The Symbolism of the Cyclops
The cyclopes are commonly thought of as a race of one-eyed giants. This description, however, can be doubly misleading. Firstly, the cyclopes do not belong to the race of gigantes proper, being “gigantic” only in the sense of being physically large and in the sense of being related to the Earth, that is, to Gaia. Secondly, the description “one-eyed” obscures an essential point, namely that anatomically, the cyclopes are often represented as three-eyed creatures whose two normal eyes are either shut or somehow missing from their heads. In such representations, only their empty eye-sockets remain; hollow, sunken, and blind. (See figure 1).
Thinking of cyclopes as strictly chthonic also neglects the fact that according to Hesiod,1 their birth is the result of the primordial union between Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky). The fact that Ouranos later forced his misshapen children back inside the womb of their mother did by no means annul their heavenly origins nor the heavenly aspects of their nature. They still remain the ancient brothers of the Titans and of the hundred-handed “Hecatoncheires”, meaning that they are not, as is perhaps natural to think, some late and inbred appendage to the Greek theogony. For as Hesiod makes clear, except for their single, circular eye, situated “in the middle of their foreheads”, the cyclopes are in all other respects “like the gods.”2 Hence, when Zeus eventually re-released them from their mother’s womb, the cyclopes instantly recognized the rightful ruler of the cosmos, the true Sky-Father, and willingly made themselves his servants. In light of this, we should remember that even though the cyclopes’ bodies are earthy and rugged, their minds are very much divine and elevated – living, as it were, in the clouds.
That being said, the cyclopes are also skillful workmen, the inventors of no less impressive instruments than Zeus’ thunderbolts, Poseidon’s trident, and Hades’ cap of invisibility. The three Hesiodian cyclopes – Brontes, Steropes, and Arges – are thus responsible for granting the triumvirate of Olympus their most formidable and iconic devices, ensuring their incontestable reign over the eternal, the transient, and the terminal realms. In later sources,3 these cyclopes even become the assistants of the smithing god Hephaestus, forging even more legendary items that feature in the works of Virgil and Ovid. This image of the steadfast and competent cyclopes is quite at odds with the one we get from Homer, which I will get to shortly.
The key to understanding the symbolism of the cyclops lies in the fact that it has neither a right eye nor a left eye, but only the third eye. The practical consequence of this is that the cyclops – largely thanks to his abnormal size and Odysseus’ famous trickery,4 – is often perceived as a dunce, something of a divine country bumpkin. Allow me to suggest, however, that the cyclops is far removed from your average, two-eyed, numskull. His apparent simplicity is not so much a consequence of lack, as of excess. The sin of the cyclops is not merely that his attention is unidimensional, devoid of any depth; it has importantly to do with the particular dimension along which his narrow vision operates. He is disconnected from the facts and values of “mundane life”. The cyclops compensates for this lack through being hyper-connected to his transcendent – pattern-oriented – vision.
The previously mentioned hecatoncheires serve as illuminating opposites to the cyclopes. Instead of having one, spiritual eye, they have a hundred bodily eyes, situated in their grossly excessive fifty heads. Unlike their brothers, their departure from the norm is expressly material, while the departure of the cyclopes is obliquely mental. Consequently, they strike the eye as altogether more monstrous, elemental, backward, brutal, crude, and wild, than the more intellectually disturbing cyclopes. It is as though they have no third eye whatsoever, in addition to possessing only a modicum of animating breath, making them resemble beasts or even insects; being, to put the matter symbolically, “excessively two-eyed”. Consequently, they must be tamed, not reasoned with; herded, not argued into action. This makes them a knotty ally to contend with, capable of delivering a hundred punches at once, though only in a hundred different directions, unleashing violent chaos. Unsurprisingly, and like the foreshadowed cyclopes of Homer, the preferred fighting style of the hecatoncheires is to hurl enormous boulders at their enemies – a strikingly primitive weapon compared to the sophisticated products of the Hesiodian round-eyes. In some sources, especially Latin ones probably drawing on the now lost work, the Titanomachy, the hecatoncheires are even said to have fought on the side of the Titans, against Zeus and the Olympians.
From these summarizing descriptions, a larger symbolic pattern can be glimpsed, namely that the Titans – the “body-normative” parents of the Olympian gods – represent the mean between the two extremes of “cyclopeanism” and “hecatonchereanism”, between lofty ideas and brute strength, between order and chaos, mind and matter. I ask the reader to keep these three sibling races in mind when they get to the last part of this essay.
