Scylla: The Most Deadly Monster of the Sea
Scylla is one of the most famous sea monsters of Greek mythology. Paired with Charybdis, the great whirlpool, she threatened sailors with six vicious heads that lashed out at passing ships.
No ship that sailed past these two terrors could avoid losing men to the monsters.
Most people recognize Scylla and Charybdis for their role in the Odyssey. The dangerous monsters appeared in several other myths, however.
From where she from came to how she was depicted, there’s a lot more to the story of Scylla than just her attack on Odysseus and his ship!
Scylla is familiar to many because of her role in one of the most famous pieces of literature from the ancient Greek world. Homer’s Odyssey features Scylla as one of the many dangers the legendary hero Odysseus faces on his journey home from the Trojan War.
Odysseus had been given a prophecy that his participation in the war meant that he would not see his home for a full twenty years. Although he tried to avoid sailing for Troy, he was unable to get out of his commitment as a Greek king.
The war lasted ten years and Odysseus, like the rest of the exhausted Greek troops, was eager to return to his homeland. He had left behind his wife and infant son and hoped, despite the prophecy, to see them soon.
He made the grave error, however, of angering one of the most powerful gods of Olympus. He had unjustly blinded one of Poseidon’s sons, the cyclops Polyphemus, and arrogantly boasted about his crime.
The god of the sea took every opportunity to exact revenge on Odysseus for this offense.
The sea held many dangers, even for those who had not personally angered the god that ruled over it.Two of the most deadly of these were the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Click To Tweet
The two deadly sea creatures lived on either side of a narrow channel of water, often identified by historians as the dangerous Strait of Messina between Southern Italy and Sicily. To navigate the strait, sailors would have to choose which of the evils to pass by.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus faces this choice when he leaves Circe’s island to continue his voyage. The enchantress advises him to pass closer to Scylla, as she is the less dangerous of the two monsters.
Scylla attacked ships by snapping at them, picking off a few sailors at a time. Charybdis was an enormous whirlpool.
Circe advised Odysseus that Scylla represented less of a danger to his ship, as long as he could sail past her quickly. She might be able to grab a handful of his men, but that was preferable to risking the loss of his entire ship against Charybdis.
His first instinct was to fight the monster, but Circe told him that to do so would be suicidal. Scylla could not be killed and any pause near her would give her a chance to grab more of his men.
Circe also told the hero to petition Scylla’s mother, a river nymph in Homer’s narrative, for assistance. The nymph would be able to convince the monster to only pounce on the ship once, limiting the losses.
Odysseus followed this advice and, when his ship neared the channel, stayed close to the rocks where Scylla made her home. Remembering Circe’s caution against a fight, he wore heavy armour but no weapons.
He also did not warn his men about the monster they were about to face. He worried that if they knew the danger they would have tried to hide instead of rowing to get past quickly.
The ship had almost passed by safely until his crew lost focus, distracted by nearby Charybdis.
Scylla took the opportunity to attack, grabbing six members of Odysseus’s crew. She ate the unfortunate men alive while the rest of the ship’s men looked on in horror.
The ship passed before she had the opportunity to claim any more of Odysseus’s men. Although six lives had been lost to the monster, the majority of the crew made it safely through the strait.
Scylla also appeared in the story of another famous ship in Greek mythology. Jason and the Argonauts, the crew of the ship Argo, passed by the monster as well.
The voyage of the Argo has many parallels to that of Odysseus. Homer’s works had been very influential to later writers and had set the standard for the perils a hero would face travelling through the Mediterranean.
Like Odysseus, Jason first passed by the Sirens before reaching the narrow channel where Scylla and Charybdis waited.
While Odysseus had gotten advice from a witch, however, Jason had the assistance of a goddess.
Hera had been his patroness, and she knew as well as Circe had the dangers that lay in the strait. She requested aid in making sure none of the Argonauts fell prey to the monsters.
Hera petitioned Thetis, a sea goddess, to help guide the Argo through the dangerous waters. While Odysseus’s men had to steer past the monsters on their own, Thetis controlled the waters for the Argonauts.
With the help of a goddess, Jason’s ship was able to perfectly navigate the center of the strait. They stayed just out of reach of both Scylla and Charybdis.
The Argo sailed down the middle of the channel, just a fraction of an inch separating them from danger on either side. It would have been an impossible feat for any human to steer.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman cultural hero takes a different approach altogether. Rather than risk the dangerous strait, he sets a much longer course around the southern edge of Sicily to avoid the monster entirely.
