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Scylla and Charybdis: Monsters of Greek mythology

Updated on March 4, 2017
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Monsters would play an important part in many stories of Greek and Roman mythology; these monsters would provide an opposition for heroes and gods to overcome. Some monsters are famous, like Cerberus and the Chimera, but less well known are the likes of the dual monsters of Scylla and Charybdis.

In theory Scylla and Charybdis should be better known, as they were monsters encountered by Jason and the Argonauts, Odysseus and Aeneas.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Fresco - Odysseus's boat passing between the six-headed monster Scylla c1560 PD-art-100
Fresco - Odysseus's boat passing between the six-headed monster Scylla c1560 PD-art-100 | Source

The Idiom

Today the phrase “between a rock and hard place” is a relatively often used idiom but this phrase can be linked back to an earlier one, “between Scylla and Charybdis”. The original concept for the saying being a choice between two dangers, both of which would inevitably lead to harm.

Charybdis

The first born of the two monsters was thought to be Charybdis, the personification of a gigantic whirlpool; a whirlpool where water would be drawn in and out three times a day. Charybdis was thought to be able to sink whole ships.

Charybdis was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon, the Olympian Sea God, and Gaia, the Earth Goddess; or as the offspring of Pontus, the Primordial Sea God, and Gaia.

It was normally thought that Charybdis was born monstrous, but stories are told of the daughter of Poseidon being transformed into one by Zeus. This transformation either occurred because Charybdis had the affront to steal cattle from Heracles, Zeus’ son; or because Charybdis had helped Poseidon to increase the size of his realm at the expense of Zeus, by engulfing landmasses underwater.

Charybdis can also be thought of as the personification of tides, and is probably the same figure as Keto Trienos, another sea monster occasionally mentioned in ancient sources. As Keto Trienos, Charybdis is sometimes stated to be the mother of Scylla.

Scylla

Scylla is normally considered to be the daughter of Ceto (also known as Crataeis), a primordial sea goddess-monster; and where a father is named the sea god Phorcys is the other parent.

Homer would describe Scylla as a monster with 12 feet, six long necks, each neck with a deadly mouth full of sharp teeth. Scylla was also said to bark like a dog. Scylla therefore was probably the personification of a reef or outcrop of rocks.

Like Charybdis, Scylla is thought to have been born monstrous, but later writers would tell of her transformation from a beautiful nymph into the monster.

One myth tells of how Poseidon was enraptured with the nymph, causing much jealousy with his wife, Amphitrite. Amphitrite would therefore poison the pool in which Scylla would bathe; transforming her into the ugly monster.

A second story of transformation comes from the Roman period, where Glaucus, a minor sea god is taken by the beauty of Syclla. Glaucus went to Circe to seek out a love potion, but Circe was herself in love with Glaucus, and seeking to do away with a potential love rival, used her magical potions to cause the transformation of the beautiful nymph.

As a monster, Scylla would be located opposite to Charybdis, and would take and eat passing sailors.

Scylla and Glaucus

Peter Paul Rubens - Scylla and Glaucus c1636 PD-art-100
Peter Paul Rubens - Scylla and Glaucus c1636 PD-art-100 | Source

A Second Scylla

As is common with stories from Ancient Greece, there was a second figure also named as Scylla, but unrelated to the more famous monster. This Scylla appears in the life story of Minos, as retold by Ovid.

This second Scylla was the daughter of King Nisos, King of Megara; Megara being a region of Attica. During the war between Athens and Crete, King Minos of Crete sought to conquer Megara, Nisos being brother to King Aegeas of Athens. Nisos though was invincible whilst he was in possession of a lock of purple hair.

As Minos approached Megara, he was spied by Scylla, who fell in love with the Cretan king. In order that Minos would fall in love with her, Scylla cut away the lock of hair from her father, presenting an easy victory to the invading army, and ultimately Nisos was killed. Minos though, instead of reciprocating Scylla’s love, was disgusted by the lack of loyalty shown by the princess, and so Minos sailed away from Megara without Scylla.

Scylla though was still in love with Minos, and started to swim after the departing fleet. As she swam though, a sea eagle attacked her; the sea eagle being her father who had been transformed into the bird upon his death. The attack caused Scylla to drown, and she herself was transformed into a seabird, one which would be forever chased by the sea eagle.

Scylla and Charybdis in Greek mythology

The two monsters were said to live close by one another, on opposite sides of a strait of water; on the side closest to Italy was Scylla, and on the other was Charybdis. Homer, in the Odyssey, would claim that no ship passed between the two unscathed, as the distance between the two was less than a flight of an arrow. Other writers though would contradict Homer.

-Odysseus Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It was in the Odyssey that the most famous encounter of Scylla and Charybdis occurred. On his return from Troy, Odysseus had stayed with the sorceress Circe, and now sought her advice about the voyage home.

Circe told Odysseus to sail his ship closer to Scylla than to Charybdis, as it was better to lose six men than the whole ship. This indeed was exactly what happened when Odysseus set sail.

-Jason Encounters Trouble

Jason was another Greek hero who encountered Scylla and Charybdis; Jason’s encounter occurring as he sought the Golden Fleece. Jason needed to sail the Argo between the two monsters, but whilst Odysseus had the gods against him, Jason was in favour

In the Bibliotheca, attributed to Pseudo-Apollodorus, Hera had Thetis and other Nereids safely guide the Argo between the two monsters so that Jason and his fellow Argonauts would be unharmed.

Similarly Aeneas managed to traverse the straits safely, although with a lot of physical effort.

-Heracles and the Monsters

A less commonly story also tells of Heracles encountering Scylla after the monster had stolen some of the cattle he had himself stolen from Geryon. As was the want of Heracles, the Greek hero tracked down Scylla and killed her; Scylla being no match for Heracles; after all he had already killed the multi-headed Hydra.

Scylla though was brought back to life by Phorcys, ensuring that the stretch of water was still deadly for passing ships.

Odysseus and Scylla

Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis - Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) PD-art-100
Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis - Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) PD-art-100 | Source

Strait of Messina

A map of the wanderings of Aeneas 1900 PD-art-100
A map of the wanderings of Aeneas 1900 PD-art-100 | Source

Strait of Messina

Traditionally the myth of Scylla and Charybdis has been associated with the stretch of water known as the Strait of Messina. The Strait of Messina is the narrow passage of water that flows between Sicily and the Italian mainland. At its narrowest point the Strait is about 3km across.

The current of water flowing between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Ionian Sea does cause a small whirlpool to form, although the whirlpool is not large enough to be a danger to shipping.

Generally speaking there were more deities associated with water in Ancient Greece, and also there were more monsters associated with it as well. For Ancient Greeks water was of course vital, but open areas of water were also highly dangerous, and the creation of monsters helped to personify these dangers.

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  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you. I always wondered where that idiom originally came from. Good to know the story.

  • SusannaDuffy profile image

    Susanna Duffy 2 years ago from Melbourne Australia

    I crossed the Strait of Messina the first time in a ferry and then in a fishing boat. I wanted to experience the journey of Ulysses but, sadly, it's just a little stretch of water today without a fearsome creature in sight. Sigh

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