Thales, the pre-Socratic sage, was acting like a cyclops when he fell into his proverbial and symbolically evocative well.5 His eye was floating around in the firmament of his brooding forehead, with no lower, “ocular feet” on which to stand and keep his balance. He was out of touch with the earth under his feet and the matter between his hands, perceiving only – as he imagined them – the archetypes, the forms, the patterns of reality. Everything is water. In the same manner, the cyclops is emblematic of the earthbound creature who acts as though it were in fact purely celestial; or who, in less extreme cases, acts like an embodied creature that believes itself to be in possession of “celestial vision”. This – sometimes justified, sometimes erroneous – belief goes seriously awry when the holder of it becomes convinced that this, the most elevated type of perception and reasoning, is really all the vision he needs. His third eye then becomes not just his dominant but his only way of making sense of the world around him.
Despite this, the cyclops remains a formidable workman; an idealistic drone seeking to construct heaven on earth, laboring with fanatical attention to build celestial castles out of self-cut brick and mortar. We all recognize such a person when we see them: the single-minded and uncompromising architect of a hubristic blueprint, the zealous devotee of a sacrosanct doctrine, the tireless campaigner of utopian causes. Truly, the works of the cyclops are evident not only in the monolithic “Cyclopean Walls” of Mycenae (see figure 3), but also in the monotheistic religion of Muhammad, and the monomaniacal cult of modern anti-racism. The world is forced into the unidimensional pattern of the cyclopean mind. All of being is seen through one tight lens. One ring to rule them all. What does not fit is hewn off, cut down, twisted, or otherwise compelled to fit. The world must be bent in accordance with the divine pattern, and if the world refuses to bend, it must break.
For those noble cyclopes who remain faithful servants of Zeus – the steady principle that provides their floating eye with a perspective anchor – one-eyed life is sustainable, possibly even admirable. (I mention in passing that Greek sages like Tiresias and even Homer himself were blind; as was Oedipus, whose self-incurred blindness is inflicted at the very same time as he understands the truth.) But for those “fallen” cyclopes, like the Homeric fiend, Polyphemus, who have turned away from Zeus and towards a life of self-sufficiency and lawlessness, it is not sustainable, to the point of being downright hellish. They end up as paranoid outcastes, estranged from God and from society. Cast down from Mount Olympus, they join company with the cripple Hephaestus, toiling away amid the infernal flames of Mount Etna. Such is the price for losing or rejecting Zeus: their window to the world is covered with smoke and ash, and their lucid monocle becomes a restless eye.
We are thus left with two versions of the cyclops, courtesy of Hesiod and Homer. The upright and technologically sophisticated cyclops, and the fallen and barbaric cyclops. Let us try to think of these two types in human terms, as representing a certain kind of human character, one that is liable to either flourish or sin in a distinctive way. I wrote above that a cyclops is a creature with only third-eye vision, meaning that he has a natural, though sometimes hyperactive knack for recognizing patterns and thus a heightened sensitivity towards symbolism. This pattern-recognition is a distinct feature of reason, being different from, on the one hand, the capacity to collect and calculate facts, and, on the other, the ability to cultivate and meditate upon values. Now, a cyclops is someone who pays little or no attention to facts and values, at least in his conscious mind. Sure, his senses register certain facts, just as his actions are moved by certain values, but what matters first and foremost to him is the pattern. With this, he can guess at what the facts and values are, even conjure them up – like hypothetical particles – where the pattern tells him they should be. Thus, the pattern – being somewhat akin to a Kuhnian paradigm6 – is jealously protected and maintained, even when bombarded with contradictory facts (think of flat earthers). The same could be said in cases where a pattern has been revealed to be based on, or conducive towards, what others, or even the cyclopes themselves, hold to be pernicious values (think of Neo-Nazis or Neo-Communists). Cognitive dissonance is a hallmark of the fallen cyclops. If a given fact or a value fails to fit neatly with the pattern, then these, so the cyclops reasons, cannot actually be facts or values, and are thus either discarded or reinterpreted so as to somehow fit with the inviolable pattern. “Something else is going on”, the cyclops reasons. “There must be some other explanation…”. The pattern is never wrong.
Sometimes, the cyclops, with all his blind conviction, is actually right. Sometimes, his lofty pattern really is the better guide to life. This happens when the pattern of the cyclops’ interlocutor is false, or when what his interlocutors accept as factual or valuable is really not; whereas the religion, mythology, or ideology of the cyclops somehow gets reality (or some salient aspect of it) right. This may be the case despite the cyclops’ utter obliviousness to the accepted science or philosophy of his day. What matters is that the cyclops’ pattern, his story, his myth, however faulty even this may be, still functions as a more accurate guide to reality than the one endorsed by his contemporaries. The pattern supplied by the doctrine of Mormonism may thus be a more accurate pattern than the pattern supplied by Scientology, while at the same time being a profound distortion of the truth – that is, a heresy.
