Cyclopean Isles

The Cyclopean Isles, noted for their rows of basaltic columns piled one above another, lie off the eastern coast of Sicily, not far from Mount Etna.


The Cyclopean Isles are of volcanic origin, and may at one time have been attached to Sicily. The lava forming the basaltic columns was consolidated under great pressure, probably at the bottom of the sea.

The Cyclopean Isles strongly resemble the Giant's Causeway on the northern coast of Ireland, and the Isle of Staffa off the western coast of Scotland. The latter, closest in appearance to the Cyclopean pair differ mainly in having the columns piled in terraces, one above another. Staffa also boasts the Cave of Fingal, which has basaltic columns and a brightly-tinted floor. There are also some remarkable ranges of basaltic columns on Iceland.

Homer's legend

There is an ancient tradition that the islands at one time formed part of the mainland of Sicily.

Homer has a curious story about the manner in which they became detached, towards the end of the ninth book of the Odyssey. When Ulysses visited Sicily it was inhabited by the Cyclopes -- said to have had each only one eye, on their foreheads. Their king, Polyphemus, was a huge giant who cornered Ulysses and some of his crew into a cave, where some were killed and eaten for supper. Fearing he may be next, Ulysses got Polyphemus drunk on wine until he fell asleep, taking advantage of the opportunity to burn out his one eye with a red-hot iron. The giant awoke in agony, but Ulysses escaped, and, from the apparent safety of his ship after getting into his ship, began taunting and jeering. Homer says:--

    "These words the Cyclops' burning rage provoke:
     From the tall hill he rends a pointed rock;
     High o'er the billows flew the massy load,
     And near the ship came thund'ring on the flood.
     It almost brushed the helm, and fell before:
     The whole sea shook, and refluent beat the shore."

Ulysses renewed his jeers and told him that it had been he who had burnt out his eye. Polyphemus invoked the vengeance of Neptune upon him, and--

    "A larger rock then heaving from the plain,
     He whirled it round--it rung across the main:
     It fell and brushed the stern: the billows roar,
     Shake at the weight, and refluent beat the shore."
                                    Pope's  translation.

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