Oct 23, 2022 I Bibhu Dev Misra

The Incredible Giants of Ancient Sicily: Was Homer Right about the Cyclopes?

The history of Sicily has always been entwined with the legends of the giants who were the earliest inhabitants of the island. The deeply rooted cultural belief in giants is borne out in a vibrant manner in the procession called “Passeggiata dei giganti”, which literally means, “The Walk of the Giants”. This festival is celebrated in the city of Messina every year on 14th August, in memory of two giants called Mata and Grifone. Two tall wooden statues, over 26 feet high, representing Mata, a beautiful golden-haired white woman, and Grifone, a giant, dark-skinned, Saracen warrior, are pulled through the streets on wheels, accompanied by musicians and the incessant beating of drums.

Wooden statues of Mata and Grifone, Messina, Italy. Credit: Jacopo Werther CC BY-SA 4.0

There are differing opinions about the origins of the festival. The most widely known version takes us back in time to 964 CE, when Messina was the last outpost in Sicily to resist Arab occupation. During the siege of Messina, the giant Arab general, Hassan Ibn-Hammar, fell hopelessly in love with Mata, the daughter of a local merchant. The Arab general tried his best to woo Mata but she would not consent to marriage until he converted to Christianity. He changed his name to Grifo, and soon became known as Grifone (meaning, “the Big Grifo”) for obvious reasons. Mata and Grifone presumably had many giant kids and lived happily ever after.

As romantic as this story sounds, it was likely made up in a later period to promote communal harmony, and throw in a dash of giant romance to pep up the festivities. Many people believe that the two giants paraded through the city were actually the true founders of Messina. A story doing the rounds a couple of hundred years ago went quite differently: “Two gigantic figures are annually paraded through the streets of Messina, representing, as they say, Malthea and Banxone, husband and wife, who formerly exerted their tyranny over the inhabitants.”[1] A tyrannical giant couple – that sounds more realistic! Reminds me of a few political figures of today.

From at least the 5th century BCE, the Greek poets believed that the ancient inhabitants of Sicily were the one-eyed, lawless, giants called Cyclopes. In the Odyssey, Homer wrote that the Cyclopes lived in caves and led a pastoral life, not planting anything with their hands, and slaughtening any visitors to their island. One of the giants called Polyphemus - the biggest of them - managed to capture Odysseus and his companions, and kept them inside his cave, with the intention of devouring a couple of them each day. But Odysseus blinded Polyphemus at night when he was sleeping, and escaped from captivity. 

A first century CE head of a Cyclops, part of the sculptures adorning the Roman Colosseum. Credit: Steven Lek CC BY-SA 4.0
Shiva with a third eye, Cambodia, 9th - 10th century CE, sandstone. Guimet Museum, Paris. Public Domain

Now, I don’t think that the Cyclopes really had only one eye, not only because that would be extremely bizarre for a biped, but also because we don’t find one-eyed giants in the legends of any other culture. It is possible that the Phoenician sailors, whose mythologies had deeply influenced the early Greek poets, spun a yarn about one-eyed giants. It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for those wily sailors do so. Or perhaps, the Cyclopes used to paint a prominent “third eye” on their forehead. The third eye is said to provide a mystical awareness of things beyond ordinary sight. Hindu gods, such as Lord Shiva, are generally depicted with a prominent third eye, while many Hindu priests paint a “tilak” i.e. an elongated mark on their forehead, symbolizing the third eye. It may not have been very unlikely for the Cyclopes to have followed a similar custom. Or perhaps, the Cyclopes actually had a well-functioning third eye, in addition to the normal eyes, which is not impossible since the Cyclopes were of divine origin, being the children of Poseidon, the sea-god.

A first century CE, Roman-era depiction of the “blinding of Polyphemus” depicts the Greek heroes as virtually liliputs, in comparison to Polyphemus. According to Philostratus, the Greeks envisaged their heroes as being 15 feet tall.[2] Using that yardstick, the Cyclops Polyphemus appears to be more than 30 feet tall! Could the Cyclopes – or, more generally, the Earth giants or titans – have really reached such colossal heights? Hold on to that thought, for we shall come back to it later.

The blinding of Polyphemus, a reconstruction from the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, Italy, 1st century CE. Credit: Steveilott CC BY 2.0

Hesiod wrote that, the Cyclopes were skilled craftsmen who had forged the thunderbolt of Zeus,[3] while later Hellenistic poets made them the workmen of the smith-god Hephaestus, toiling at his side in a huge forge under Mount Etna or elsewhere.[4] It appears from such descriptions that the Cyclopes were actually giant “blacksmiths” who inhabited the caves of ancient Sicily, although their real home, as per the 1st century BCE Latin poet Virgil, was in enormous caverns located underneath Mount Etna and the Aeolian islands.[5] In other words, the Cyclopes, or the Earth giants, emerged from deep, subterranean caverns, and used mountain caves only as temporary shelters when they were overland.

