Myth Monsters

Scylla & Charybdis

September 02, 2021 Season 1 Episode 25
Myth Monsters
Scylla & Charybdis
Show Notes Transcript

In this week's episode, we're heading back over to Greece to look at this terrible twosome, Scylla and Charybdis! How does the term between a rock and a hard place come from these two mythical monsters? Why are these two put in the same podcast in the first place? Find out in this week's episode!

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Hello and welcome to Myth Monsters, my name is Erin and I’ll be your host for these little snack bite size podcasts on folklore and mythical monsters from around the world. 

These podcasts focus on the actual cryptids, folklore and mythic monsters from global mythology, rather than focusing on full stories of heroes and their big adventures.

I’ll also be dropping in some references that they have to recent culture and where you can see these represented in modern day content so you can learn more, and get as obsessed as I am about these absolute legends of the mythological world.

This week we’re heading back over to my favourite mythology, and that’s Greek - with the horrible sea sisters of ancient Greece, Scylla and Charybdis. I will tell you the spellings as they are a bit strange - it’s Scylla and Charybdis, said like Cilla Black and Cardi B - I suppose, or really just kind of like the name Charis.


Now these two are the original terrifying sea monster pair, so scary that their names are actually still used to this day in fact.

They were a formidable pair that lived in between Italy and Sicily in a bottle neck in the sea called the Strait of Messina - this is a tiny, tiny channel and had Scylla on one side, and Charybdis on the other, almost as bad as each other. They were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant getting too close to Scylla and vice versa - not a fun situation to be in.

We’ll start off with Scylla, she is generally described as a multiheaded, multi-eyed creature. She had six heads at the end of very long necks, all of which were terribly hideous, with three rows of razor sharp teeth. From the waist down, she had four dog heads, who would howl and snap at the air and lastly twelve long tentacles that would act as her legs. She would pluck sailors out of their boats, and eat them - obviously.

Sometimes she’s described as having snake heads, sometimes dog legs - it really depends on the myth you’re thinking about. But all together, she was pretty ferocious. She’s also sometimes said to only have an appetite for six people, to fill all her mouths, but other reports say that she would just relentlessly munch on every member of the crew.

Charybdis, on the other hand - was maybe a little scarier. There are differing physical descriptions of her. Sometimes an octopus, sometimes a kraken like creature, even sometimes just a whirlpool. Either way, she lived at the bottom of the channel, and three times a day, she would swallow a whole load of water and spit it back out again, creating the most epic whirlpool and consuming anything that got in its flow, including entire ships. She was also described as eternally hungry, and these whirlpools were miles and miles wide, so you can imagine how scary this could be. Also I’d just like to say that I would also describe myself as eternally hungry, just whilst we’re on the topic. 

The most popular description of her is that she is the personification of a whirlpool, but with teeth visible around the curving of the water, tearing ships and sailors apart just as easily as another. Or that of a giant sea worm, with loads of eyes and teeth - not fun either way.

Now I know what you’re thinking - why on earth would anyone go near either of these horrific beasts? 

Well sometimes you just had to get through, and you had to make the tricky choice as to which monster to face. Would you face potentially half your crew being devoured by a multi-headed snake woman? Or risk your entire ship and crew being dragged down through a very jagged, watery grave? Well, this might sound familiar, but this exact situation is what gave way to the idiom ‘between a rock and a hard place’ - meaning, the lesser of two evils or you’ve got to choose between two pretty bad things, but you have to choose one of them mate, sorry. The original idiom was actually between Scylla and Charybdis, you can look this up - it’s actually a true fact. Whenever I think of this saying, I think of the part in the Simpsons movie when Homer is continuously thrown between a rock and a bar called a hard place.


Where did these beasts come from? Well they were actually both demigods, believe it or not. And I know we’ve talked about some weird demigod creatures in previous episodes like Slepnir and Fenrir for example from Loki in Norse myth, but these ones are a little different.

We’ll start with Scylla - she was actually officially a nymph, which was a delicate spirit of the woodland. She was specifically a water or lake nymph who would guard the streams around their designated area. Scylla was the daughter of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, remember them from back in March? Yes, they are the same sea gods that were the parents of Medusa! They were primordial sea gods, and were also the parents of the Graeae, who were old hags who shared an eyeball and a single tooth between them - this might ring a bell from Disney’s Hercules, but I digress. 

There are a couple of stories of how she became the monster that we know her as. Some say that Poseidon, god of the sea pursued her, and so his wife poisoned Scylla’s bathing waters. Others say that she boasted of her beauty to Olympus and the gods collectively decided to curse her, but my favourite one is that of Glaucus, a sea god who fell in love with her and asked the sorceress Circe for a love potion. But Circe, who was in love with Glaucus herself, gave him a drink that turned Scylla into a monster. V sad, I know.

