One of the most iconic dangers faced by the hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, was the dual threats of Scylla and Charybdis. Sailing through a narrow strait, the ship had to choose between a deadly whirlpool or a horrifying monster.
The monster was considered to be less of a threat, although an encounter with Scylla guaranteed the deaths of six men. Odysseus chose to pass close to the beast’s lair, losing half a dozen of his strongest sailors to the monster’s snapping jaws.
Scylla was often portrayed in art and appeared in many later stories of heroic sailors. From Homer’s description, an image was created of a female sea monster with a ring of dog-like heads encircling her waist.
While Scylla’s form was unmistakably monstrous, its origins were more common. Both her shape and behavior were inspired by elements of the real world rather than pure imagination.
So where did Scylla’s snapping jaws come from? Keep reading to find out the real danger a sailor like Odysseus would face on a Mediterranean voyage!
Scylla is one of the most infamous hazards faced by the hero Odysseus during his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War.
Odysseus had stayed with the enchantress Circe for one year, and as he left her island she gave him advice for his journey home. Circe told the Ithacan king that one of the next dangers he and his crew would encounter was the deadly passage between Scylla and Charybdis.
Scylla was a terrifying monster that lived in a rocky cave. When a ship sailed near her she would leap out, grabbing men in her six gnashing mouths.
Across from Scylla was Charybdis, the giant whirlpool. The strait was too narrow to avoid both obstacles, so Odysseus would have to choose which danger to pass closest toward.
Circe advised him to sail as quickly as possible past Scylla. The monster would only snatch up six of his men, while the whirlpool could sink his entire ship and kill everyone on board.
When Odysseus sailed through the narrow passage, he wore heavy armor but did not pick up his weapons. Circe had warned him that fighting against Scylla was of no use because the monster was too quick and strong to defeat.
Odysseus urged the crew to row as quickly as possible through the narrow passageway, but no ship could match Scylla for speed. She darted out from the rocks, picking off six of his men in an instant.
The monster dashed the sailors against the rocks and devoured them as the ship hurried away. According to Homer’s narrator, the wailing of the doomed men was the most pitiful and heart-wrenching thing Odysseus faced on his ten year long journey.
The Odyssey was not Scylla’s only appearance in Classical mythology. Jason and the Argonauts passed by the monster, as well.
In Jason’s case, however, he had divine intervention to help him find his way through the strait. Hera commanded Thetis to help guide the Argo past Scylla and Charybdis, and the assistance of the sea goddess allowed the ship to travel the precise route needed to avoid both.
While later Roman writers would imagine Scylla as a sea nymph to had been transformed into a terrible monster, the Greeks believed she had always been a terrifying creature. Her six dog-like heads and the speed with which she attacked made her a horrifying spectacle.
But Scylla’s form and hiding place may also show that, before Homer’s time, Scylla had much more mundane origins.
Artistic convention showed Scylla with a ring of dog-like heads around her waist and a body that ended in a fish’s tail. Homer’s original description in the Odyssey, however, was more detailed.
He said that the six heads were on long, thin necks that allowed her to reach out to passing ships. Each head had a triple row of sharp, crowded teeth.
Additionally, she had a dozen legs hanging down from her body. These legs give historians one of their first clues as to Scylla’s origins.
Monsters in ancient Greek mythology were often inspired by familiar forms. Scylla’s dangling legs and the speed with which she darted out from the rocks have led scholars to believe that her shape was originally based on a harmless creature, the hermit crab.
In a familiar pattern, the original animal that inspired the monster was made larger and given a hybrid form. The crab-like Scylla was usually shown with some human-like features as well as a fish- or dolphin-like tail to make her more monstrous.
Artists and later writers included canine features as well, making the six heads around Scylla’s waist those of snapping dogs. This was inspired by Homer’s description of the sounds Scylla made, a yelping noise with a tone “no deeper than a young puppy’s.”
Dogs were also closely associated with the underworld and death in Greek mythology. Homer’s original description may have alluded to this, while later portrayals of Scylla made the connection more obvious.
Sea beasts in Greek legends usually represented an actual threat of sailing, however. While hermit crabs might startle beach-goers they are hardly a threat to a man, let alone an entire ship.
The strait that Scylla shared with Charybdis sheds insight into why the Greeks imagined a rock-dwelling monster that attacked ships. The location of the neighboring monsters is a real place that would have presented very real dangers to ancient vessels.
The narrow passageway exists between the island of Sicily and southern Italy. For Mediterannean ships it was the quickest route from east to west, but it was fraught with peril.
The whirlpool that inspired Charybdis can be witnessed to this day, although it is much to small to have presented a real threat to a Greek ship, let alone a modern vessel. But the rocky sides of the strait, where Scylla was said to live, still pose dangers.
Ancient ships passing through the Strait of Messina had to be careful not to pass too closely to the edge. The whirlpool was a relatively minor danger, but the rocks near Messina’s cliffs could prove quite deadly.
The jagged rocks along the Italian coastline could easily puncture the hull of a wooden ship. Even if the ship did not sink, a collision with an underwater rock could knock men and supplies overboard.
Scylla’s quick movements could allude to the way in which the rocks just beneath the water’s surface could appear seemingly out of nowhere. The narrow strait’s dangers changed with the tide, making the rocks visible at some times and imperceptible at others.
Scylla, therefore, represented the dangers that lurked in the Strait of Messina. While Odysseus and his men faced a six-headed monster, real sailors would face jagged rocks that lurked just below the surface of the water.
The sea monster Scylla lived in a cave beside a narrow strait opposite the whirlpool Charybdis. In the Odyssey, a ship had to pass near one of the dangers because the passageway was too narrow to avoid both.
Odysseus was advised to pass by Scylla as the less dangerous option. While going near the monster meant six of his men would die, the whirlpool had the ability to sink his entire ship.
While the men of Odysseus’s rowed as quickly as they could past the cave in which the monster lived, Scylla was too fast to avoid entirely. Six men were snatched up in the creature’s six hideous mouths.
Scylla’s half dozen heads were usually depicted as canine, inspired by both Homer’s description and the association of dogs with monsters of the underworld.
The shape described by Homer was reminiscent of a hermit crab, a common sight along the coast. Her position among the rocks was another link to the real world.
Scylla most likely represented the dangerous hidden rocks that lay within the Strait of Messina, the narrow strip of water that separates Sicily and Southern Italy. Hidden rocks would be hard to avoid in such a tight passage and could easily sink the wooden ships of the Greeks.
Homer’s monster was one of the most terrifying dangers faced by the hero of the Odyssey. Her real-world origins, however, are easy to explain.