Let me therefore illustrate the idea with another example. A Christian living in the former Soviet Union who rejects Marxist materialism based squarely on his Christian faith – that is, without being able to refute Marxism on scientific or philosophic grounds – is behaving like a Christian cyclops, and would no doubt be perceived as a dunce, a numskull, and a simpleton by his countrymen, if not something altogether worse. In such an instance, the cyclops is clearly of the noble kind, with the true Deus fixed properly before his mind’s eye. And like his Greek forerunners, the Christian cyclops too is capable of sparking religious thunder, as well as unleashing political earthquakes, even, as Rod Dreher has admirably recounted in his latest book Live Not by Lies,7 of moving as an invisible, seemingly dead force beneath the decaying pillars of a corrupt society – not, however, as deathly reapers, but as sowers of Life.
The fact that we are born with our third eye slumbering, and with our bodily eyes hungering for knowledge and thirsting for value, also helps explain why secular science and philosophy remains forever restless; like a fleet of ships attempting to navigate the ocean during a long eclipse, which due to clouds, is only able to catch fleeting glances of the stars. Without a stable pattern in the sky – encompassing all theories and paradigms – the points along the axiological and ontological axes of reason are prone to perpetual reshuffling, subjects of perpetual doubt. The true Christian – including the Christian cyclops – is, however, free to walk across the stormy seas of scientific revolution with perfect calm, sleeping like an innocent child during the most violent of philosophic tempests, being suspended by an anchor fixed in the transcendent.
Then there are, once again, those other, wayward cyclopes, so conspicuous in our own time. This creature is equally committed to the belief that their pattern is the One True Logos behind it all, just as they are equally ignorant of, or indifferent to, contemporary or mainstream science and philosophy. The difference is that these cyclopes are wrong. Their pattern is a false pattern, rendering their vision woefully distorted. It also means that their minds are perilously unmoored, casting their oscillating eye adrift in the skies above them, where it becomes perpetually distracted by flight patterns, chemtrails, 5G masts, and UFOs. Their false pattern manifests itself everywhere the cyclops looks and serves as the explanation of everything the cyclops sees. Such fallen cyclopes frequently end up looking like the brute Polyphemus (see figure 4): living in caves, under rocks, on the margins, lawless, distrustful, unsociable; seekers of self-sufficiency.
The very name ‘Polyphemus’ is congruent with this reading, meaning as it does, one who “abounds in songs and legends”. For the fallen cyclops is, despite, or perhaps rather owing to, his seclusion, a creature full, even to the point of drunkenness, with vague rumors, dubious anecdotes, and fantastical stories. He can explain everything, especially the inexplicable. He can make sense of anything, especially the senseless. He can believe anyone, especially the unbelievable. Wrapped in splendid isolation, he alone perceives the truth behind it all, having unclothed the nakedness of God himself. Everyone else, with their mere two eyes, is blind.
Does this description begin to sound familiar? Hopefully, names like Alex Jones, Nostradamus, Anders Breivik, Karl Marx, and ISIS, have fluttered through the reader’s mind throughout reading this piece. The image of the cyclops may thus serve as something of a warning to anyone aspiring to cultivate their symbolic intuition; to those striving hard to open their third eye. The cyclops provides an eerie illustration of what can happen when this eye is opened too hastily and without the proper guidance. Straining to open wide their third eye, to the point where this becomes entirely round (that is, cyclopean), some unfortunate seekers end up losing their native, dual, perspectival vision. Their normal eyesight becomes shriveled, and their eye-sockets fall in, making them brutes, charlatans, barbarians, and monsters.
I met with a mild (and I mean very mild compared to the list of names above) version of such a person the other day, whose symbolic intuition at first struck me as remarkably astute. She was an elderly lady who spoke insightfully about the problems with facemasks, lockdowns, and vaccines, in terms that made me question whether she had ever been schooled in symbolic thinking. After paying her this compliment, she soon summoned the courage to confess to me – in a suddenly hushed voice – that she was secretly communicating with aliens, trying hard to attune her inner frequencies so as to pick up the faint signals of some spiritual beacon located in some distant galaxy, being herself the disciple of some new-age yogi – the reincarnation of an ancient prophet. She gave me a pamphlet and offered to lend me some DVDs. I did not have the guts to tell this otherwise charming lady that I was a Christian, having just been explained, quite matter-of-factly, that “Yeshua ben Yousef” was merely one in a series of extraterrestrial envoys, like Buddha before him and Muhammad after. I did not wish to start what I knew would be a painful argument, knowing full well that this would involve revealing my identity, choosing instead to remain, in the sight of the lady, a harmless “Nobody”.8 I had, after all, just minutes earlier, been reminded about what happens when some clever stranger points out (quite literally) the beam in his neighbor’s eye.
