History of Sicily
2 The First Peoples: 2.1 Origins and Legend

2.1.2 The Legendary Populations 

If it is true that legends always hide a pinch of truth, it is right to count among the first hypothetical inhabitants of Sicily also those due to Homeric mythology: Lotophages, Cyclops, Feaci and Lestrigoni.


According to Herodotus (Lib. IV.177), the Lotophages lived on the African coasts, eating exclusively the fruit of the lotus;

 "This lotus fruit is as big as a mastic berry and for sweetness it is very similar to the fruit of the palm: the lotophages also deduct a wine".

In reality, with the name of Lotus the ancients indicated very different plants; the most famous was the Lotophagus tree whose fruit, according to Homer, was so good as to make foreigners forget their homeland. This tree called "ziziphus lotus"Or more simply" wild jujube "("Nzinzuli sarvaggi“) Is a shrub from the Mediterranean area that also grows in Sicily.

In the ninth book of the Odyssey (vv. 82-102), it is narrated how Ulysses landed with this people after nine days of storm that took him beyond the island of Kythera. The Lotophages welcomed the companions of Ulysses well and offered them the sweet fruit of the lotus, their only food which, however, had the characteristic of making people lose their memory, so Ulysses had to embark them by force and immediately set out to sea to prevent the whole crew , eating lotus, forgot his homeland and wanted to stay in that land (in the Odyssey it is not said whether it was on an island or on the mainland).

Ulysses among the Lotophages in an XNUMXth century drawing.

In Sicily, writers of the past have hypothesized that the seat of the Lotophages was in the southern area of ​​the island and precisely from Camarina to Agrigento. [1]


The people of the Cyclops, also mentioned by the historian Thucydides (lib VI.2) is, according to Homer, a people of anthropophagous Giants, strong and dedicated to pastoralism. What characterized this people, besides their great stature, was the fact that they had a single eye in the middle of the forehead. Tommaso Fazello [2], speaking of the people of the Giants, paints them as great bad guys:

“These, trusting in the greatness and strength of their bodies, invented weapons, did violence to everyone and, slaves to pleasures, they procured large and luxurious abodes, musical instruments and every delight. They were man-eaters, procuring unborn children, and preparing them for meals; moreover, they joined carnally with mothers, daughters, sisters, males, brutes. There was no crime that they did not commit, contemptuous, as they were, of religion and of the gods ”.

The Fazello who believes in the Cyclops calling them the people of giants, tells of numerous findings in Sicily of the corpses of giants, which however, once they come to light, are reduced to dust, leaving no traces except a few teeth.

Alessandro Gherardini: Vulcan and the Cyclops in the forge - XNUMXth century painting.  

 Among the supporters of the existence of a people with the characteristics attributed to the Cyclops, there are those who affirm that the origin of the belief that the Cyclops had only one eye, was the habit of the Cyclops people to hunt their prey by keeping one eye closed to facilitate aiming when throwing spears.

Among the supporters of the existence of a people with the characteristics attributed to the Cyclops, there are those who affirm that the origin of the belief that the Cyclops had only one eye, was the habit of the Cyclops people to hunt their prey by keeping one eye closed to facilitate aiming when throwing spears.

A recent hypothesis has it that the skulls found in the past in many caves of the Hyblean plateau and attributed to the Cyclops are instead those of the female of a dwarf elephant, the "Elephas falconeri" with a stature not exceeding 90 centimeters and with a particular conformation of the skull: the frontal bull that constitutes the attack of the elephant trunk, with the typical horizontal figure eight shape, has been confused with the only eye of the Cyclops [2b].  

