Charybdis: The Deadly Whirpool of Greek Mythology
Sailors in Greek legend inevitably had to sail through a narrow channel that offered a difficult choice. Their captains had to steer their ships toward one of two dangers – Scylla and Charybdis.
Of the two, Charybdis was generally agreed to be the most dangerous. A massive whirlpool large enough to pull an entire ship beneath the waves, an encounter with Charybdis could mean death for everyone aboard the ship.
So who, or what, was Charybdis? The myths aren’t even clear on whether the legendary danger was a monster or a natural part of the seascape.
From daring escapes to a story of unrequited love, there is a lot more to Charybdis that just some swirling water!
Like many Greek monsters, Charybdis represented a real danger that could be encountered in the world.
Charybdis was a giant whirlpool, large enough to suck in an entire ship. She lived in a narrow channel of water that was also home to the devouring monster Scylla.
When passing through this strait, sailors had to make a choice of which monster they would sail closest to. The way was so narrow that, without the assistance of the gods, it was impossible to go through without being attacked by one of them.Scylla and Charybdis were so dangerous that it was said that no ship could ever pass through their channel without losing at least some lives. Click To Tweet
Of the two, Charybdis was generally regarded as the more deadly because she could destroy an entire ship in an instant. Scylla’s six heads were terrifying, but by sailing quickly enough a ship could lose only a few men to her before getting out of reach.
Modern and ancient sources place the home of Scylla and Charybdis in the real Strait of Messina, a narrow stretch of sea that separates Southern Italy and Sicily.
Scylla probably embodied the dangerous, jutting rocks that could harm a ship that got to close. Charybdis, however, was a literal whirlpool.
The whirlpool in the Strait of Messina is a real feature, although it is not nearly as dangerous as the Charybdis of legend. The actual whirlpool in the strait is only a danger to very small vessels, and even then only in extreme circumstances.
The stories of the ancient world made the whirlpool into a much more deadly threat. From the early writings of Homer to the later Roman works of Virgil and Ovid, it was agreed that Charybdis was wide enough to swallow a ship and so deep that the ocean floor could be seen in its center.
Sometimes Charybdis was characterized as a monster, a living counterpart to Scylla. In other stories, though, it was simply a name given to a natural feature of the sea.
One of the characteristics of Charybdis was that she swallowed sea water on a regular schedule. She was given the name Trienos, or Three-Times, because of this cycle.
This description has given scholars another interpretation of the nature of Charybdis. Instead of a whirlpool, they believe she may have represented the tide.
Sucking in water would explain the three low tides of the day, while its expulsion explained high tide. Instead of a single feature, Charybdis would have been seen as the source of a world-wide phenomenon that happened several times a day.In a narrow channel like the Strait of Messina, the changing tides could be just as dangerous to a ship as a whirlpool. Click To Tweet
The changing water level could hide dangerous rocks under the surface of the water, making them invisible to sailors even though they could pierce the hull of a ship. And even the slightest shift in position caused by changing tides could drive a ship into the rocks in a strait so narrow.
Most readings of Scylla and Charybdis lead to the conclusion that ships were forced to sail closer to Scylla, who represented the rocks, to avoid being sucked into a whirlpool. But interpreting Charybdis as the force of the tides means that her power forced ships to go closer to rocks they would ordinarily avoid.
This interpretation is also supported by the way in which Scylla leaps out of her cave when attacking passing ships. Like rocks hidden beneath a higher tide, she catches ships unaware.
Charybdis represented a natural phenomenon. Like many Greek monsters, she initially had no concrete origin story.
As with many other beasts in Greek mythology, however, later writers created a story to explain how Charybdis came to be. Like many of these later additions to the mythology, they imagined Charybdis to have once been a beautiful maiden.
In this case, she was a daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. Charybdis was loyal to her father and used her power over water to serve him.
Poseidon and Zeus often quarreled in many legends. They would use their respective powers to hurt one another by causing damage to the people and lands that the other had claimed.
In some of these arguments, Poseidon sought to get the upper hand over Zeus by flooding land that the king of the gods had claimed. This drove away worshippers there and caused crops to fail so that Zeus received fewer sacrifices.
In the origin story of Charybdis, the young goddess had helped her father in these efforts. She had the power to raise water levels, which she used to aid Poseidon in his efforts to hurt Zeus.
Zeus was angry that his niece had crossed him, so he punished her harshly. He turned Charybdis into a monster that swallowed and expelled huge amounts of water three times a day.
An alternate story retains Charybdis as the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia and has her punished by Zeus. The reason, however, is different.
In this story, Charybdis was a greedy woman. She stole cattle that belonged to Heracles, so the king of the gods punished her for offending his favorite son.
Zeus sent a thunderbolt to strike her and sent her flying into the sea.
These stories were later additions to the mythology and were never widely believed among the Greeks. They illustrate, however, the way in which characters in the myths continued to change and evolve over time.
Charybdis also evolved in her relationship with her neighbor, Scylla. Homer and other writers made no mention of how the two monsters came to live in such close proximity to one another, but a Greek writer from the 2nd century AD sought to provide an explanation:
Skylla (Scylla), daughter of Krataiis (Crataeis) (of the Rocks) or Trienos (Three-Times) and Phorkos (Phorcus).
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E7. 20 (trans. Aldrich)
This single line from Pseudo-Apollodorus is the only one in which Charybdis is described as related to Scylla. Using her epithet Trienos, the late Greek writer claimed that the whirlpool had, with the legendary sea god Phorcus, given birth to the monster that she shared her narrow strait with.