This last point strikes me as important. By attacking a cyclops’ eye, you treat them as a freak, provoking them to either fight or flight. By blinding them, you make them frenzied and unpredictable, hurling rough boulders (literal or argumentative) at your rebukes. Better then, to focus on softening their ossified eyelids. In symbolic language, this means kneeling down, spitting on the ground between them and you, massaging the clay in your hands, applying it carefully to their skin, thus making them come back in touch with the world – its solid and liquid aspects, not just its immaterial. Neither Man nor Cyclops can live by the words of God alone, needing both bread and water to survive. Ideally, we humans are three-eyed creatures, capable of opening and closing each window of the soul depending on what wonder stands before us.
Let me now attempt to compare the kind of “second fall” into Hades described above, with the original fall into Earth. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked with God. Their minds were attuned to His mind, their ears open to His words, their mouths voiced His will. Their vision was unadulterated and their souls capable of sustaining themselves on the word of God alone. Having not yet tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge, their works were wholly spiritual. What then happened when they tasted the fruit? – Their eyes were opened.
In other words, Adam and Eve went from enjoying perpetual Beatific vision – which is to say, perfect third-eye vision, directed perpetually heavenward, while their bodily eyes remained mercifully veiled, as if in a state of blissful sleep – to having that veil abruptly cut open, flooding their heads with visions that did not shine down from heaven, but rather bubbled up from the waters below. Prior to this, they had been able to walk around the garden with their bodily eyes shut, guided by a flawless inner compass, forever pointing them towards true north. Suddenly, the needle of that inner compass was set frantically spinning. Unlike before, they now had to look before they walked and think before they spoke. Sure enough, they had become like gods, aware of the lower rungs on the great ladder of being, not just the higher. They knew potentiality, not just actuality; matter, not just form; and death, and not just life. Only they were not gods, and therefore divine knowledge overwhelmed them. Unaccustomed to 3D vision, as it were, their former, spiritual vision became diluted, their third eye slipping ever deeper into their foreheads, behind an ever more doubtful, ever more thickening skull. The previously uniform attention of our primordial parents had become abruptly divided into three, making their minds reel in consequence. All too suddenly, they had become mindful not just of the recipe (i.e., the uniting pattern) of reality – which automatically made all of being appear in its proper order – but also of reality’s concrete ingredients (i.e., its infinite list of facts), as well as the relative quality of the ingredients and of their manner of admixing (i.e., its infinite spectrum of value). Presently, the right eye, Adam, looked at the left eye, Eve, and the left eye looked back at the right, and they immediately sensed their nakedness, in the eyes of the other, and in the eyes of God. And so they hid from God, and from each other. Thus the union of Man and his Creator had become severed. Cast off from the triune One, Mankind fell into the duad of disjointed multiplicity.
Already in the next generation, this duad becomes internally hostile, since the left eye: the nomadic, shepherding Abel, walks in accordance with the pattern, while the right eye: the earthbound farmer Cain, ancestor of city-builders and scientists, fails to do so. The right eye then plucks out the left eye, inadvertently blinding himself in the process (for Abel is also the left eye of Cain), making Cain a roaming one-eyed monster, one who came to God too late. For truly, there is a sense in which Cain does in the end return to God, or at least ceases to resist him, ultimately submitting to the pattern of reality, which he, from his limited point of view, had formerly deemed unjust. Only by that point, both Cain and the world have already become gravely disfigured. Seth, the third son, then becomes the promise of mankind’s redeemed vision, the path towards bringing all three brothers back into a single body, gathering each of their ultimately wide-open eyes into a single incarnated godhead.
The fall of Adam and Eve, which is the fall of all humanity, was the diminution of Man’s innate heavenly vision, in exchange for questioning, hypothetical, fallible, and double-minded human sight. In that condition we stumbled, in and out of Egypt, up and down the mountain, in and out of the flood, fumbling all the while like Stygian witches in search of our lost view of the true way. Some saw better than others and sensing the gravity of God’s will, served to reset the needle of our broken compass. They caught glimpses of God’s plan and prophesied about the man who would restore proper vision to the world. Indeed, the life of Christ is the remedy for Man’s self-inflicted blindness; the ointment to be rubbed into our foreheads until we become capable of seeing the world straight again; the icon onto which we must fasten our gaze until we become whole, having soaked in the true pattern of reality; having become, by a round-about way, three-eyed creatures.
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- Hesiod. Theogony and Works and Days, page. 7, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
- See for instance: Virgil. The Aeneid. Book III
- Homer. The Odyssey, Book IX
- See for instance: Plato. Theaetetus, 174a
- Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
- Dreher, Rod. Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Sentinel, 2020.
- See Homer. The Odyssey. Book IX.