Ever heard of the saying “Between a rock and a hard place”? It means there are dangers or troubles no matter which direction you go in. Perhaps this is what ancient Greek travellers felt like when they were caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
Charybdis, the daughter of the sea god Pontus and the earth goddess Gaia, was a deadly whirlpool. Three times a day, Charybdis would pull in and push out water with such force that ships would be sunk. Originally a beautiful girl, Charybdis was changed by the king of gods, Zeus, because she stole the cattle belonging to his son Hercules and helped his brother Poseidon increase the area under his control by flooding the land with water.
Scylla, on the other hand, was a monster with six heads filled with sharp teeth and placed on long necks. Those sailors who came too close would be plucked off from their ships and eaten. She was the daughter of Phorycs and Ceto, deities of the sea who were also the parents of the Gorgons (remember Medusa from Perseus’ story?) and Graeae (three sisters who shared one eye and one tooth between them).
There are two stories of Scylla’s transformation into a monster. One, Poseidon’s wife Amphitrite was jealous of the nymph and poisoned the pool in which she bathed. Two, Glaucus, a sea god, fell in love with her and asked the sorceress Circe for a love potion. But Circe, who was in love with Glaucus herself, gave him a drink that turned Scylla into a monster.
Scylla and Charybdis were said to live opposite each other in a strait of water today identified with the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy. No ship could pass that stretch without being attacked by either one of them. Interestingly, the movement of water in the Strait of Messina (which is between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas) does cause a whirlpool but cannot damage modern ships.
The two feature in many of the stories of Greek mythology. Jason and the Argonauts were the first to face them but, because Jason was favoured by Hera and Athena, the sea nymphs known as Nereids guided them and his friends past the dangerous duo.
Odysseus, another Greek hero, encounters them on his way back home from the Trojan War. The sorceress Circe — yes, the same one who turned Scylla into a monster — advises him to sail closer to Scylla rather than Charybdis and to get his sailors to row as fast as they can. Odysseus follows her advice and loses six sailors to Scylla but escapes Charybdis.