The Blinding of Polyphemus

Polyphemos Painter

The Polyphemos Painter (or Polyphemus Painter) was a high Proto-Attic vase painter, active in Athens or on Aegina. He is considered an innovator in Attic art, since he introduced several mythological themes. His works are dated to between 670 and 650 BC. It is likely that he was not only a vase painter, but also the potter of the vessels bearing his works.

The Polyphemus Painter was probably a pupil of the Mesogeia Painter. His conventional name refers to his name vase, a neck amphora found at Eleusis, which had served as the funerary vase for a child. It is sometimes known as the Eleusis Amphora. The painting on the neck, depicting the blinding of Polyphemus, and that on the belly, showing Perseus and the gorgons, belong to the earliest identifiable depictions of scenes from Greek mythology. The Antikensammlung at Berlin once contained a clay stand, lost during World War II, known as the Menelas Stand, by the Polyphemus Painter. It depicts a group of men holding spears. The word Menelas, the Doric dialect form of Menelaus, is written next to one of the figures, forming the oldest known inscription in Attic art. The Doric dialect is unusual in Attica, but spoken on Aegina. Since all figures wear identical clothing, they may represent a chorus. Thus, it has been hypothesised [1] that the inscription could also act as a kind of "speech bubble", as the lines of a chorus – in Greek drama, the chorus conventionally spoke Doric. However, this interpretation has been accepted by some and contested by other scholars, leaving it uncertain.

Before the identity of the painters of the Berlin and Eleusis pieces had been established, the Menelas Stand was sometimes ascribed to a hypothetical Menelas Painter.

An amphora from Eleusis

The picture that serves as this article’s featured image is a detail from the neck of a Proto-Attic amphora, found at Eleusis (near Athens). The amphora dates to ca. 660 BC and it features early Greek art that clearly show scenes familiar from Greek mythology:

/>The Eleusis Amphora, dated to ca. 660 BC, stands 1.42m tall. Normally, an amphora like this would have been used as a grave marker. In this case, however, it had served as the funerary vase for a child. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis.

The scene on the shoulder depicts a lion confronting a boar. The belly of the amphora depicts another scene from mythology: a decapitated Gorgon (Medusa) sort of floats behind her two sisters, who are pursuing a male figure (undoubtedly Perseus): a female figure, no doubt Athena, occupies the space between the Gorgons and Perseus.

But it’s the scene on the neck that interests us here. It depicts the blinding of the cyclops Polyphemus. This episode is known today from Homer’s Odyssey, even though the painter may well have been familiar with a version of the tale as told by local bards.

In this scene, three men are shown driving a stake into the eye of a sleeping giant. Two of the men have bodies that are painted black. But the foremost of the three has a white body. In art, such distinctions in colour can be used to indicate that a particular figure is somehow distinct from the others. In this particular case, we have almost certainly to identify this man as Odysseus himself.

Gargantuan: The Presence of Giants in Art History

Throughout the course of narrative history, tales of giants have been a ubiquitous source of spectacle and fantasy. Mostly human in appearance, but characteristically immense in size, the giant is typically regarded as uncivilized, unintelligent, and often brutally violent in their nature, a conception likely borne from the ancient Greek legends of giants as human-eaters. Other classic stories depict a more amicable version of the giant, and upon a critical examination of the giant’s purpose in folklore, many scholars have included Jack and the Beanstalk as an example of a postmodern switch between hero and villain, depending on the perspective through which the narrative is told. When regarding the centuries-old fable, one can easily consider the giant as the story’s maltreated hero. Likewise, many modern authors have depicted giants as peaceful, sophisticated, and often misunderstood, as with Roald Dahl’s (1916-1990) BFG (1982), the story of a child’s encounter and friendship with a friendly giant.

The range of creative interpretations of the giant, from evil or oafish to clever and kindly, extends throughout cultures and across mediums, not only present in myth and folklore, but also in symbolic and narrative visual art. The following three-part series explores the characterization of giants through mythology, allegory, and folklore.

Part I – Greek Mythology and Cyclopes

First attributed to Greek mythology and known for both malevolence and helpfulness towards humans, the cyclops is a one-eyed giant most famous for their appearance in Homer’s (800-701 BCE) Odyssey (c. 700 BCE). Cyclopes can be distinguished in Greek mythology by three categories: Hesiodic, after Hesiod, who wrote of three Cyclopes brothers as responsible for making Zeus’ thunderbolt the Cyclopean Wall builders of Mycenaean architecture, characterized by enormous limestone boulders that supposedly only the massive Cyclops could lift and the Homeric killer Cyclops as portrayed in the Odyssey. The latter is described in “Book 9” of the Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus travels to a distant land in which he encounters a group of one-eyed human-eating giants.

