Scylla and Charybdis: Terror on the High Seas

Scylla and Charybdis were formidable sea monsters, known for their residency in a suspiciously narrow strait.

They are archetypal monsters from Greek mythology – animalistic, ravenous, and all too ready to stir up trouble for the sake of teaching a lesson. Moreover, their existence acts as a forewarning to voyagers traveling through unfamiliar waters.

Made famous by Homer’s epic Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis go back further than the Greek Dark Ages in which the poet lived. While his work may have acted to inspire future writers to expand on the monstrosities, they absolutely existed before. And, arguably, these immortal beings even exist today – albeit in more familiar, less horrifying forms.

Who or What Were Scylla and Charybdis?

Scylla and Charybdis are two monstrous sea creatures from Greek mythology, mentioned in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” They are encountered by the hero Odysseus during his long journey back home after the Trojan War.

Scylla is often depicted as a multi-headed creature with twelve legs, each ending in a serpent’s head. She resides on one side of a narrow strait, ready to devour sailors who come too close to her lair. In order to navigate through this perilous passage, ships had to pass by Scylla’s den, risking the loss of some of their crew.

Charybdis, on the other hand, is a massive whirlpool that lies on the opposite side of the strait from Scylla. Charybdis creates a powerful suction that can drag ships under the water, leading to their destruction. Sailors had to choose between navigating closer to Scylla’s threat or risking being pulled into Charybdis’s whirlpool.

The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has since become a metaphor used to describe a situation where one is caught between two equally dangerous or undesirable choices. It represents the concept of being in a no-win scenario, where avoiding one danger inevitably leads to encountering another.

What is the Story of Scylla and Charybdis?

The story of Scylla and Charybdis is just one of many trials that the Greek hero Odysseus had to overcome on his voyage home from the Trojan War. As they are chronicled in Book XII of Homer’s epic, Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis are two menacing, frightening monstrosities.

The pair reside in a location referred to as the Wandering Rocks in the Odyssey. Depending on the translation, other possible names include the Moving Rocks and the Rovers. Today, scholars proffer that the Strait of Messina between the Italian mainland and Sicily is the most likely location of the Wandering Rocks.

Historically, the Strait of Messina is a notoriously narrow waterway that connects the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. It only measures 3 kilometers, or 1.8 miles, wide at the narrowest point! The northern portion of the strait has powerful tidal currents that lead to a natural whirlpool. According to legend, that whirlpool is Charybdis.

The dangerous duo is no stranger to being the villains in Greek mythology, with Scylla and Charybdis acting as hazards to the earlier Argonautic expedition. The only reason that Jason and the Argonauts made it out of the strait was entirely because Hera granted Jason her favor. Hera, alongside some sea nymphs and Athena, were able to navigate the Argo through the waters.

By Scylla and Charybdis existing within Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, it is made clear that they are not creations borne of Homer’s mind. Their place in the Odyssey simply cements the monsters as mainstays in early Greek mythology.

Is Homer’s Odyssey a True Story?

The Greek epic Odyssey by Homer takes place following the decade-long Trojan War that surmised much of his Iliad. While both of Homer’s epics are a part of the Epic Cycle, the collection does little to prove that the Odyssey truly happened.

It is far more probable that Homer’s epics – both the Iliad and the Odyssey – are inspired by true events. Sort of how The Conjuring films are inspired by actual happenings.

The Trojan War would have occurred roughly 400 years before Homer lived. Greek oral traditions would have added to the history of the conflict, as well as the troublesome aftermath. Therefore, the existence of an ill-fated Odysseus is possible, but his decade-long trials on the journey home are far less so.

Furthermore, Homer’s unique representation of the Greek gods and goddesses inspired a new perspective of the deities from the ancient Greeks. The Iliad, and most certainly the Odyssey as well acted as literature that helped the Greeks better understand the pantheon on a much more personable level. Even monsters like Scylla and Charybdis, who were initially nothing more than mere monsters, were eventually given their own complex histories.

Who is Scylla from the Odyssey?

Scylla is one of the two monsters that are local to the narrow waters that Odysseus and his men must traverse. In ancient Greek mythology, Scylla (also known as Skylla) was simply a monster with little else on her resume except for man-eating. Though, later myths expand on Scylla’s lore: she wasn’t always a sea monster.

Once, Scylla was a beautiful nymph. Thought to be a Naiad – a nymph of freshwater springs and a granddaughter of Oceanus and Tethys – Scylla gained the attention of Glaucus.

Glaucus was a prophetic fisherman-turned-god who the sorceress Circe had the hots for. In Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Circe concocted a potion of magic herbs and poured it into Scylla’s go-to bathing pool. The next time the nymph went to bathe, she turned into a monstrosity.

In a separate variation, Glaucus – unaware of Circe’s feelings – asked the sorceress for a love potion for Scylla. Apparently, the nymph wasn’t too interested. This enraged Circe, and rather than a love potion, she gave Glaucus a potion that would transform his crush into something that could crush him (with her teeth).

