Are cyclopes really big, half-witted, man-eating monsters, or more like us than we know?

The topic for the fourth episode of Mythical Beasts, airing tomorrow night on Science Channel, is the giant and terrifying cyclops. Cyclopes are massive humanoid creatures that are most well-known for having a single eye, but are also feared for their superhuman strength and taste for human flesh.

The earliest known text mentioning a cyclops is The Odyssey, the second of two epic Grecian poems attributed to Homer. Though there is a headnod to Irish and Scottish folklore, this episode mostly covers the Greek mythology.

Fossils and fortresses

The show opens at a dig site looking for fossils as a biological component for this excessively large myth. Paleontologist Gregorios Theodorou presents the idea that prehistoric bones of rhinos and giraffes found near Pikermi could have confused the ancient Greeks.

Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg examines the skull of an elephant that is similar to the dwarf elephant that would have existed near Pakermi. It’s kind of a startling image at first, but she points out that the “eye socket” is actually where a nasal opening is for the elephant’s trunk, and the eyes are much further to the side.

Screencap: Cyclops “eye socket” is really the skull of an elephant

Archeologist Christofilis Maggidis explores the massive stone walls, known as cyclopean walls, of an ancient fortress at Mycenea, each stone of which weighs up to 20 tons. It’s still unknown how exactly the wall was constructed, but legend has it that it was built by a group of giant cyclopes.

Mathematician Katie Steckles helps provide Mythical Beasts with an idea of how large these monsters must have been by looking to a modern day strongman. She estimates a cyclops would have to be 66 feet tall, as big as a seven story building, in order to lift the stones at Mycenea.

Actual giants do walk among us, says endocrinologist Marta Korbonits. Charles Byrne was an Irishman that grew to be 7 7″ tall, due to a genetic growth disorder called acromegaly. He died at only 22 years of age in 1783. Dr. Korbonits compares the DNA of a family recently referred for gigantism to that of Charles Byrne, finding the family and 18 others are actually related to Byrne through a common ancestor from about 60 generations back. It’s her belief that cyclops myths are likely based on actual people with gigantism.

More than meets the eye

Cyclopes were thought to be human-eating cave dwellers, something they have in common with our close cousins. Tools recovered from Kent’s Cavern, England, show Neanderthals were present from 90,000 years ago until they went extinct about 40,000 years ago, and scratches discovered on the tools are consistent with cannibalistic flesh harvesting.

Frederick Coolidge, a psychologist from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, holds a replica mandible fragment found in the caves, which he uses as evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted for about 5,000 years. He suggests the myths of the cyclops might have been used to prevent Homo sapiens children from wandering near the caves and being eaten.

Screencap: Quick snack

The most unique perspective is from the story of Hephaestus, the God of the Forge, which proliferated as the Iron Age was being ushered in near 1100 BCE, around the time blacksmithing appeared as a new, dangerous and dirty job. His blacksmiths were three cyclopes, and it was they who created the weapons of the gods.

Archeologist Joanna Palermo says ancient blacksmiths would have worn a patch over one eye, for protection from shavings and sparks. This would have given them the appearance of a cyclops and may have been the actual basis for the myth.

Historian Brian Regal also points out that iron-working would have been a completely new and unseen phenomenon at the time. The technique of taking a rock of iron ore and turning it into a fear inspiring weapon would have seemed magical, but also quite secretive, he says. A mythical creature like a cyclops could have been a good device to explain what was going on to those who couldn’t or didn’t need to understand.

The ending sentiment is that the cyclops is always portrayed as a dumb, ugly barbarian of a beast, because the ancient Greeks wanted to push an agenda of education and sophistication. The later Greeks enjoyed refinement and aesthetics, and used myths to convey messages about society. Cyclopes represented the old ways of crudeness and brute force, and were seemingly just part of a narrative to promote progress towards beauty and intellect.

Doing the time warp again

One of the biggest concerns with this episode of Mythical Beasts is the lack of dates presented. There is no timeframe given for Homer’s writings, though we know they were written around the 8th century BCE. They were passed down orally for years before that, possibly centuries.

The Iliad and The Odyssey tell stories from the time of the Myceneans, whose heyday was from about 1600 to 1150 BCE, but Mycenea was consistently occupied since the Neolithic Age. These texts are used as foundations of the show, and it’s important to provide a historical context.

Screencap: Present day archeological site at Mycenae

The caves in England are about 1,600 miles away from Mycenea, but remains of Neanderthals have been found in Greece. Besides the fact that Neanderthals were not known for working metals, being extremely tall, or having a single eye.

Furthermore, since Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago, knowledge of them would’ve had to survive another 30,000+ years of oral history. It could be possible, but seems a bit of a stretch.

It’s mentioned the Aegean Sea used to be a lush region full of rhinos and giraffes, but Mythical Beasts doesn’t provide any reference for the age of the fossils found at the dig site. Geomorphological studies suggest the Aegean Sea began to rise after the last Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago, and we know the last of the dwarf elephants on Tilos Island (about 270 miles as the crow flies from Mycenae) died out around 4000 BCE.

If Mycenea had been occupied since the Stone Age, and Athens as far back as the 11th century BCE, it seems that fossils shouldn’t have dumbfounded them. Some of the large animals would have been seen by the people that settled in the area. If we’re to believe that stories of Neanderthals can remain after 30,000+ years, why would finding elephant skulls have been so confusing after only 2,000?

Screencap: Cyclops CGI

Acromegaly may explain gigantism, but it should be noted there are cases of actual cyclopia. White hellebore (known as corn lily in the U.S.) was used medicinally for many years, but it can cause fatal holoprosencephaly in a fetus if ingested by a pregnant woman or animal, or produce an offspring with cyclopia.

Even the great Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (460 BCE-370 BCE) suggests the use of “hellebore” as a laxative and diuretic. It could be possible this toxic plant had been around for ages before Hippocrates used it and actual cases of cyclopia may have incited fear and reinforced the mythology among ancient Greeks.

This episode was quite entertaining, although their conclusions could have included additional writings about Polyphemus, the cyclops from The Odyssey, that have him as part of a love story, which could have helped promote their narrative of cultural growth. There is a bit of CGI where a cyclops swallows a guy like a spaghetti noodle that makes me laugh every single time I watch it. Mythical Beasts didn’t quite nail the impact the creature had on the people of Greece, but the conclusions using a myth to progress humanity and culture really tied everything together well.

The cyclops episode of Mythical Beasts airs November 4th at 10:00 eastern time on the Science Channel.