Hephaestus and the Cyclopes forging the shield of Achilles, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome, Italy. Source: Musei Capitolini, Public Domain

The Cyclopes had also earned a reputation as great builders. The walls of many ancient cities of Greece and Italy – such as Mycenae, Tiryns, Delphi, Argos etc. - were built using huge, irregular and sometimes polygonal stone blocks, which were were fitted together without any mortar. These walls are referred to as “Cyclopian Walls”, since a number of Greek historians stated that they were built by the Cyclopes. Pliny's Natural History reported a tradition attributed to Aristotle, that the Cyclopes were the inventors of masonry towers.[6] Pausanius, in Descriptions of Greece, attributed the construction of the city walls of Mycenae and Tiryns to the Cyclopes: “There still remain, however, parts of the city wall [of Mycenae], including the gate, upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns.”[7]

Polygonal masonry in the West Walls of Tiryns, Italy. Credit: Zde CC BY-SA 4.0
Polygonal masonry in Delphi, Greece. Credit: Zde CC BY-SA 4.0

There is ample evidence of irregular or “polygonal masonry” all over the world, with some of the most stunning examples being from Sacsayhuaman and other sites in Peru, where ridiculously large, polygonal stone blocks were lifted several feet off the ground and practically fused with the adjacent stone blocks without any mortar, as if they were melted prior to being pressed together. Now, if the Cyclopes were blacksmiths – as some of the Hellenestic authors have claimed - then they would have been very skillful at the art of heating metals until they became soft enough to work on; and this skill could have been applied to stone masonry as well. This tells us that the polygonal masonry found all over the world were possibly the “invention” of prehistoric giants who were expert blacksmiths. This technique was copied by the subsequent civilizations of those regions - with far less success, one must add.

Polygonal masonry at Sacsayhuaman, Peru, Credit: PIERRE ANDRE LECLERCQ CC BY-SA 4.0
Polygonal masonry at Sacsayhuaman, Peru. Credit: CEllen CC BY-SA 4.0

There are some man-made caves in Sicily which are so enormous that there is no simple explanation for who built them and for what purpose. The so-called “Ear of Dionysus” is a man-made limestone cave in Syracuse, Sicily, that has the shape of an ear.[8] It is 23 metres high (76  feet) and extends 65 metres back into the cliff. Horizontally, it bends in an approximate “S” shape, while vertically it tapers at the top like a teardrop. The acoustics inside the cave is very good, making even a small sound echo multiple times. The name “Ear of Dionysus” was coined by the painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio, because of the resemblance of the shape of the cave to the human ear. One wonders why any culture would expend enormous effort to build such a high cave, for no apparent purpose. Could this have been one of the temporary shelters of the Cyclopes when they emerged from their subterranean lairs which were supposedly located below Mount Etna and elsewhere? 

Another cave of  gigantic dimensions in Sicily is the Gurfa cave which was dug out at a very remote period - some think during the 5th millenium BCE (Click here for image) The Gurfa caves has a number of rooms carved out at two levels: the first floor and the upper floor.[9] At the center is an enormous oval room which connects everything. It has a 16-meter high dome, and is illuminated by an oculus above and a window to the southwest. It’s obvious that a rock-cut cave with a 16 meters (53 feet) high ceiling requires an absurd amount of labour. Were enormous caves with abnormally high ceilings such as these, carved out by human hands, or were they the work of prehistoric giants who used them as places of gathering and communal rites?

Some of the most compelling evidence about the existence of giant skeletons in Sicily was documented by none other than Tommaso Fazello - the father of Sicilian history – who had written the first printed history of Sicily: De Rebus Siculis Decades Duae, published in Palermo in 1558, in Latin. Fazello was an Italian Dominican friar and historian, and over many years, he had painstakingly rediscovered many of the ancient sites of Sicily – such as Akrai, Selinus, Heraclea Minoa and others – on the basis of the information recorded by ancient authors.

