Sea Monsters: Scylla & Charybdis

Whether you know Scylla and Charybdis as two of Greek mythology’s darkest villains, or most tragic players, they are undoubtedly an iconic pairing in the world of ocean folklore. Two powerful, angry, female characters who weave themselves into the stories of men and change the course of their paths.

They rule over a narrow channel of water, the Strait of Messina. Scylla quietly haunts the coast of the island of Sicily, laying in wait for unsuspecting sailors and fishermen to cross her path, while Charybdis violently thrashes against the coast of Calabria (on the Italian mainland), sucking her prey down into the deep blue. They dwell close enough to each other that, working in unison, they become an inescapable threat.

Greek mythology cites Charybdis as the elder of the two, normally thought to be the daughter of two primordial deities, Pontus or Poseidon (of the Sea) and Gaia (of the Earth). She is the personification of a deadly whirlpool, profoundly connected to flow of the tides, but able to weave her own black sea magic and bend the water to her wicked will. She was born with a monstrous hatred for mankind.

Scylla’s appearance is outwardly more terrifying, commonly described as having six long necks and twelve feet, she is thought to be the personification of an underwater reef with deadly teeth that rip open ship’s hulls. To me, her story is the more compelling of the two.

Where Scylla’s “evil sea monster” narrative seems to diverge is in the suggestion that she was not always as she appears. One tale of the transformation of Scylla sees her metamorphosis from beautiful sea nymph at the hands of the jealous goddess Amphitrite, who poisons the pool in which Scylla bathes when she notices her husband Poseidon flirting with her, turning her soft skin to scales.

However, I was first drawn to researching Scylla after I read Madeline Miller’s beautiful book “Circe”, which tells a sadder tale of transformation at the hands of the sea god, Glaucus.

For many months, Glaucus admired Scylla from afar, falling more deeply in love with her with each day that passed, as she sang sweetly and bathed in sapphire pools before him. Desperate for his feelings to be reciprocated, Glaucus visited the sorceress Circe and asked her for a love potion. Yet she had other plans, as Circe was in love with Glaucus and could not bear to lose him to Scylla. So she concocted a poison, rather than a potion, and Glaucus looked on in horror as his love made the grizzly transformation before him.

Together, Scylla and Charybdis are two of the most evocative characters in Greek mythology. They are the personification of our greatest fears of the ocean; the unknown and the uncontrollable. But where Charybdis feels more to me like the untethered rage of a sea storm, an inexplicable anger, Scylla is more nuanced. Her vengeance is indiscriminate, yet there are moments through the myths where she makes mistakes, and intriguing decisions, that perhaps mean the nymph is not entirely lost.

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