Few characters from Greek mythology echo in the mind as resonantly as Polyphemus, the one-eyed, cave-dwelling, human-eating, sheep-and-goat-herding ogre outwitted by the hero Odysseus on his voyage homewards from Troy to Ithaca. As unforgettably recorded in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, this episode involves a succession of key moments: Polyphemus’s imprisoning of the Greek intruders by blocking the entrance to his cavern with a massive boulder; Odysseus’s ruse of getting Polyphemus intoxicated with a gift of potent wine, enabling the hero and his crewmen to blind the ogre with a sharpened wooden stake; the Greeks’ escape from the ogre’s clutches by hanging onto the fleece beneath his sheep, the trick by which Odysseus falsely gives his name as “Nobody”—so that, when Polyphemus calls out to his fellow ogres for help, his cry of “Nobody is killing me” leaves them shaking their heads in puzzlement.
But who was Polyphemus? And who were those fellow ogres? They were known collectively as cyclopes (singular: cyclops), one of the most fascinating monsters to inhabit Greek myths. There were, broadly speaking, three kinds, distinguished by the different sorts of activity that they practised.