The legend of the cyclops had various versions, even in antiquity. Homer classified them as giant wild beings dedicated to sheep farming, and Hesiod identified them as the Titans, sons of Uranus and Gaea. The most common tradition considers the cyclops to be giants, Vulcan’s assistants in the forges beneath Etna. All the variations share the notion of a single eye on the forehead, sometimes as a third eye.
The term cyclops means “round eye”, possibly related to an ancient band of blacksmiths who were tattooed with a distinctive circle on their forehead, in honour of the sun, their source of heat. In some narratives the juxtaposition with blacksmiths returns, as they would cover one eye with a bandage, and the cyclops were sometimes described as monocular.
Recent palaeontological studies have connected the myth of the cyclops to the remains of dwarf elephants in Sicilian territory, on Mount Etna. The findings showed skulls larger than human skulls, with a hole in the centre, corresponding to where the proboscis joined, which might have given the suggestion of an eye socket for a single eye.
Travellers who found these skulls in ancient times passed on and spread fantastic stories, hypothesising about the skull remains of monocular giants.
The representation of Polyphemus in the mosaics of the Villa del Casale is different, for the depiction of the cyclops with three eyes, the third in the middle of the forehead.
The composition of the scene, in which the edge of Polyphemus’ cave appears as raised drapery, led to suggestions that the illustration depicts a theatrical representation, with the actor impersonating Polyphemus portrayed with a fake third eye, placed on his forehead.