Charybdis is not best remembered as the child of Poseidon or mother of Scylla, though. The whirlpool is famous for the role it played in many of Greece’s most famous legends.
The twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis were faced by some of Greece’s most famous heroes. Each dealt with the danger in a different way.
- Odysseus sailed through the strait after leaving the island of Circe. Heading her advice, he took his ship past Scylla so that he would only lose six crew members instead of risking the entire vessel.
- He faced Charybdis again, however, while alone on a raft. He survived the whirlpool by clinging to the branches of a fig tree that grew over the site where Charybdis wrecked his small raft.
- Jason and the Argonauts sailed through the same channel while on their quest for the Golden Fleece. He was aided by Hera and Thetis, who safely guided his ship down the center of the strait and just out of reach of both Scylla and Charybdis.
- In Roman legends, Aeneus also encountered the whirlpool. He sailed around the southern edge of Sicily to avoid passing through the channel, but later was nearly sucked in by Charybdis when sailing near Etna.
The first of these stories, the Odyssey, was written in the 8th century BC. Homer’s epic work was the basis for much of later mythology, and his depictions of Scylla and Charybdis undoubtedly influenced the later writers of the Argonautica and Aeneid.
Charybdis may have also appeared in the works of another famous Greek writer. Apart from the epic tails of sea voyages the whirlpool was popular in, it may have also been featured in Aesop’s famous fables.
These stories were short and often humorous, almost always having a moral lesson to impart. Many of Aesop’s fables are still popular around the world today.
Some, however, are less well remembered and less documented. One of these was the story that featured Charybdis.
Aesop’s stories have a murkier history than those of great epic poets like Homer and Virgil. They were not collected and written in a definitive text.
In fact, there is some doubt as to whether Aesop existed at all. The piecemeal way in which the fables were collected and passed on may indicate that the writer himself was a fictional character.
Instead of being a writer, Aesop may have just been a character to whom popular tales were credited.
Whether as the original author or as a fictitious one, however, Aesop was occasionally inserted into his own stories. Aristotle mentioned one such fable in a work of astronomy.
In the story of Aesop and the Ferryman, the fabulist is teased by a ferry driver and uses the legend of Charybdis to get back at the boatman.
Aesop claimed that Charybdis did not constantly suck in and expel water, but that she would swallow the sea three times in total.
The first time she had done so, the water level lowered enough to bring the mountains into view. The second time, islands appeared that had once been covered.
The third time, Aesop claimed, was yet to come. When it did the sea would be entirely swallowed and nothing would remain.
Therefore, Aesop had no reason to pay attention to the ferryman’s taunts. Any man who worked on a boat would soon find himself out of a job.
The story imparted the lesson that it was unwise to make fun of someone who was smarter than yourself, and that anyone could find their situation reduced to the level of the people they thought themselves better than.
It also had a root in Greek philosophy, however. According to the philosopher Democritis, who wrote around 400 BC, the sea level was constantly becoming lower and someday it would be completely dried up.
Aesop’s fable may have been fictitious, but the image of Charybdis swallowing the sea until nothing was left was based on actual beliefs of the ancient world.
In the epic poems, travelling past Scylla and Charybdis presented a difficult choice. To this day, their names are invoked to mean a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Passing through the channel that the two monsters called home was deadly no matter how one chose. Only with the direct aid of a god, like that received by Jason, could one hope to navigate the strait without coming into contact with one or the other.
Others, like Aeneis, chose to avoid the danger altogether by taking a route that was much longer but significantly safer. Even then, however, he eventually got sucked in and barely escaped the pull of Charybdis.
For Odysseus, there was no option but to choose between the two dangers. He chose to brave Scylla in the hopes of minimizing the losses to his crew.
The three heroes, who stories share many similarities beyond their encounters with Charybdis, all made a different choice when presented with the path that passed by Scylla and Charybdis.
The two who sought to minimize or completely avoid the danger eventually ran into Charybdis again, unable to completely escape the whirlpool’s power. The only hero able to completely avoid it was Jason, who was also the only one of the three to receive aid directly from the gods.
Figures and stories in Greek mythology had a tendency to change over time. Over the course of a thousand years many legends were adapted to fit the changing attitudes and beliefs of the culture.
Charybdis was no different. It’s possible that the story of a whirlpool monster grew up long before the time of Homer when smaller boats and more primitive navigation techniques would have made even the small whirlpool of the Strait of Messina a true danger.
By Homer’s time, that was no longer the case. Ships were larger and more advanced, so the actual whirlpool had to be made monstrously large and powerful to present a real threat.
Over time, audiences expected more from their stories. They wanted even monsters and natural threats to have a lineage, and the creation of Charybdis was changed to reflect that taste.Eventually, Charybdis went from being a small whirlpool to having a complex origin story of unrequited love and immense power. Click To Tweet
The relatively benign conflagration of currents off the coast of Sicily grew to have the power to someday swallow the whole ocean.
In every story, however, Charybdis served as a lesson in making difficult choices, avoiding greater dangers, and never presuming to be safe.
In the end, Charybdis could have been a monster that represented a real whirlpool, the whirlpool itself, or representative of the power of the tides. When three of Greece’s most famous mariners were given the choice, they all agreed that Charybdis was the most dangerous monster in the narrow channel she shared with Scylla.