Have you ever uttered the phrase: “Stuck between a rock and a hard place”? This common idiom used to describe a choice between two unfavorable options comes directly from Greek mythology: navigating the narrow passage of water between Italy and Sicily (the Strait of Messina) where two sea monsters lurk.
On one side is the rocky headland that juts out from the Italian coastline, the place that Scylla is said to dwell. There she waits, hidden within the deep recesses, for ships to pass by. Snatching and devouring sailors that dare come too close. Most describe her as a beautiful maiden from the waist up, but from her loins spring six snapping dogs, joined at the forequarters so their twelve legs scrabble and scrape.
“She has twelve feet all dangling down, six long necks with a grisly head on each of them, and in each head a triple row of crowded and close-set teeth, fraught with black death. Sunk waist-deep in the cave’s recesses, she still darts out her head from that frightening hollow”. – Homer, The Odyssey.
Named from the hermit crab (skyllaros in Greek), Scylla takes the form of her namesake. The rocks from which she emerges act as her shell, her head above the many legs that protrude from her mid-section, while her curled tail anchors her in place.
Scylla and a hermit crab
Earlier traditions say Scylla was born from a union between Crataeis, goddess of the rocks (also sometimes seen as an aspect of Keto, the goddess of the dangers of the sea) and Phorcys (a primordial sea god). Scylla was simply a monstrous offspring from a monstrous family. Later traditions such as Ovid tell a different story though, that Scylla was a beautiful nymph who was cursed and turned into a monster. According to Metamorphoses Scylla often used to bathe in the sea with the sea-nymphs, regaling them with stories about the many suitors she rejected. One day after the sea-nymphs had dispersed and Scylla was headed back to the shores, one of the sea-gods, Glaucus, appeared. He saw her sweet face, and was instantly in love, desperately searching for the words to make her stay. Scylla saw his flippered arms and feet and took flight in terror. She raced back to the shore, but that was not enough, so she climbed the towering cliffs wanting to get far away.
Glaucus was heartbroken, and so he sought-out the sorceress Circe and begged her for a love potion. But when the witch saw Glaucus, she herself fell madly in love, and wanted to keep the sea-God for herself. She pleaded with Glaucus to leave it alone, to not waste his time on one that did not want him, did not deserve him, and to look instead for one that did. Glaucus was immune to her cries, his heart stayed steadfast on Scylla. Circe grew angry, enraged at the thoughtless girl who discarded Glaucus’ love so readily, and so she made a potion. She told Glaucus to take it down to the bay and sprinkle it in the cool clear waters that Scylla loved to bathe. Glaucus did as he was bidden and waited for his love to come.
Scylla entered the crystal waters, splashing through the gentle waves. As the waters reached her waist barking, beastly dogs suddenly appeared, snarling and thrashing in the waters. Scylla turned and fled, wanting to be clear of the ghastly creatures, but as she ran towards the shoreline, she began to have a horrific realization. The shallower waters revealed the snarling hound heads had sprung from her loins, and her legs were no more. Instead, they had been transformed into a twisting sea-serpent tail, hideous to behold. Scylla headed for the cliffs and found a watery recess in which to hide. There she remains to this day, exacting her revenge by attacking any sailors that passes close by, devouring them with each of the snapping dogs’ heads that spring from her loins.
Across the narrow stretch of water from Scylla’s rock, less than an arrow’s flight by some accounts, lies the hard place, embodied by Charybdis. Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, and she helped her father by engulfing lands in water thus increasing the size of his kingdom. Zeus was angered by her actions and the theft of the lands that were his domain, so he cursed her into a sea monster. Described as bladder like, with only small flippers for arms and legs, he chained her to the bedrock on the bottom of the ocean across from Scylla. There she sits drinking in the waters, and spewing them out again, creating a treacherous whirlpool that sinks the ships that are passing through (Interestingly enough, there is a natural whirlpool that forms in the Strait of Messina directly across from Scylla’s rock caused by the converging currents).
So, what do you do when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place? If you are lucky enough to be Aeneas or Jason, then divine intervention will guide you through, but poor Odysseus was not so lucky. On the advice of Circe, he hugged the rocky coastline, rationalizing it was better to lose 6 men in certainty, than risk himself and the entire ship. Is that the answer? For Odysseus maybe, but the six men that lost their lives may have preferred the other path.
“So with much lamenting we rowed on and into the strait; this side lay Scylla; that side, in hideous fashion, fiendish Charybdis sucked the salt water in. When she spewed it forth, she seethed and swirled through all her depths like a cauldron set on a great fire, and overhead the spray fell down on the tops of the two rocks. But when she sucked the sea-water in, one might look right down through the swirling eddy while the rock roared hideously around her and the sea-floor came to view, dark and sandy. Ashy terror seized on the crew. We had looked her way with the fear of death upon us; and at that moment Scylla snatched up form inside my ship the six of my crew who were the strongest of arm and sturdiest”. Homer, The Odyssey.