The Forge of the Cyclopes, 16th century print after Titian

Homer’s cyclopes are depicted as troglodytic shepherds, living on undeveloped land and lacking in the virtues and traits of a supposedly civilized culture. When Odysseus sets out to explore the land on which he has arrived, he and twelve of his men enter a cave-dwelling, where they wait before encountering the inhabitant Polyphemus, a giant with a single orb-shaped eye in the centre of his forehead. As he enters his home, Polyphemus rolls a large stone in front of the cave’s entrance, trapping the men inside after Odysseus tries and fails to reason with the giant, Polyphemus proceeds to brutally kill and devour two of the men in front of the rest. As Homer describes, “when the Cyclops had filled his great belly with the human flesh he had devoured, and the raw milk he washed it down with, he laid himself on the cavern floor.”

The Blinding of Polyphemus, Pellegrino Tibaldi, c. 1550-51

Polyphemus, satiated and sleeping on the floor of his cave, underestimates the danger posed by Odysseus, who climbs on top of the giant and blinds him with a sword to the single eye. The high drama and violence of the story’s pivotal event are captured in Pellegrino Tibaldi’s (1549-1596) The Blinding of Polyphemus (c. 1550-51), a strikingly detailed tableau. Though Tibaldi is not among the more celebrated or widely recognized artists of his time, his exceptional command of human anatomy and his invigorating use of colour, as well as the portrayal of depth within the background of the cave, make this painting a remarkable achievement in Renaissance mythology painting.

Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) depicts the events subsequent to the blinding of Polyphemus, when Odysseus must strategize a way to escape the cave, in Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus (1635). Still unable to move the boulder, the resourceful Odysseus instructs his men to cling to the underside of the sheep when Polyphemus lets the sheep out to graze, the men escape, unseen by the blinded Cyclops. Two figures are depicted in this scene as crawling under the sheep, hiding in plain sight as Polyphemus crouches over them.

In the final events of Odysseus’ escape from the Cyclops’ lair, Odysseus and his men board their ship and sail away, taunting Polyphemus, who begins to lift massive boulders from the rocky shores and throw them towards the ship. Though Polyphemus is unsuccessful at sinking the ship, Odysseus in a moment of hubris identifies himself to the giant, an act of pride. As Polyphemus can then identify Odysseus, he can also curse him by name through the powers of his father, Poseidon.

Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) portrayed this scene in Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896), creating tension with the suggestion of imminent danger, as a nearly vertical wave pulls the ship towards the shore, directly into the path of the truly gargantuan Cyclops in mid-swing of a boulder. Guido Reni’s (1575-1642) Polyphemus (1639-1640) depicts a less active version of the scene, in which a blinded Polyphemus gathers a boulder, while in the distance Odysseus’ ship floats away on placid waters. The giant is blinded, has lost control of his captives, and has only his rage to occupy his simple mind, a frustration captured sufficiently in the bewildered expression on the giant’s face. The tragic and somewhat pitiful image of Reni’s Cyclops would later be elaborated on in a hauntingly aberrant depiction of the giant in love.

The Cyclops, Odilon Redon, c. 1898-1914

In stark contrast to the Homeric depictions of Polyphemus, French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1840-1916) portrayed the Cyclops in a style reflective of the artist’s semi-abstracted and dreamlike presentations that are noted as precursors to Surrealism. In Redon’s The Cyclops (c. 1898-1914), Polyphemus is depicted as larger and less human than any of the preceding illustrations. He towers over a mountain, his bulbous head and narrow shoulders making him seem childlike in appearance, while his lack of nose and chin appear amphibian or alien. He gazes lovingly at the sleeping Galatea, a naiad – a water-dwelling nymph – who lounges on a bed of flowers, unaware of the shy giant who watches her. Redon’s signature impasto application of a multitude of jewel tones adds to the eerie sense of the unnatural alongside the subject matter. The range of bright colours is jarringly acidic, while the focus on the eye of the giant, who looks onto an unaware naked woman is made more menacing for the paradoxical innocence of the giant’s smile and a slight tilt of the head, as the giant here symbolizes unrequited love. Redon’s works of dream-world depictions are typified by the psychoanalytic focus on the unexplained, the extraordinary, and the tumult of the human subconscious, all of which are exemplified in his singular depiction of the Cyclops.

In the next installment of the Gargantuan series, the author will examine the giant as an allegory of power in paintings of David and Goliath, and in Goya’s Colossus.

