At some point in life, most people are forced to choose between two options knowing that regardless which is chosen, they’ll lose. In current linguistic idiom, there are a few phrases that properly convey an impossible choice: the lesser of two evils, a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea (ok, maybe that’s not a currently used phrase, but it’s out there nonetheless), etc.
In ancient Greece, a person was stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: two sea monsters known for eating sailors and destroying ships. Two monsters Odysseus had to outwit in The Odyssey in order to make it home.
Location-wise, for reference, the theory is that Scylla and Charybdis menaced the slim passage between Sicily and Italy, now called The Strait of Messina. For you cartogrophiles out there, that’d be the point on the map where it looks like the toe of Italy’s boot is kicking Sicily into the sea.
|The Strait of Messina
Photo copyright Mapquest via Navteq
Also for reference, I’ve heard “Scylla” pronounced “silla” by many, but in general “c” is a “k” sound in Greek, so most mythological texts indicate it’s pronounced “SKIL-uh” or “SKUL-uh” but if you speak Greek and want to correct me I’d welcome it. “Charybdis” would then be pronounced “khah-rib-dis” because “ch” is pronounced as a “k” sound.
So, as these two harridans of the sea have enough to discuss between them to qualify for a chapter instead of a post, I’m splitting them up. We’ll begin with Scylla this week.
As many females in Greek mythology, Scylla becomes her dangerous self through no fault of her own. In all the versions I have found, Scylla is loved by the wrong god and a jealous rival poisons her. It’s the details of her parentage, lover, and destroyer that differ.
Scylla is the daughter of supernatural creatures: in one common version she’s a naiad (a water nymph, sometimes the daughter of a river god) who unfortunately catches the eye of Poseidon, God of the Sea (and brother to Zeus, which makes this relationship the equivalent of the CEO falling in love with a mail intern in terms of power). Scylla didn’t really have a chance at all in this version. One of Poseidon’s other lovers dumped a poison potion into Scylla’s favorite bathing pool, cursing her to a horrendously monstrous form for all eternity. However, it’s worth noting that the written version of the Poseidon-lover myth dates later than Homer’s version in The Odyssey (8thC BCE).
In another common version, Scylla is cursed by none other than Circe (the powerful sorceress partner/mentor to Odysseus in The Odyssey) for being loved by Glaucus, Circe’s love interest at the time. Again, worth noting that the love triangle aspect involving Circe is not mentioned in Homer’s text. this doesn’t mean the myths regarding Scylla didn’t include both parentage and love interest: more likely it means Homer took Scylla’s tragic background to be common knowledge and didn’t feel compelled to include her history in his tale. After all, Scylla was merely one of the two feminine horrors Odysseus had to conquer to make it home.
And of course, we have Ovid’s version. Recall how Ovid is rather unkind in his opinion of females in general (see Medusa’s tale). In Ovid’s retelling, Glaucus is rejected by Scylla and goes to Circe for a love potion to force Scylla to come to him. Circe, however, is a jealous woman already in love with Glaucus and removes her rival with poison instead of a love potion.
Ultimately, regardless of the origin of her fated bath’s contamination, all the tales agree that the poison inflicted upon Scylla changes her into a horrible creature with six heads, each with three rows of teeth (great white teeth, perhaps? One of the associations of Skylla is “skylax”, or “dog-shark”), tentacles, a fish tail, and a belt of DOGS. Yeah. Live snapping angry dogs.In some descriptions of her physical transformation, she’s human female from the waist up, dogs at the waist, and fish or tentacles for a tail.
No, I can’t determine the logistic feasibility of wearing a belt of vicious dogs, but fishermen do tell the best sea-monster tales.
Scylla becomes a horrid cannibal “terrified even of herself”, living in a sea cave across from Charybdis and attacking ships as they pass, plucking men from the deck and eating them alive.
What I find terribly interesting AND telling in both versions of the myth is that Scylla herself is NOT said to love either Poseidon or Glaucus: she’s merely a cardboard cutout who becomes a voracious eater of men through no fault of her own. Interestingly, it’s worth nothing that the Circe’s sorcery isn’t considered “evil” until until Ovid’s tale is taken up by 19th century authors. In fact, Ovid’s tone is rather condemning of Scylla for being too shallow to accept Glaucus as he was, and wrote as if she deserved her punishment because of course, who cares if she loved him: he loved her and therefore she has no right to refuse. Honestly, I have suspicions regarding Ovid’s luck with romantic encounters in his personal life.
THIS IS A SPOILER, PEOPLE:
Odysseus doesn’t kill Scylla. In fact, Scylla appears later in the Aeneid and in tales of the Argonauts as one of a sailor’s most terrifying perils on the seas. It seems fairly clear Odysseus counted himself lucky to ESCAPE Scylla, and destroying her was never in the plan at all. That honor is attributed most often to Heracles (Hercules, for you Roman mythology folk).
“As when a fisherman on a promontory takes a long rod to snare little fishes with his bait and casts his ox-hair line down in to the sea below, then seizes the creatures one by one and throws them ashore still writhing; so Skylla swung my writhing companions up to the rocks, and there at the entrance began devouring them as they shrieked and held out heir hands to me in their extreme of agony. Many pitiful things have met my eyes in my toilings and searchings through the sea-paths, but this was most pitiful of all.“
Homer, The Odyssey, Book 12
And so, Scylla goes down in history as the second most terrifying of two evils. Even Pliny the Elder mentions her as a known peril of the sea in his Natural Histories (Book 3), written in the 1st century CE. (I suppose it’d be dated prior to 79CE, since Vesuvius sort of ate the Elder Pliny. Pliny the Elder mostly likely died of asphyxiation from poisonous gasses while attempting to escape Vesuvius’ eruption, the same eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum).
Ultimately, Scylla is the LESSER of the two evils associated with the Strait of Messina. Circe, the same sorceress who may have turned Scylla into a monster, advised Odysseus to sail closer to HER and avoid her counterpart at all costs, even at the cost of the crew members Scylla devoured.
Circe knew that while Scylla would decimate Odysseus’s crew, Charybdis could swallow his ship in one gulp and belch nothing but seawater. No sailor took on Charybdis…not even Odysseus.
But she’s waiting for next week.