Scylla and Charybdis - Greek Mythology - Myth of Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and Charybdis - Greek Mythology - Myth of Scylla and Charybdis


Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli,
(1507 -1563) National Museum, Messina (Sicily)

Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli
(1507 -1563), National Museum, Messina (Sicily)

In the stories that have been handed down to us it is said that in the current city of Reggio Calabria, the beautiful once lived nymph Scylla, daughter of Typhoonand Echidna (or according to others of Forco and Crateis).

Scylla, Mural painting, III cent. B.C.

Scilla, to whom nature had given an incredible grace, used to go to the rocks of Zancle, to walk barefoot on the beach and bathe in the clear waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. One evening, while she was lying on the sand, she heard a noise coming from the sea and noticed a wave coming towards her. Petrified by fear, she saw appearing from the waves a being half man and half fish with a blue body with a face framed by a thick green beard and shoulder-length hair full of fragments of algae. He was a sea god who had once been a fisherman named Glaucus that a prodigy had transformed into a being of divine nature.

Scylla, terrified at his sight because she did not understand what kind of creature it was, took refuge on the top of a mountain that rose nearby. The sea god, seeing the reaction of the nymph, began to shout his love to her and to tell her his dramatic story. In fact, Glaucus was once a fisherman from Boeotia and precisely from Antedone, a man like all the others, who spent his long days fishing. One day, after a luckier fishing than usual, he spread his nets to dry on a lawn adjacent to the beach, and lined up the fish on the grass to count them when, as soon as they came into contact with the grass, they began to move, they caught vigor, they lined up in a pack as if they were in the water and hopping, they returned to the sea.

Glaucus, astonished by this prodigy, did not know whether to think of a miracle or a strange whim of a god. However, discarding the hypothesis that a god could waste time with a humble fisherman like him, he thought that the phenomenon depended on the grass and tried to swallow a few threads. As he ate it, he felt a new being born within him that fought his human nature to transform him into a being irresistibly attracted to water.

Glauco and Scilla (1580/1582)
Bartholomäus Spranger, Kunst historisches Museum, Vienna (Austria)

The gods of the sea welcomed him so kindly that they prayedOceanisThetisto free him from the last semblances of human and earthly nature and to make him a divine being. Accepted their prayer, Glauco was transformed into a god and from the waist down he was changed into a fish.

Here is how Ovid (Metamorphosis, XIII, 924 and following) narrates the episode:
“It was a nice lawn there by the beach, part of which it covered
The wave of the sea, surrounded part of the tender herbs,
That the horned heifers did not bite the quiet
Sheep never grazed nor never the shaggy goats.
On that clump I sat drying the wet pots;
And, to count them, I arranged the fish in order on the lawn
All those fish began to move at the touch of the grass,
They dart and jump on the ground as if they were at sea.
While I linger and amaze, the crowd of all those fish
Throw yourself in the native waves and leave me and the beach.
I am amazed, I am perplexed, I look for the cause,
whether some god has done the miracle or the juice of the grass.
But what is the grass so portentous? I took a handful of it
With one hand and I bit it with my teeth. But like the throat
He had swallowed the unknown juice, I felt trembling
Soon the precordi and in the chest the love of another element.
Little was I able to stay on the shore and I screamed: - Vale, land,
Where I will not return! - and I plunged my body into the waves.
The sea gods deign to welcome me as a companion;
Pray the Ocean and Thetis of tormi the mortal part.
When I came to, I found that I was completely no longer that
I had already been there for the body and that the soul was different.
I saw dark green my beard then dyed the first
Vault and the long hair that I drag on the vast sea;
I saw the cerulean arms and the humerus made overwhelming
And, like a fish thing, it curves its legs to the extreme ».

Scylla, after having listened to the story of Glauco, heedless of his pain, went away leaving him alone and desperate. Then Glauco thought of going to the island of Eea where the palace of the sorceress Circe hoping that he could do a spell to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe, after Glauco had told his love, warned him harshly, reminding him that he was a god and therefore he did not need to beg a mortal woman to be loved and to show him how wrong he was to consider himself unfortunate, she proposed to join her. But Glauco refused to betray his love for Scylla and did it so passionately that Circe, furious at being rejected because of a mortal, decided to take revenge.

Charybdis, ancient sculpture

As soon as Glauco was gone, he prepared a filter and went to the beach of Zancle, where Scilla used to go. He poured the filter into the sea and then returned to his home. When Scilla arrived, heated by the great heat of the day, she decided to immerse herself in the clear waters. But, after she got wet, she saw monstrous dog heads around her, angry and snarling. Frightened, she tried to chase them away but, once out of the water, she noticed that those snouts were attached to her legs through a long serpentine neck. She then realized that she was still a nymph up to her hips but six ferocious dog heads sprouted from her hips, each with three rows of sharp teeth.

The horror that Scylla had of herself was such that she threw herself into the sea and took up residence in the hollow of a rock near the cave where she lived. Charybdis. She was this daughter of Forco (or Poseidon) and Gaea and for having stolen the oxen of Geryon from Heracles, Zeus electrocuted her and turned her into a terrible sea monster (some authors tell instead that she was killed by Heracles himself, but it was then resurrected by her father Forco) destined to swallow and reject sea water three times a day.

Glaucus wept over the fate of Scilla and was forever in love with the image of grace and sweetness that the nymph once represented.

Scylla and Cariddi, both frightening sea monsters, were therefore close to each other to form what modern people call "The Strait of Messina" and while Cariddi swallows and rejects the sea water three times a day, creating gigantic whirlpools, Scylla attentive to the life of sailors with its six heads trying to grab as many sailors.

Here is the description that Homer makes of Scylla (Odyssey, XII, 112 and following):

«Scylla lodges there, that annoying cries
To send does not rest. She voice it
It seems nothing more than a perennial trouble
Of suckling cagnuol: but Scilla is atrocious
Monster, and up to a god, who split himself,
He would not look at her without disgust,
Twelve has feet, all front,
Six very long hills and on each
Frightening a head, and in the mouths
Of thick teeth a tripled round,
And the bitterest death of any tooth.
With half of himself in the hollow
Deep speco she twists, and out
He sticks out his heads, looking around,
If you fish dolphins, wolves, or any puote
Of those monsters greater than a thousand to a thousand
It closes Amphitrite in its eddies and nourishes.
Nor did the pilots ever cross unscathed:
For how many opens dishonest mouths,
Many men fly away from the hollow wood ».

According to Virgil Scilla was transformed into a being that from the chest up had the appearance of a woman while from the chest down it had the appearance of a wolf and a fish. In fact, Virgil of the Aeneid (III, 681-689) narrates:

«Scylla into its dark caves
He was undermining them; and with mouths
Of his voracious monsters, which he spread out
It always keeps the sailors open
I enter its cave to itself it draws and gobbles.
From the middle up the face, neck and chest
He has a woman and a virgin; the rest
Of a pistrice, huge, that similar
Dolphins have tails, wolves have their bellies. "

Scilla and Cariddi
Johann Heinrich Füssli,, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich (Switzerland)

Dr. Maria Giovanna Davoli

Video: Scylla and Charybdis