Blinding of Polyphemus and Gorgons or Eleusis Amphora by Menaleus 675-650 B.C.E. 56" tall, Archaeological Museum, Eleusis Greece Orientalizing Period

Form: The ornamentation of this vase is organized into a series of registers or frets of almost equal size and this appears to be fairly common in black figure vases of the Orientalizing period. Each register is devoted to a scene which depicts mythological creatures or people. The ornamentation of the registers contains less geometricized and more naturalistic figures than the earlier geometric period's designs. Overall the design exhibits a similar horror vacui to the vases from Knossos in that every empty space on the vase has been filled with flower like rosettes or lozenge like forms. The figures are stylized curvilinear and cartoon like. The figures of the men in the top register are shown in a modified composite view whereas the Gorgons in the bottom most register are even more abstracted. Click on this link for more detailed views.

Developed initially in Corinth, the black-figure style in which the vase is decorated builds on the technology of earlier styles of decoration. The natural color of the clay is used as the back ground. Engobe is still used to create a silhouettes and touches of red purple gloss are applied here and there but the polychrome of the vase is supplemented by incising details with a sharp awl. This is sometime referred to as scraffito. Which means something along the order of scratched designs which is very similar to its cousin graffiti.

The vase is signed "Menaleus made me."

Iconography: The iconography of the vase deals with mythology and legend and outlines the adventures of two clever Greek heroes: Odysseus and Perseus. The top register depicts a scene out of Homer's "Odyssey" the Blinding of Polyphemus. (see Mencher Liaisons 12-14 (The Blinding of Polythemus). Odysseus or Ulysses, conquers the single eyed inhospitable Cyclops through his intelligence and scheming and therefore secures the release and safe journey of his crew.

The bottom most register depicts the three Gorgon sisters who had snakes for hair and were so hideous that if one looked upon them you would be transformed into stone. Medusa, committed and act of hubris or hybris (an act of disrespect, excessive pride or arrogance) by lying down with Poseiden in Athena's temple. In the tale of Perseus, he encounters the Gorgon Medusa, decapitates her and uses her head to freeze his enemies.

The monsters' physical attributes depicted in these tales summarize their failings. For example, the Cyclops is short of vision and the Gorgons are ugly of spirit and the snakes represent their deceit. The heroes are idealized versions of soldiers. They instruct us to be clever, loyal and be a soldier.

Context: This style represents a formal and iconographic correction of two earlier schemas. The formal correction is that the Corinthian artists who first developed the style took the existing technology and added the engraved scraffito. They also built on the initial designs of the geometric period and combined them with other culture's naturalistic manner of depicting animals and creatures. The subject matter changed from a simple funerary scene to a more decorative motif.

Art historians believe that these vases have an "eastern" or "oriental" or asian kind of feeling. Stokstad states, "the source of these motifs can be traced to the arts of the Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt. The term "orientalized" although an accepted art historical term seems to have a rather Eurocentric meaning. The term seems to lump all the cultures east of Greece in this blanket term and therefore tends to generalize a bit too much.

Often you will see this vase referred to as a Proto-Attic amphora. The term Attic refers to its origins as Athenian. Proto- means early or before. This term is meant to demarcate the difference between vases made in the same orientalizing style in Corinth which are sometimes referred to as Proto-Corinthian .

The status of the artist must have been on the rise in Athens as well because this is one of the first examples of artwork that has been signed.

This is part one of a year-long college-level survey course in art history. This course covers world art history from its prehistoric origins until the European Renaissance around 1300 A.D.

This course is designed as a basic college-level survey of art history. Although lectures are closed-captioned and I provide an online textbook as well as study guides and worksheets.

This course is the actual content of a course I taught at an accredited college in California called Ohlone college.

I designed this course as a series of clear, non-jargon laden video lectures and texts designed to help any student who wants to pass AP art history and or any beginning level art history survey course.

Polyphemus and Galatea

Common depiction of a Cyclops-min

Polyphemus had an intense love for a Nereid (sea nymph) called Galatea, but by all accounts his love was unrequited. Instead, Galatea loved Acis, the son of Faunus and Symathis. Polyphemus’ jealousy is fabled in many ancient Greek stories, perhaps most notably in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Polyphemus’ jealousy eventually led to him killing Acis by launching a boulder at him. Legend has it that the blood that came from Acis as he died led to the formation of the Jaci river in Sicily, Italy.

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The son of Poseidon and Thoosa. Polyphemus was the greatest among the Cyclopes. When Odysseus arrived on Sicily during his voyage, Polyphemus locked him and his companions in a cave and devoured six of them. Odysseus contrived to blind the giant's single eye, and make good his escape with the rest of his men. The maddened Polyphemus called upon them the wrath of his father Poseidon, and Odysseus' further voyage was hampered by storms.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1 Polyphemus falls in love with the Nereid Galatea, but she does not reciprocate. Instead, she chooses the beautiful shepherd Acis, whereupon the jealous Cyclops crushes his rival beneath a rock. In Theocritus 2 he appears as a gentle shepherd in love with Galatea, finding solace in song.


