Happy shark week! The history of cyclopes (and why the one-eyed shark is nothing special)

The one-eyed shark that sparked all the talk

Recently, a one-eyed shark fetus was recovered from the body of its mother, caught in the Sea of Cortez just off the coast of La Paz, Mexico. This find created quite a stir among internet-based news sources and bloggers, even attracting the attention of some relatively prominent shark experts here in California. Our fascination with this shark fetus is not surprising (just take a look at the photos); it’s a reminder that human civilization, religion, and cultural folklore have been obsessed with cyclopes for thousands of years.

Cyclopes are not just myth, despite what many “knowledgeable” figures on the internet largely seem to think. Cyclopia is a very real developmental condition that can even affect human fetuses, resulting in babies born with one large eye between where two normal eyes would normally be. These anomalies stem in part from holoprosencephaly, improper separation of the forebrain during fetal development. When born alive, these babies suffer extreme mental retardation, are effectively blind, often have improperly developed noses, and live very short lives. The same condition has also been observed in cats and other common farm animals. My guess is that this shark fetus, which has become a spectacle of our uninformed curiosity, is simply another example of this condition, and that if the fetus had survived until term, it would not have survived long past birth.

An elephant skull, showing the large hole in the center of the forehead

When I was little, I was obsessed with animals—just ask my poor Mom, who obligingly allowed me to turn my room into a miniature zoo. For all of my pet rodents and reptiles, elephants were always my favorite. I vividly remember being fascinated with the Zoobooks publication Elephants, which included a story about how some paleontologists believe that the skulls of dwarf elephants inspired early humans’ belief in one-eyed monsters. Looking at the skull of an elephant, one of the most prominent features is the large, central whole from which the trunk protrudes. To the ancients, as the theory goes, these holes looked like eye sockets, and thus the belief in cyclopic giants was born.

The Greeks took it one step further, developing an entire mythological race of one-eyed giant humans, also known as the Cyclopes. This is where our modern word for “one-eyed face” comes from, the cyclops. The Cyclopes were revered in Greek mythology, and authors commonly attributed the Cyclopes with amazing physical strength. They are also frequently associated with blacksmith arts and forges, stemming from their profession as the forgers of thunderbolts for Zeus (and I thought grad school was difficult!). The Romans adopted Cyclopes from the Greeks, and both of these ancient civilizations were in frequent contact with the even more ancient civilizations of Egypt, whose polytheistic beliefs included the sky-god Horus.In modern American symbolism, a singular eye, known as the Eye of Providence, watches over us from above a thirteen-step pyramid on the backs of our currency, and the Freemasons guild has adopted the same eye, also sometimes called the Eye of Horus, as part of its official symbolism.

Interestingly enough, between the Cyclopes giants who forged thunderbolts and the cultural symbolism spanning throughout the Christian western world back into ancient times, all of these one-eyed giants and symbolic eyes are male, except for the Eye of Horus. While Horus was male, his right eye, which is a symbol commonly found on jewelry even today, was closely associated with the goddess Wadjet. No matter how our modern fascination with the Cyclopes and cyclopic symbolism came to be, true cyclopia exists in only one form, a devastating congenital birth defect that affects female embryos as well as males (and apparently sharks and kittens as well).

 

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