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Some myths just won't die. In Greek mythology Charybdis (Kharybdis)
was best known as a sea monster living near the Sicilian side of the Strait
of Messina, said to be the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, who took the form
of a large whirlpool (water vortex). On the other side of the strait, nearer
Calabria, was the equally menacing Scylla. Just as Persephone
began life as an innocent maiden, Charybdis, like Arethusa,
was initially a nymph. Zeus turned her into a monster as punishment for
having stolen Hercules' cattle.
Charybdis then took the form of a large underwater mouth that swallows
a great quantity of water three times each day, and then releases it into
the sea, thus creating whirlpools. The physical phenomenon is not without
a basis in fact, though the small whirlpools now seen in the straits are
far smaller than those said to have attacked the bands of Odysseus (Ulysses)
and Jason (the Argonauts). In avoiding Scylla one might fall prey to Charybdis
and vice versa, so the phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis" came
to mean that in avoiding one danger a person might fall prey to another.
As Scylla dwelled near a rock, the expression "between the rock and
the whirlpool" was still popular in the early twentieth century, especially
among Englishmen who had the benefit of a solid "public school"
education with an emphasis on classics.
Crowned by the ruins of a fortress built by the powerful Ruffo family
(Queen Paola of Belgium is a Ruffo di Calabria), the Rock of Scylla actually
exists and can be identified on the Calabrian coast. The same cannot be
said of the domain of the mythological Charybdis, who lived someplace along
Sicily's Peloritan-Ionian coast. It has been suggested that Cape Skilla
in Greece, rather than the Strait of Messina, may have been the actual inspiration
for the ancient myth, but the whirlpools of Messina are no figment of the
imagination, and the story's association with Sicily has been known since
On the other side of the strait things were just as complicated for Scylla
as they were for young Charybdis. Something on the order of an ancient soap
opera, one might say. Scylla had been a beautiful nymph who had the misfortune
of arousing a goddess' envy. Circe, best-known for having turned Odysseus'
crew into pigs, transformed her into a six-headed monster when Glaucus,
whom the goddess also desired, declared his love for Scylla.
About the Author: Ignazio Lo Verde lectures on Greek classics and other subjects.