Tracking down the Cyclopes

When the mythical Greek hero Ulysses reaches Sicily we are informed by Homer (Od. IX, vv 105-115) that this was “the land of the Cyclopes”, a folk of mighty giants who live of what the earth gives them, isolated one of another. We all know how the story goes: Ulysses and his men take refuge into the cave of Polyphemus, he comes back early and locks them inside with him. Discovering them the giant eats a couple of Ulysses’s friends, gets drunk with the un-mixed wine offered by Ulysses, who then blinds him with a pole and escapes with the rest of the company.

As Homer wrote down these poems, it was common knowledge that the Cyclopes were the ancient inhabitants of Sicily, so it was easy for him to put them on the map of Ulysses’s voyages and adventures. But how did the ancient Greek come to think about these mighty creatures? Every legend, it is well known, has some sort of truth behind it, and this truth can be observed in the Gemmellaro Geological and Paleontological Museum.

Let’s  go back to the books. From reading the Odyssey we know three things about Polyphemus: a) he is of super-human height; b) he lives in natural caves; and C) he has just one eye (the name Cyclops in Greek means exactly this: “round eye”). And Homer is not the only one to mention these features. Another Greek author, the playwright Euripides (ca. 480-406 BCE), uses the same characteristics to talk about the Cyclopes. And Empedocles from Agrigento (492-432 BCE) says that remains of these mighty giants were to be found all over the island, in grottos and natural caves.

The most ancient history of Sicily

That is where the Gemmellaro Museum in Palermo comes into the equation. The materials preserved and displayed in this museum tell the story of the formation of the island of Sicily itself, and that of its first inhabitants. Going through the rooms, once passed the trilobites and the ammonoids changed into fossils when the Mediterranean seabed rose to form what is now Sicily, we learn of a fascinating story: the island of Sicily was not always an island. It was connected to the big African continent by a land bridge whose only surviving bits are the Maltese archipelago and the Pelagie islands. This land bridge allowed the rich fauna from Africa to populate the newly created island of Sicily as well. Big mammals like elephants and zebras were among the many species that passed through the bridge. With the end of the last Ice Age, the thick ice cap that covered the better part of the northern hemisphere melted down, prompting the rising of the sea level and submerging almost entirely the land bridge. This made an island of Sicily and allowed the history of its animals to take its own path, quite distinct from that of the rest of the animals in Africa.

Elephants in Sicily then. Some remains of these elephants are on display in the rooms of the Gemmellaro Geological and Paleontological Museum. These remains were found in caves throughout the island (such as the Grotta dei Puntali in Carini, 20 mins from Palermo), and similar remains can be seen from the cave of Ghar Dalam in the south of Malta. There were four species of elephant in Sicily, going down from a big one (Elephas Antiquus) to a dwarf one (Paleodoxon Falconeri). Have you ever looked at an elephant’s skull? If not do it now in the picture below.

Skull of a dwarf elephant

The mistery revealed

They have a big dome and below it, just above the teeth, there is a big hole. Now we know that this hole is where the proboscis of the elephant was attached, as the eyes of the animal are on the sides of the skull. You already see, I’m sure, where I’m going with this. The ancient Greek inhabitants of Sicily find some of these huge skulls in a couple of caverns around the island. The skulls are much bigger than the average human head, and instead of having two holes for the eyes, they just have a big rounded hole in the very middle of the forehead. Bear in mind, they had no anatomical knowledge, so the scattered bones they found alongside the skulls make no sense to them. They have no way of telling that it is the skeleton of a quadruped as opposed to that of a biped human being. So they come to the only explanation that made sense to them: they were what remained of ancient inhabitants of this island, from long before them, back in the Age of the heroes. A Cyclops was born.