The question often comes up among religious people, “What is the truth of my religious beliefs?” This question comes up because of reasons like how to interpret the Book of Genesis in light of evolution and biblical criticism, and whether their faith’s philosophical precepts, (the immortality of the soul; the afterlife; the moral teachings of their creed), are valid in the light of a changing body of knowledge. I don’t plan to give a complete answer here (is a complete answer possible?) but I want to mention what for me is a partial answer.
Archeologists found an ancient Greek Temple, and in it they found, waiting to be worshipped, a wooly mammoth scull. Now, wooly mammoths had no bone between their eyes. So it is the scientists conjectured that the Greeks–who never saw the beast who left the scull–got the idea of the Cyclops from this head. Now all of this does make the idea of Cyclops existing (if there was any doubt) extremely unlikely. However, the story in the Odyssey in which Polyphemus (the most famous Cyclops) appears, has another level of meaning. In the ancient world, hospitality was a very important virtue. And the deeds of Polyphemus in the story were anything but hospitable. Because of his crude lack of this virtue, his “guests” are nearly killed. And this is one truth that continues to resonate: that hospitality towards people from afar is a cardinal virtue. I remember in college I met a Japanese woman, and I am ashamed to say that people went to no trouble to reach out to her in my school. Yet because I spoke a few words of Japanese and she was in my math class, we were friends. In retrospect, I wish I had thrown her the going away party I wanted to, or kept in touch, but at least I did not simply ignore her while she was there.
However, there is another level of meaning. Odysseus tricks Polyphemus by calling himself, “No one,” and therefore manages to get out of Polyphemus’ cave. However, while he leaves he said, “I am Odysseus!” I in Greek being “Ego.” This is a profound display of egotism, and it costs him seven years abroad a way from home. Hence, allowing one’s Ego to overpower one can lead to evil consequences.
These lessons are far more important than whether the Cyclops could ever have existed. Some other time I will discuss the theology of the Hebrew Bible. However, for now I will say that mythology has hidden meanings that go beyond the wonderful creatures which however imaginative fail to exist in the real world. Perhaps the ability to express the human imaginative faculties alone is the true value of the Iliad and Odyssey.