Riding the wave

Scylla and Charybdis

In the multitude of legends that belong to mythology, many are focusing on the marine environment, which often expresses fear of the unpredictable or represents a danger, real or alleged, for the mariner.

Crossing a strait , with its various difficulties, assumed the symbolic value of exceeding the boundaries between the familiar and the unknown hostile forces and control of chaos, represented by the forces of nature.

Those dangerous areas, bordering the impassable, were usually identified with the monsters guarding the passage, that threatened those who wished to overcome.

On the rock located in the Strait of Messina lived a monster named Charybdis. She was the daughter of Earth and Poseidon , and, during her life as a woman, had shown great voracity. When Heracles crossed the Strait with the herds of Geryon, Scylla devoured the animals.

Zeus punished her by hitting one of his lightning and thrown her into the sea, transforming her into a monster: three times a day Charybdis swallowed water masses with everything that came with, and so swallowed ships that ventured into her neighborhood , and then spewing the water.

When Ulysses first passed through the Strait, he escaped the monster, but, after the wreck caused by the sacrilege against the oxen of the Sun, was captured by the current of Charybdis. However he had the adroitness of holding on to a fig tree that grew at the entrance to the cave, where the monster was hidden, so when this one threw up the tree, Odysseus was able to rescue and return shipping.

At a stone's throw, on the opposite side of the Strait, another monster waited for sailors. Scylla was hidden deep in the den of darkness, which opened in the smooth and polished rock, inaccessible to mortals.

The rock of Scylla The rock of Scylla in an engraving of the nineteenth century

To this name are connected two different legends. According to the first one, Scylla was a female, the daughter of a god, whose identity differs depending on the various versions; she was surrounded by six vicious dogs, devouring everything that passed nearby. Also the story of how Scylla became a monster changes in different traditions.

In the Odyssey Homer tells how Glaucus , in love with Scylla, refused the love of the enchantress Circe. She, in revenge for the rival, mixed evil herbs in the source of water in which Scylla bathed. The body of the young woman was transformed, so that her pelvis sprouted monstrous dogs.

In other versions, Circe had transformed the young at the instigation of Amphitrite , in love with Poseidon , who had preferred Scilla. Or Scylla was punished by Poseidon, for having fallen in love with Glaucus.

Still another version attributes the death of the young woman to Hercules : when he passed through the area with the oxen of Geryon, Scylla ate some, a fight ensued and Scylla was killed.

According to the second myth, Scylla was the daughter of Nisus, king of Megara. He remained invincible as long as he kept on his head a golden hair (or a purple one). When the city was besieged by Minos, who wanted to avenge the killing of Androgeus, Scylla fell in love with him and, to let him win, cut the hair of her father, after having obtained promises from Minos that he would marry her if she had betrayed his city in the name of the love for him.

Minos defeated Nisus, but, when he discovered the crime with which Scylla had helped him, in horror he tied her to the bow of his boat and drowned her. The gods took pity for her and transformed her into a heron.