The descriptions given of Scylla in the written legends provide a reason to fear passing too closely to her.
According to Homer, she had six long heads with which she lashed out to grab passing sea creatures and humans alike. No one had ever sailed past her without losing men.
Inside [the cave] lives Skylla (Scylla), yelping hideously; her voice is no deeper than a young puppy’s but she herself is a fearsome monster; no one could see her and still be happy, not even a god if he went that way. 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, and there, groping greedily round the rock, she fishes for dolphins and for sharks and whatever beast more huge than these she can seize upon … No seaman ever, in any vessel, has boasted of sailing that way unharmed, for with every single head of hers she snatches and carries off a man from the dark-prowed ship.
-Homer, Odyssey 12. 54 ff (trans. Shewring)
In reading Homer’s description and looking at painted images of Scylla from the period, historians believe her form may have been inspired by a hermit crab. From a small marine animal she grew to be a terrifying beast.
Later writers took Homer’s description as a basis for their version of Scylla, but expanded on her monstrous characteristics.
Like many mythological monsters, she was described as being half human. Her upper half was said to resemble a woman, while her lower body was more like a sea monster.
Virgil claimed that her tail was like that of a dolphin while her belly resembled a wolverine.
The six heads that Homer described were later clarified to be canine. Dogs were frequently associated with underworld monsters in Greek mythology, and the ring of dog heads around her waist gave Scylla a resemblance to Typhon, the legendary giant who challenged Zeus.
Scylla’s name gives a clue to both her earliest inspiration and her later visualization. It is thought to come from two words in Greek.
Skillaros was the Greek word for a hermit crab, which Scylla’s protruding legs were almost certainly based on. Skylo, a verb meaning “to rend,” also bears a resemblance to her name.
Another closely-related word, however, was skylax. A word for both a dog and a type of shark, the similar sound may have inspired writers and artists to show Scylla with dog heads and legs.
Scylla fit many of the standard tropes of a monster in Greek mythology. She was half human, had multiple heads, had a serpentine tail, and possessed canine characteristics.
While her form was initially inspired by a small and harmless creature, over time the description grew to fit the type of monster the Greeks expected their heroes to face.
While Scylla’s appearance was described in horrifying detail, where she came from was always less clear.
Monsters in Greek mythology were not always given origin stories. When they were, it was usually to connect them back to other myths.
Because of this, there were often varying backgrounds given for the monsters.
Scylla was no different. There were many different versions of how the monster came to be, all linking her back to different legends.
Some theories of her parentage included:
- Homer simply said that she was the daughter of Ceto, a mythic sea beast.
- Later writers claimed that Ceto had married her brother Phorcus, who was the god of the dangerous ocean depths. He was often given as Scylla’s father.
- In some version, Phorcus had fathered her on Lamia, the shark-monster who stole children.
- One version said that Charybdis was the mother of Scylla, explaining why the two remained so close.
- Hecate, the goddess of magic, was another possible mother who gave birth to Scylla with either Apollo or Phorcus as the father. Perhaps to reconcile this version of the story with others, one writer claimed that Hecate and Ceto were one and the same.
- At least one writer said that Triton, the eldest son and herald of Poseidon, was Scylla’s father with an unnamed mother.
- Poseidon himself was sometimes said to be her father, generally with Ceto as the mother.
- Later mythographers included Scylla among the many monstrous children of Typhon and the serpent-woman Echidna.
Most versions of Scylla’s origin link her to the earlier sea creatures of Greek mythology. Phorcus, for example, was also given as the father of monsters such as the Gorgons and Echidna.There was at least one story, however, that claimed that Scylla had not been born a monster at all. Click To Tweet
By the Classical period and into the Roman era, it was common for many monsters to have much more complicated origin stories than those generally given in earlier Greek writings. Often these include the transformation of a beautiful young woman by a jealous or angry goddess.
Scylla’s story was no different. Ovid included her in his Metamorphosis as a river nymph.
According to the Roman writer, Scylla had the face of a beautiful young girl because that was what she had once been.
Many men and gods loved Scylla, but she rejected them all. Eventually, she caught the eye of the sea-god Glaucus, but he too was turned away.
Glaucus was furious that Scylla had rejected him, so he went to the famous witch Circe for help in winning Scylla’s affections.
