Odysseus navigating between scylla and charybdis

The Mythology of the Strait of Messina: Scylla and Charybdis

Culture News

The Strait of Messina, a narrow waterway separating the Italian peninsula from the island of Sicily, has long been shrouded in mythology and maritime lore. Among the most enduring legends are those of Scylla and Charybdis, two mythological monsters.

In ancient Greek mythology, Scylla was once a beautiful nymph loved by the sea god Glaucus. However, her beauty attracted the jealous attentions of the witch Circe, who transformed Scylla into a grotesque creature with six heads, each equipped with sharp teeth. Her body consisted of snarling dogs or serpents, depending on the interpretation. Hiding her now hideous appearance, Scylla took shelter in a sea cave on the Italian side of the Messina Strait, where she awaited passing ships to devour.

Charybdis, meanwhile, was said to be the daughter of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Her insatiable hunger led her to swallow vast quantities of water three times a day. This created a whirlpool capable of swallowing entire ships. Directly opposite Scylla, Charybdis lay in wait on the Sicilian side of the strait.

The two monsters presented sailors with the dilemma of navigating between the two monstrous threats.

Origins of the myths

The origins of the myths surrounding Scylla and Charybdis can be found in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. In this epic tale, the hero Odysseus and his crew encounter the monsters during their long journey home from the Trojan War.

As they approach the strait, Circe warns Odysseus of the dangers posed by Scylla and Charybdis, advising him to steer clear of Charybdis’s whirlpool and instead pass by the rocky cliffs where Scylla lurks.

Despite Odysseus’s best efforts, six of his men are snatched by Scylla’s ravenous heads as they pass by her lair.

Proverbial warning

The myth of Scylla and Charybdis has become a universal symbol of the perils of decision-making and the inevitability of facing difficult choices. The proverbial saying “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to signify a dilemma where one must navigate between two equally dangerous options.

This proverb has also translated into sayings such as “between a rock and a hard place”, and “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. In each case, it means you must navigate between two difficult choices.

Odysseus’ decision to sail closer to Scylla, was him deciding to “choose the lesser of two evils”, another idiom in the English language.

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