With Charybdis, she was the daughter of Poseidon and the earth titan Gaia and was also once completely normal. However, again there are two stories - one is that she stole Heracles’ oxen, and so Zeus punished her by shooting her with a lightning bolt and binding her to the sea. The other is more interesting, it’s said that Charybdis helped her dad in his feud with Zeus, who was actually her uncle, in covering the lands in water, adding to his domain. Zeus was rightly miffed over the stolen land, so captured and chained her to the sea-bed. He then cursed her, and transformed into the monster we know, with an uncontrollable thirst for the sea and all that lurk within it.

Also, I’d like to say that I’ve been calling these two sisters throughout this, and this isn’t technically correct - they’re actually not related at all. Although, that’s a real stretch considering that pretty much everyone in Greek myth is linked somehow. 

Both of the monsters got their fame through two hero stories. Now they’re very relevant, so stay with me here, I know you didn’t come here for heroes. 

The first is that of Odysseus and the Odyssey, this is the big one. Odysseus faced both Charybdis and Scylla while rowing through a narrow channel. He ordered his men to avoid Charybdis, as the sorceress Circe advised him not to and to quote "Hug Scylla's crag—sail on past her—top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew.", forcing them to pass near Scylla, which resulted in the deaths of six of his men. A great quote from the Iliad, where this is from here - 

…they writhed

gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there

at her cavern's mouth she bolted them down raw—

screaming out, flinging their arms toward me,

lost in that mortal struggle.

Later on in the story, Odysseus was swept back through the strait on a raft and passed near Charybdis. He was sucked into her maw, but he survived by clinging to a fig tree. When Charybdis did her big release of water, the raft popped out and he went to safety. Great story, highly recommended if you have the time or interest.

The other story is that of Jason and his Argonauts, although this is very brief. They were able to navigate through without losing a single man, or a single boat - this is because Achilles, the great war hero from Greek myth, was on the boat and his mum was a water nymph sent by Hera and Athena, who helped them through because they liked the crew. That’s literally it, not very exciting, but worth a mention.


For art this week, look at Peter Paul Ruben’s paintings of Scylla and Glaucus that are beautiful and very well known in the art world. I would recommend looking those up. In regards to Charydbis, she’s just like, not really classically drawn - more of an independent art situation - but look it up, all of the interpretations are pretty scary - from big underwater worms to giant octopus creatures. 

For movies, the main ones that I have for this week are Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Pirates of the Caribbean where Charybdis may or may not have been the Kraken, she certainly looks like it and The Odyssey, where both monster ladies are featured.

For TV, there are a few things that include monstrous whirlpools, including One Piece, Ducktales, That Time I got Reanimated as a Slime - yes that last one is a thing, and of course, it is an anime.

For video games, we have the usual so, God of War, SMITE, Age of Empires - but again, the multi-headed hydra/monster whirlpool are included in a lot of games, even WoW being one of them honestly. 

My book recommendation is a new one, it’s Greek Myths: Meet the heroes, gods, and monsters of ancient Greece by Jean Menzies. Now this is an illustrated one, and is definitely more aimed towards kids - but it’s super informative and fun to read! For my more adult listeners, I’ve got one that’s more related to Greek gods that has just been brought to my attention - Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook by Liv Albert - who is the voice behind the amazing podcast let's talk about myths baby, which I’ve been listening to for a while - its fabulous and super informative if you’re into that kind of thing, and this book is all about the gods and their adventures.


Now it’s time for, do I think they existed? I mean, the idea that a whirlpool exists is not too unreasonable - they have been proven to exist just in our own bathtubs when you pull the plug out - or with pool filters sucking people’s scalps off or their intestines out - don’t research this one. And there is an actual whirlpool where she was meant to be, it's just only tiny and only dangerous to very small boats in very extreme circumstances, so that’s fun - note to self, don't go row boating around Italy...

However, the idea of practically a hydra and a whirlpool sitting off the coast of Sicily, waiting for a ship to go past just seems a bit wild to me - like what do they do the rest of the time? Play Uno? One of them doesn’t really even have a body - how could you have a sisterly chat with her when the guy you’re texting ghosts you? Or I guess - doesn’t send you a scroll or a carrier pigeon in these times. 

But anyway, I think their proverbial message is wonderful and I can’t imagine being given that choice, whether to kill off half my crew knowingly or to sacrifice my whole ship - so I fully sympathise with Odysseus, but at the end of the day, he could have gone around them if he wasn’t in such a big rush to get a wooly jacket.


I love these two so much, I think they’re really cool characters from Greek mythos and the idea that their story lives on in, actually quite a common phrase in language brings me so so much joy.

Next week we’re going back over the pond to Scotland, one of my most favourite places and by popular demand, we’re looking at the majestic national animal, the Unicorn. Come riding in on Thursday!

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But for now, stay spooky and I’ll see you later babes.