Since Fazello’s work was in Latin, we can read about some of his accounts of giants from the works of others who have referred to his book. David Watson wrote in his book, A clear and compendious history of the gods and goddesses (1753), that,

“Fazellus, the best modern historian for Sicily, relates surprising stories upon this subject. He tells us one particular fact wherein Boccace, in his Genealogy of the Gods, agrees with him, that, about 200 years before his time, there was discovered in Mount Eryx a cave, wherein was found the dead body of a giant sitting with a staff in his hand like the mast of a ship; and that the whole smouldered into ashes as soon as it was touched, save three teeth, which were kept by the magistrate of the city of Eryx, who had been called to the spectacle; with a part of the skull which contained four bushels of Sicilian measure. Fazellus reckons it was the body of Eryx who was slain by Hercules.”[10]

Similar accounts of giant skeletons crumbling to dust have been related by many other medieval writers. This can happen when a poorly mummified body is suddenly exposed to moisture and sunlight. In this case, unfortunately, we do not have a specific measurement of the size of the giant, possibly because the body had crumbled before measurements could be taken. Some of the other descriptions left behind by Fazellus are more helpful in this regard. R. S. Kirby wrote in his book titled Wonderful and Scientific Museum (1804) that,

“The same writer (Fazellus) tells us that, in 1516 John Franciforte, Count of Mazarine, having caused a pit to be dug, in a plain about a mile distant from the village of which he was the lord, found in a sepulchre, the body of a giant measuring thirty feet. 
In 1547, Paul Leontino, examining the soil at the foot of a mountain in the territory of Palermo, preparatory to the erection of saltpetre works, met with the body a of giant twenty-seven feet in length. 
Fazellus likewise says, that in a small village between Syracuse and Leontium, a great number of sepulchres and gigantic skeletons were discovered, and that many more of the like kind were met with near the ancient village of Hicara, which the Sicilians call Carini, in an immense cavern situated at the foot of a mountain.”[11]

It is fascinating – and somewhat unbelievable – to read about the discoveries of giant skeletons that measure a phenomenal 30 feet or 27 feet in length. Is it even possible for giants of that size to have existed in the past? Some more evidence along these lines were recorded by the French naturalist, mathematician and cosmologist, Count de Buffon, in his book, “Natural history: general and particular”(1780-85). Count de Buffon’s book was written in French, which has been translated into English and made available online by the University of Michigan. He wrote:

“In a Memoir of M. le Cat, an Academician of Rouen, we have an enumeration of several giants of enormous magnitude…another of 30 feet was found in Sicily near Palermo, in the year 1548; another of 33 feet was likewise found in Sicily in the year 1550; and another was also found in Sicily, near Mazarino, which was thirty feet long. 

In the Journal Littéraire of Abbé Nazari, we are told, that, in High Calabria (the southernmost tip of Italy, which is separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina), in the month of July 1665, there was dug out of the gardens of Signior de Tiviolo, a skeleton of 18 Roman feet long; that the head was 2½ feet; that each grinder weighed about an ounce and a third, and the other teeth three quarters of an ounce; and that this skeleton was bedded in a mass of bitumen.” [12]

These accounts are aligned with similar findings of giant skeletons reported by a number of Greco-Roman historians, as I have mentioned in an earlier article. Philostratus wrote of a giant skeleton that was 33 feet long, and lay on an outcropping of the promontory in Sigeion.[12] Phlegon of Tralles wrote of two giant skeletons that were found inside their coffins by the Carthagians, one of which was 34.5 feet in length, and the other 36 feet.[13] Surely all of these ancient writers could not have been mistaken or making things up?

We have noted that the 1st century Roman carving of the “blinding of Polyphemus” depicts the Cyclops as a monster who is at least 30 feet tall. And then there are these colossal rock-cut caves in Sicily, where the ceilings reach anywhere between 53 feet to 76 feet – which could have served as the temporary habitats of these cave-dwelling giants. Unfortunately, however, there are no surviving skeletal remains of the giants reported by Fazellus, or the other Greco-Roman historians. Which means the proverbial smoking gun is missing, and the high-fives have to be put off for another day. 

Some archaeologists claim that Fazellus probably mistook the bones of extinct Pleistocene animals such as mammoths for those of the legendary giants - which is quite absurd because Sicily has always been inhabited by “dwarf elephants”. There were two species of dwarf elephants in Sicily, both of which descended from the gargantuan, straight-tusked elephants of the Pleistocene era, towering more than 15 feet high, which migrated into Sicily more than 500,000 years ago. The smaller species of dwarf elephants, called Palaeoloxodon falconeri, measured only 3 ft 2.0 in (male) in shoulder height, while the larger specimen called Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis had an estimated average shoulder height of about 1.8 metres i.e. 5.9 ft. Both species of dwarf elephants are now extinct in Sicily. Obviously, Lazellus, or anyone else for that matter, could not have confused the bones of a 3-feet or 6-feet tall elephant with that of a 30-feet tall giant. 

