Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Scylla and Charybdis

In Greek mythology Odysseus had to make his way between two dangers. Of these Scylla was a rock on which a gigantic monster threatened his ship, on the other was a giant whirlpool called Charybdis. Thus originated the phrase endlessly used in classical literature, and down to our times: Between Scylla and Charybdis. With first Greek and later Latin no longer obligatory in school—studying in Germany, I was still required to take Latin—the mythological images have much less currency. We’re therefore more likely to say: Between the rock and the hard place. An eighteenth century political cartoon, courtesy of Wikipedia here, gives an image of the myth: Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis.

I find myself obliged to quote part of that phrase in the next post, hence I thought I would discover (so easy with the Internet) where moderns think that Scylla is and whether Charybdis is still whirling. The collective wisdom is that the location of Odysseus’ trauma took place in the Strait of Messina, the narrow seaway that separates Sicily from mainland Italy. On the western shore of Italy there, in Calabria, sits a rock and settlement called Scilla.

In the strait itself the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Seas are mixing their waters, and whirlpools are observed there due to this mixing, but the dangers are not particularly pronounced. The Strait at its narrowest points is nearly two miles wide. The photograph of the Strait, taken from the south, thus Sicily to the left, Italy to the right, doesn’t look particularly dangerous. Not surprisingly, therefore, others have located this dangerous pair elsewhere—or have taken narrower passages in this general region to be the place. But why would Odysseus have deliberately taken narrow little channels when, to right or left, the wider sea gave him much opportunity to avoid both rock-bound monsters and horrid vortices? The photo credit for the Strait of Messina goes to someone called Ivan at this Internet location.

View Larger Map

I conclude by presenting a Google terrain map of the Strait of Messina. Scilla itself is not quite visible (my bad, as they say) but may be drawn into visibily using the “hand.”


  1. Why would Ulysses chose the route between the whirlpool and the monster you ask? Could that possibly be because he's a mythical hero? You know, like those girls in horror movies who know full well there's a psycho killer out there but, when they hear an unexplained noise in the basement, they go, like, "You all stay here, I'll go and have a look..." I've always groaned and said "Why did she do that?" Now I know, she's just following Ulysses' heroic example!

  2. Yes, yes. A born writer will always know...