On ancient Greek ceramics, the blinding of Polyphemus was a favorite theme: the Cyclops is a naked, bearded giant with satyr's ears, and a number of men are on the verge of thrusting a sharpened pole into his single eye. Such a scene can be found on a krater by Aristonothus (seventh century BCE Rome). On a Laconian kylix (ca. 550 BCE Paris), Odysseus offers a pitcher of wine to Polyphemus who still holds the limbs of the men he ate in his hand.

His love for Galatea is depicted on several murals, such as at the Casa del Sacerdote Amando at Pompeii. Galatea is seated on a dolphin while Polyphemus, who is represented here as a shepherd, watches her. A fresco at the house of Augustus on the Palatine at Rome (the Casa di Livia) shows Polyphemus standing up to his chest in the water, lovingly gazing at Galatea who is passing-by on a sea horse. Two other nymphs are in attendance and a small Amor is standing on the shoulder of the Cyclops, holding reins which are looped around his neck.

Ulysses blinding Polyphemus: the Odyssey in Sperlonga

Sperlonga, “Ulisse che acceca Polifemo”, Museo archeologico nazionale "grotta di Tiberio" - "Ulysses Blinding Polyphemus", National Archaeological Museum

This grand sculptural group, titled “Ulysses blinding Polyphemus”, was found in 1957 in the grotto of Tiberius’s Villa in Sperlonga and is currently on display at the local Archaeological Museum.

The marble work dates back to the 1st century BC and is attributed to three artists from Rhodes – Agesander, Athenodorus, and Polydorus it represents an episode from Book 9 of Homer’s “Odyssey”, in which Ulysses gives the Cyclops wine to dull his senses, and then blinds him with a pole his men had made red-hot.

Then I thrust the beam of wood far into the embers to heat it, and encouraged my men lest any of them should turn faint-hearted. When the wood, green though it was, was about to blaze, I drew it out of the fire glowing with heat, and my men gathered round me, for heaven had filled their hearts with courage. We drove the sharp end of the beam into the monster’s eye, and bearing upon it with all my weight I kept turning it round and round as though I were boring a hole in a ship’s plank with an auger, which two men with a wheel and strap can keep on turning as long as they choose. Even thus did we bore the red hot beam into his eye, till the boiling blood bubbled all over it as we worked it round and round, so that the steam from the burning eyeball scalded his eyelids and eyebrows, and the roots of the eye sputtered in the fire (Homer, “Odyssey”, translated by Samuel Butler).


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Cyclops, (Greek: “Round Eye”) in Greek legend and literature, any of several one-eyed giants to whom were ascribed a variety of histories and deeds. In Homer the Cyclopes were cannibals, living a rude pastoral life in a distant land (traditionally Sicily), and the Odyssey contains a well-known episode in which Odysseus escapes death by blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus. In Hesiod the Cyclopes were three sons of Uranus and Gaea—Arges, Brontes, and Steropes (Bright, Thunderer, Lightener)—who forged the thunderbolts of Zeus. Later authors made them the workmen of Hephaestus and said that Apollo killed them for making the thunderbolt that slew his son Asclepius.

The Sicilian Greek poet Theocritus wrote two poems circa 275 BC concerning Polyphemus' desire for Galatea, a sea nymph. When Galatea instead married Acis, a Sicilian mortal, a jealous Polyphemus killed him with a boulder. Galatea turned Acis' blood into a river of the same name in Sicily.

The Odyssey

According to Homer's The Odyssey, the Cyclopes live on a remote island, an island which was found by Odysseus and his crew after they escape the Trojan war. The Cyclops Polyphemus was encountered by Odysseus and his crew, and instead of helping them, he ate and killed various members of the crew and trapped the rest in his cave. When Polyphemus slept, Odysseus blinded him with a wood stick in retaliation of what he did.

Polyphemus then called on his immortal father to punish Odysseus, which resulted in the 10-year-long delay he experienced in returning home from Troy.

The epic Roman poet Virgil wrote in book three of The Aeneid how Aeneas and his crew land on the island. Virgil's accounts act as a sequel to Homer's The Odyssey, even descrbing the fate of Polyphemus as a blind cyclops after the escape of Odysseus and his crew.

Watch the video: Blinding of Polyphemus and Escape from the Island - Ulysses Ost 1954 (January 2022).