Skeleton of "Elephas falconeri" from the Spinagallo cave (Syracuse)

Their headquarters consisted of the regions of Etna and the most famous of them, Polyphemus, is linked to one of the episodes of the legend of Ulysses:

Polyphemus was the son of the god Poseidon, he was a shepherd and lived with his flock in a cave. Ulysses landed in Sicily together with his twelve companions, asked him for hospitality, but instead of welcoming them, Polyphemus captured them with the intention of devouring them, which he immediately began to do with some of them. In his own way, Polyphemus was a man of good manners, in fact he promised Ulysses that he would devour him last to thank him for the wine he had received as a gift. When the Giant asked the Homeric hero what his name was, the shrewd Ulysses, who had understood who he was dealing with, replied that his name was Nobody. At night, while Polyphemus was asleep under the influence of wine, Ulysses and his men sharpened a large pole and thrust it into the one eye of the Cyclops, blinding him. Polyphemus shouted for help calling the other Cyclops, but when they asked him what was happening he replied that No one had tried to kill him by deception, so the other Cyclops left. Ulysses to get out of the cave without Polyphemus noticing it, tied himself under the belly of a big ram and invited his companions to do the same; when in the morning Polyphemus let the flock out, while checking the rams he did not notice the flight of Ulysses and his companions.

Ulysses blinds Polyphemus: Archaeological Museum of Argos - Greece

Once he believed himself safe on his ship, Ulysses wanted to shout his real name to the Cyclops, but this almost cost him and his companions their lives, as Polyphemus was a little angry at the rudeness that Ulysses had done by blinding him , took a cliff and threw it, almost managing to hit, despite the blindness suffered, the ship of Ulysses.

According to tradition, the islands of the Cyclops, known as the stacks of the Cyclops that are located in front of Acitrezza are precisely the stones thrown by Polyphemus towards the ship of Ulysses 

Faraglioni dei Ciclopi - Acitrezza

Popular Sicilian tradition wanted to somehow maintain the memory of the Giants who in some folk tales are seen as very great men, man-eaters, but, like their predecessor Polyphemus, endowed with a "foolishness" no less than their stature [ 3].

Piazza Armerina: Villa Romana del Casale - Vestibule of Polyphemus


According to Homer, the Phaeacians inhabited Sicily in the same period as the Cyclops with a higher degree of civilization than these but with less fighting capacity, so for fear of the Cyclops they emigrated together with their King Nausitoo in Scheria, the current Corfu helped in this by the their knowledge of nautical art. The Phaeacians were in fact believed to be a people of sailors.

According to historians Vibio Lequestro and Eustazio [4], Ipperia, which was later called Camarina, was a city of the Feaci. Indeed, archeology has shown that even before 589 BC, the year in which it is believed that Camarina was founded by Sicuracusa, there was a pre-Hellenic Camarina inhabited by the Sicilians [5].


Not much is said about them except for the fact that they were a rough and anthropophagous people whose seat was, according to the historians Thucydides (lib VI.2) and Fazello [6], near Lentini. 

A legend puts them in similarity with the Cyclops, telling that they were a people of anthropophagous giants, their king Antiphates had the fleet of Ulysses destroyed, skewering the captured men with huge skewers. Only the ship of Ulysses was saved from the massacre.

 Ulysses and the fight with the Lestrigoni (from: The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College Poughkeepsie, New York)


[1] Discourses on the ancient and modern Ragusa of Garofalo Filippo. p.3

[2] History of Sicily first book, sixth chapter.

[2b] Carmelo Petronio: Sicily: Geology and Paleobiology in the Quaternary. In A Bridge between Italy and Greece - Proceedings of the Symposium in honor of Antonino Di Vita.

[3] Giuseppe Pitre: Uses and customs, beliefs and prejudices of the Sicilian people. p.204

[4] Giovanni E. Di-Blasi: History of the Kingdom of Sicily. Vol. I p.20

  Filippo Garofalo: Discourses on and the ancient and modern Ragusa. P.3

[5] Biagio Pace: Camarina p.25

[6] Thucydides: Lib. VI.2 and Fazello: History of Sicily Third book, second chapter.



The legendary populations of Sicily

History of Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

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