If not Glaucus and Circe, then other interpretations say that Scylla was admired by Poseidon, and it was his wife, the Nereid Amphitrite, who turned Scylla into the sea monster that we know today. Regardless, being the love rival of a goddess meant that you were getting the short end of the stick.

Scylla was said to reside atop sharp, jutting rocks near the coast of Italy. Though many believe these legendary rocks could be the cliff that Castello Ruffo di Scilla is built upon, the monster Scylla could have just as plausibly lived near a sizable reef. Homer describes Scylla as living in a murky cave near a rock formation.

What Does Scylla Look Like?

Although Circe was known for her penchant for transmutation and sorcery, she did a number on poor Scylla. Initially, Scylla didn’t even realize that her lower half – the first of herself to transform – was a part of her. She ran from the terrifying sight.

Of course, she eventually came to terms with it, but she never forgave Circe.

Scylla reportedly had twelve feet and six heads that were supported by long, serpentine necks in the Odyssey. Each head had a mouthful of shark-like teeth and around her hips were baying dogs heads; even her voice had been described as more of a canine’s yelp than a woman’s call.

Since Scylla transformed, she isolated herself to the area in which she used to bathe. Although we can’t quite account for her sudden stroke of cannibalism. Her diet would have been primarily fish. It was likely that she just wanted to get back at Circe by toying with Odysseus.

Alternatively, her fish supply could have gotten low between the vortex across the way and her overfishing habits. Otherwise, Scylla wasn’t always man-eating.

Who is Charybdis from the Odyssey?

Charybdis is Scylla’s counterpart that exists just an arrow shot away on the opposite shore of the strait. Charybdis (alternatively, Kharybdis), was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia in late myth. Though she is famous for being a deadly whirlpool, Charybdis was once a lovely – and immensely powerful – minor goddess.

Apparently, during one of Poseidon’s many disagreements with his brother Zeus, Charybdis caused great floods that angered her uncle. Zeus ordered that she would be chained to the sea bed. Once imprisoned, Zeus cursed her with a hideous form and an insatiable thirst for salt water. With her mouth agape, Charybdis’ severe thirst caused a whirlpool to form.

Even though Odysseus and his crew managed to avoid Charybdis’ destruction, they would later feel the wrath of Zeus. The men happened to kill cattle that belonged to Helios, which resulted in the sun god petitioning Zeus to punish them. Naturally, Zeus went the extra mile and created a storm so massive that the ship was destroyed.

All the remaining men were killed except for Odysseus. All efforts to save them were in vain.

Intuitive as ever, Odysseus quickly lashes together a raft during the turmoil. The storm sent him in the direction of Charybdis, which he somehow survived out of pure luck (or Pallas Athena). Afterward, the hero washes ashore on Calypso’s island, Ogygia.

The whirlpool Charybdis lived nearest to the Sicilian side of the Strait of Messina. She specifically existed beneath the boughs of a fig tree, which Odysseus used to pull himself from the tidal current.

Alternative origins of Charybdis place her as a mortal woman that slighted Zeus. The supreme deity had killed her, and her violent, voracious spirit became a maelstrom.

What Does Charybdis Look Like? 

Charybdis is not exactly described, although Odysseus describes the whirlpool she created.

Odysseus recalls how the bottom of the maelstrom was “black with sand and mud.” On top of that, Charybdis would frequently spit the water back up. This action was described by Odysseus as being “like the water in a cauldron when it is boiling over upon a great fire.” 

Additionally, the entire ship could see when Charybdis would begin to suck in more water due to the rapid downward spiral she would create. The whorl would crash against every surrounding rock, creating a deafening sound.

Thanks to all the mystery that surrounds the actual being that is Charybdis, even the ancient Greeks didn’t attempt to capture her image. The Romans didn’t bother, either.

More modern art has taken a crack at giving Charybdis a physical form outside of the whirlpool she creates. In a fascinating twist, these interpretations make Charybdis appear to be an eldritch, Lovecraftian being. Not to add the fact that Charybdis is massive in these depictions. Though such a giant sea worm could have undoubtedly eaten a whole ship, Charybdis may not have looked so alien.

What Happened to Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey?

Odysseus and his crew encountered Scylla and Charybdis in Book XII of Odyssey. Before that, they had already had their fair share of trials. They had dallied at the Land of the Lotus Eaters, blinded Polyphemus, been held captive by Circe, journeyed to the Underworld, and survived the Sirens.

When it came to Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus’ men were in the dark about the whole thing. They were approaching the situation completely blind and unaware of the depth of the threat before them. Sure, a massive maelstrom on the left was obviously dangerous, but the men couldn’t have bargained for a creature slithering around the rocks to their right.

Their penteconter ship stuck closer to the rocky land where Scylla lived in order to pass Charybdis. Initially, she did not let her presence be known. At the last moment, she plucked six of Odysseus’ crew from the ship. Their “hands and feet ever so high above…struggling in the air” was something the hero would be haunted by for the rest of his life.

