By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
To be ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ is, if you will, to be caught between a rock and a hard place – in other words, between two equally unappealing dangers or prospects. But how did the phrase come into being? What are its origins, and who on earth were Scylla and Charybdis?
In the latest in our series of posts delving into the origins and meaning of famous classical myths, we take on the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. But before we get to our analysis of this story, it might be worth briefly summarising the myth.
Myth of Scylla and Charybdis: summary
The phrase ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ derives from two dangerous entities found in the Mediterranean sea, which Homer tells us about in his Odyssey. They were supposedly found on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria.
Scylla was a monster with six heads: specifically, she had the body of a woman but with six dogs’ heads. However, these heads weren’t in the usual place you might expect heads to be: they hung somewhere around the lower part of her body, at least according to many depictions and accounts. So, one assumes she had a woman’s head at the top of her body – where a head can usually be found. The dogs’ heads were just extras.
But of course, having six dogs’ heads made Scylla quite dangerous for passing ships, and sure enough, she would use these half-dozen canine appendages to devour anything that came past.
How Scylla came to have six dogs’ heads hanging around her groin is a story in itself. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us that Glaucus loved Scylla, scorning Circe (who loved Glaucus) as a result.
To get her love-rival out of the picture, Circe placed some magic herbs in the fountain where Scylla bathed, and Scylla was transformed into a sea monster, with the six dogs’ heads immediately sprouting from her lower body. In other versions, it is Poseidon, whose advances were spurned by Scylla, who gave her the dogs’ heads and turned her into a monster.
Meanwhile, Charybdis was a different kind of monster: she’s often said to have been a whirlpool (of which more below). She was the daughter of the god Poseidon and the goddess Gaia, and lived on a rock near Messina, off the coast of Sicily.
According to many versions of the myth, Heracles passed the rock where Charybdis lived. Heracles had with him the cattle he’d stolen from Geryon (as part of the twelve labours Heracles had to complete). Charybdis stole some of them and wolfed them down. Zeus punished her for this act of theft by smiting her with a thunderbolt; Charybdis fell into the sea and became a monster. She drank in the surrounding sea water and anything found floating in it, which occasionally included passing ships.
Ships had to navigate between these two dangerous forces when travelling through this part of the Mediterranean sea, and thus the common phrase ‘to be between Scylla and Charybdis’ or ‘steering between Scylla and Charybdis’ was born, meaning to navigate between two equally destructive courses of action, or, to use another idiom, to be ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
Myth of Scylla and Charybdis: analysis
Here at Interesting Literature we’re fans of analysing or interpreting classical myths as attempts to explain the origins of real things: so, for instance, the Golden Fleece myth originated from the habit of using wool to pan gold in rivers. And the story of Scylla and Charybdis probably arose as an attempt to explain the origins of very real geographical features off the coast of Sicily.
Scylla was the ancients’ rational explanation for a notorious rock shoal located on the Calabrian side of the Strait of Messina: the sharp rocks become the dogs’ teeth that could snag passing sailors and boats.
Meanwhile, Charybdis was their way of explaining the strong sea currents found off the coast of Sicily (which are, in reality, nowhere near as powerful as the whirlpool of myth). Scylla and Charybdis were close enough to each other to present a real threat to passing ships, and it was impossible to avoid them both.
In the most famous literary text to feature the gruesome twosome, Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was advised to pass closer to Scylla than to Charybdis, since Scylla would undoubtedly chomp on a few of his crew, but Charybdis, with her strong currents, would probably swallow down his whole ship. As the Elizabethan poet George Chapman put it in his famous translation of Homer’s poem:
Therefore in your strife
To scape Charybdis, labour all, for life
To row neare Scylla; for she will but haue
For her sixe heads, sixemen; and better saue
The rest, then all, make offerings to the waue.
So in a sense, the difficult moral dilemma posed by Scylla and Charybdis presents us with the classical equivalent of the Trolley problem, where there are no practical solutions which will completely prevent loss of life.
In Chapman’s Homer, Odysseus describes the horror of having to steer between Scylla and Charybdis:
I then tooke a streight
That gaue my selfe, and some few more receipt
Twixt Scylla, and Charybdis; whence we saw
How horridly Charybdis throat did draw
The brackish sea vp, which, when all abroad
She spit againe out: neuer Caldron sod
With so much feruor, fed with all the store
That could enrage it. All the Rocke did rore
With troubl’d waters: round about the tops
Of all the steepe crags, flew the fomy drops.
And that, in the last analysis, is how these two fearsome sea monsters of myth came to lend their names to a common expression.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.