Instead, Circe confessed her own love for the god. She begged him to abandon his unrequited love for the nymph and be with her instead.
But Glaucus was unmoved by the enchantress’s pleading and swore that he could never love another woman as long as Scylla was alive.
Circe was enraged. She loved Glaucus too much to hurt him, however, so she took her anger out on Scylla instead.
Circe used her magic to cast a deforming spell on the nymph. Scylla transformed into a monster while she waded at the edge of the sea.
When Scylla looked down and saw the monstrous dog heads ringing her waist, she didn’t realize that they were a part of her own body. Believing she was being attacked by a monster, she fled.
When she reached the cave in the narrow strait she realized that she was not being attacked by a monster, but was becoming one herself. She stayed there forever.
Circe’s cruelty had not won the heart of Glaucus, however. The god mourned for the lost beauty of Scylla.
Scylla vowed to take the first chance she could to have some measure of revenge on Circe. When Odysseus, or Ulysses as he was called by the Latin writers, left Circe’s island Scylla attacked his ship because the witch had loved the mortal man.
Monsters in Greek mythology typically ended their stories in one of two ways – they were either killed by a great hero or simply faded out of the story once their part had been played.
For Scylla, both endings applied.
Early Greek writings mentioned Scylla during the voyages of famous ships, but said little about what happened to the monster after the ship had passed. It was assumed that she remained in her narrow channel with Charybdis, still preying on passing ships and sea creatures.
A later myth, however, gave Scylla the type of death that was typical of a monster.
This addition to the traditional story claimed that Heracles passed through the channel where Scylla lived while on a voyage to Sicily. While Odysseus and Jason had not dared to fight the dreadful monster, Heracles was strong enough to slay her.
Scylla’s story did not end with her death, though. Her father, Phorcus in this version, applied flaming torches to her body to resurrect her.Scylla had been killed by a great hero, but still posed a threat to those travelling at sea. Click To Tweet
Some later writers, however, seemed to have believed that Scylla did die at some point.
Virgil and others named her along with other legendary monsters as guardians of the gates of the underworld. According to Virgil, she no longer hunted from her cave on earth but instead lurked at the entrance to Hades’ realm.
Scylla was a monster that haunted the sea and, like most monsters in Greek mythology, seems to have at one time represented a very real danger.
The hazards of the world, including those of the ocean, were often portrayed in mythology as monsters or beasts. These creatures embodied natural phenomena that were harmful or deadly to humans.
Scylla most likely represented the jagged rocks that protruded from the side of the Strait of Messina.
The northern portion of the real strait does contain a large whirlpool. Sailors would have to carefully navigate around it, coming uncomfortably close to the rocks on the other side.
These rocks could be just as deadly as the whirlpool. Crashing into them could cause catastrophic leaks, while even a slight bump could knock sailors overboard.
The way in which Scylla pounced out her cave was a reflection of how suddenly a ship could hit against a rock. A slight error in navigation or the failure to spot a boulder under the water could catch even the most experienced sailor unaware.
The real-world link to the story is evident even today. The modern Italian town of Scila is named after the monster that was said to live there.
Scylla may have been a legendary monster, but her link to a real danger was evident even to ancient writers.
Scylla remains one of the most well-known and recognizable monsters in Greek mythology, particularly among those connected to the sea. Like ancient writers, our view of mythology is so largely influenced by Homer that her mention in the Odyssey ensured she remained part of the popular imagination.
Today, the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” is used when talking about choosing between two bad options. Odysseus faced this choice when navigating the Strait of Messina, knowing that whichever said of the strait he chose he would lose members of his crew.
Odysseus made the choice to minimize his losses by going past Scylla. Later in the story, however, Odysseus alone had to pass by Charybdis anyway.
Aeneus avoided the choice by taking a longer path. Jason was able to safely navigate the strait only with divine intervention.
All three of the ancient world’s most famous mariners faced the choice between Scylla and Charybdis. They dealt with it in three different ways – by making the least dangerous choice, by avoiding it entirely, or with the help of a goddess.
In the end, Scylla and Charybdis represented more than just real dangers of the sea. They represented a difficult choice and how three different men handled the decision.
Sailing past Scylla, the hideous monster who may have once been an innocent nymph, was guaranteed to result in the deaths of some of the ship’s crew, as it did when Odysseus made his choice. But sacrificing six lives was preferable to risking the entire ship by sailing near Charybdis.