The sight of their death, according to Odysseus, was “the most sickening” thing he witnessed during the entirety of his voyage. Coming from a man who was a veteran of the Trojan War, the statement speaks for itself.

Did Odysseus Choose Scylla or Charybdis?

When it came down to it, Odysseus heeded the warning that the sorceress, Circe, gave him. Upon reaching the turbulent waters of the narrow strait, Odysseus decided to travel toward the monster, Scylla. While she was able to capture and consume six sailors, the rest of the crew survived.

The same could not be said if Odysseus would have attempted to traverse the waters nearest to Charybdis’ abode. Being a sentient whirlpool, Odysseus’ whole ship would have been lost. Not only would this end everyone’s chances of returning to Ithaca, but they all would have likely died as well.

Now, let’s say some men did survive the tumultuous waters of the narrow strait. They would still have to contend with being a bowshot away from a sea monster and deal with being stranded somewhere on the island of Sicily.

Historically, Odysseus would have likely been on a penteconter: an early Hellenic ship that was equipped with 50 rowers. It was known to be fast and maneuverable compared to larger vessels, though its size and build made the galley more susceptible to the effects of currents. Thus, whirlpools are not under optimal conditions.

Scylla only could grab six of Odysseus’ sailors to consume, since she only had so many heads. Even with each mouth having a triple row of razor-sharp teeth, she couldn’t have eaten the six men faster than the galley could go.

Although messed up and completely traumatizing to his crew, Odysseus’ decision was sort of like ripping off a Band-Aid.

Who Killed Charybdis and Scylla?

Odysseus doesn’t kill Charybdis or Scylla. They are, according to Homer – and at least at this point in Greek mythology – immortal monsters. They cannot be killed.

In one of Charybdis’ origin stories, she was thought to be a woman who had stolen cattle from Heracles. As punishment for her greed, she was struck and killed by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts. Thereafter, she fell into the sea where she retained her gluttonous nature and turned into a sea beast. Otherwise, Scylla had always been immortal.

As with the gods themselves, granting death to Scylla and Charybdis was impossible. The immortality of these supernatural creatures influenced Odysseus to keep their existence a secret from his men until it was too late.

It was likely that, as they sailed past the rocks of Scylla, the crew felt relieved to avoid the crushing vortex of Charybdis. After all, the rocks were mere rocks…weren’t they? Up until six of the men were picked up by gnashing jaws.

By then, the ship had already sailed past the monster and the remaining men had little time to react. There would be no fight, for a fight – as Odysseus knew – would result in irreparable loss of life. Onwards they sailed towards the tempting island of Thrinacia, where the sun god Helios kept his best cattle.

“Between Scylla and Charybdis”

The choice Odysseus made was not an easy one. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. Either he lost six men and returned to Ithaca, or everyone perished in the maw of Charybdis. Circe made that much clear and, as Homer tells in his Odyssey, that is precisely what happened.

Despite losing six men in the Strait of Messina, he did not lose his ship. They may have been slowed, even, since there weren’t so many rowers anymore, but the ship was still seaworthy.

To say you are caught “between Scylla and Charybdis” is an idiom. An idiom is a figurative expression; a non-literal phrase. An example of this is “it’s raining cats and dogs,” since it is not actually raining cats and dogs.

In the case of the idiom being “between Scylla and Charybdis,” it means that you need to choose between the lesser of two evils. Throughout history, the saying has been used a number of times in conjunction with political cartoons around an election.

Just as Odysseus chose to sail closer to Scylla to pass Charybdis unscathed, both options weren’t good choices. With one, he would lose six men. With the other, he will lose his entire ship and likely even his whole crew. We, as an audience, can’t blame Odysseus for choosing the lesser of the two evils laid before him.

Why are Scylla and Charybdis Significant in Greek Mythology?

Both Scylla and Charybdis helped the ancient Greeks gain a deeper understanding of the dangers around them. The monsters acted as an explanation for all the bad, treacherous things one could encounter while seafaring.

Whirlpools, for example, are still incredibly dangerous depending on their size and the strength of their tides. Lucky for us, most modern vessels aren’t as severely damaged from crossing paths with one. Meanwhile, the rocks that lurk beneath the water surrounding Messina’s cliff sides could easily tear a hole in the wooden hull of a penteconter. Thus, while there are realistically no monsters set out on eating travelers, hidden shoals and wind-triggered whirlpools could spell out certain death for unsuspecting ancient sailors.

In all, Scylla and Charybdis’ presence in Greek mythology acted as a very real warning to those planning to journey by sea. You want to avoid a maelstrom if you can, as it could mean death for you and all on board; though, sailing your ship closer to a potential hidden embankment isn’t the best choice, either. Ideally, you want to avoid both, as the crew of the Argo did. Though, when you’re between a rock and a hard place (literally), it may be best to go with the one that would do the least amount of damage in the long run.

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