphemus.
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).
Polyphemus and Odysseus
Polyphemus, Galatea, and Acis