Size comparison of Palaeoloxodon falconeri with a human. Credit: SlvrHwk CC BY-SA 4.0

Even though skeletal remains of 30-feet tall giants have not been recovered in the modern era from Sicily or the Greco-Roman world, one such skeleton turned up far away from the Mediterranean region, in India, in the year 1934. The news of this discovery was published in multiple newspapers across the world. One of them was The Argus (Melbourne), which stated:

“Calcutta. Aug. 9: The discovery of a skeleton believed to be that of a prehistoric giant ape, measuring 31,1/2 feet in length, is reported from Jubbulpore, in the Central Provinces, India. The skeleton was found by a farmer, who noticed a bone protruding from the sand on the river-bank, near the village of Jaintiha, on the Daiyha Estate. 
Attempts to dislodge the skeleton with the aid of other villagers failed, whereupon the chief of the State had the skeleton dug out. Three men were required to lift it, the legs along measuting 10 ft. The skeleton has been placed in the palace of the chief at Ramgarh pending an examination by geologists, among whom the discovery has created enormous interest. 
Jubbulpore district is known for the wealth of fossilised relics of an earlier age. The last important discovery was made three years ago, when the remains of a giant prehistoric mammal were found.”[15]

This find is extremely significant, for the length of the skeleton at 31.5 feet, is closely aligned with those reported by Fazellus, the Count de Buffon and the Greco-Roman historians. The report describes the skeleton as that of an “ape”, which is hardly surprising, for the Earth giants or titans were quite likely to have resembled apes, going by the fact that most modern-day sightings of giant humanoids such as the Yeti or Bigfoot – which are presumably shrunken versions of the earlier monsters –  describe them as ape-like, hairy, wild beings with a conical head. Unfortunately, however, we did not hear anything further about this particular skeleton found in India, after the geologists got their hands on it. Surely, a discovery of such enormous proportions should have received widespread coverage in the media over the next few years? Instead, the skeleton appears to have been whisked away to some unknown location, and all we got was a deafening silence until the matter was completely forgotten.

This raises the suspicion that, at least some portions of the skeletal remains reported by Fazellus, the Count de Buffon and the Greek historians, may have also been found in the modern era, and then carefully hidden away from the public eye in the underground vaults of museums, or, perhaps, even worse, ended up in private collections. Should the next phase of archaeological explorations be carried out in these secret underground lockers?


[1] The Wonders of the Universe Or Curiosities of Nature and Art, J. & B. Williams, 1836, p 381
[2] Philostratus, On Heroes 7.9
[3] Hesiod, Theogony 139–146
[4] Robin Hard, H. J. Rose, "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology", Psychology Press, 2004, p 66, https://books.google.co.in/books?id=r1Y3xZWVlnIC&pg=PA66&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false 
[5] Virgil, Aeneid 8.416–422
[6] Pliny, Natural History 7.56.195
[7] Pausanius, Descriptions of Greece 2.16.5
[8] "Ear of Dionysius", Wikipedia
[9] “Gurfa Caves”, https://www.mammasicily.com/sites-of-interest-in-sicily/gurfa-caves.html
[10] David WATSON (of Brechin), "A clear and compendious history of the gods and goddesses..." (1753), digitized by British Library, p 98.
[11] R. S. Kirby, Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters (1804), Volume 2, p 375
[12] Count de Buffon , Natural history: general and particular (1707-1788), p 337-339, 
[13] Philostratus, On Heroes 8.8
[14] R. S. Kirby, Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters (1804), Volume 2, p 375
[15] The Argus, Melbourne, Friday 10 Aug, 1934, Page 9, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10982620

Bibhu Dev Misra

Bibhu Dev Misra is an independent researcher and writer on ancient civilizations and ancient mysteries. His passion is to explore the knowledge left behind by the ancients in the form of inscriptions, artifacts, monuments, symbols, glyphs, myths and legends. His articles have been published in different magazines and websites such as the New Dawn, Science to Sage, Nexus, Viewzone, Graham Hancock's website, Waking Times etc. and he has been featured on podcasts, interviews and online conferences organized by Earth Ancients, Portal to Ascension, OSOM, Watcher's Talk, Times FM and others. He is an engineer from IIT and a MBA from IIM, and has worked in the Information Technology industry for more than two decades. He can be reached at [email protected] and via his website Ancient Inquiries: www.bibhudevmisra.com

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