Scylla (Σκύλλα, Skulla), also known as Scylle (Σκύλλη, Skullē), was one of the two monsters in Greek mythology (the other being Charybdis) that lived on either side of a narrow channel of water. The two sides of the strait were within an arrow's range of each other—so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa.
The phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis" has come to mean being in a state where one is between two dangers and moving away from one will cause you to be in danger from the other. Traditionally the aforementioned strait has been associated with the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily, but more recently this theory has been challenged, and the alternative location of Cape Skilla in northwest Greece has been suggested by Tim Severin.
Scylla was a horribly grotesque sea monster, with six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. Her body consisted of twelve canine legs and a cat's tail. She was one of the children of Phorcys and either Hecate, Crataeis, Lamia or Ceto (where Scylla would also be known as one of the Phorcydes). Some sources, including Stesichorus cite her parents as Triton and Lamia.
In classical art, she was depicted as a fish-tailed mermaid with four to six dog-heads ringing her waist.
is given advice by Circe
to sail closer to Scylla, for Charybdis could drown his whole ship, and to bid Crataeis prevent her from pouncing more than once. Odysseus then successfully sails his ship past Scylla and Charybdis, but Scylla manages to catch six of his men, devouring them alive. When this happens, Odysseus takes the empty spot on the boat and helps the men row the ship out of harm's way.
According to Ovid
, Scylla was once a beautiful nymph. The fisherman-turned-sea-god Glaucus
fell madly in love with her, but she fled from him onto the land where he could not follow. Despair filled his heart. He went to the sorceress Circe to ask for a love potion to melt Scylla's heart. As he told his tale of love about Scylla to Circe, she herself fell in love with him. She wooed him with her sweetest words and looks, but the sea-god would have none of her. Circe was furious, but with Scylla and not with Glaucus. She prepared a vial of very powerful poison and poured it in the pool where Scylla bathed. As soon as the nymph entered the water, she was transformed into a frightful monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth
. Angry, growling wolf
heads grew from her waist, and she tried to brush them off. She stood there in utter misery, unable to move, loathing and destroying everything that came into her reach, a peril to all sailors who passed near her. Whenever a ship passed, each of her heads would seize one of the crew.
In a late Greek myth, it was said that Heracles
encountered Scylla during a journey to Sicily and slew her. Her father, the sea-god Phorcys, then applied flaming torches to her body and restored her to life. This death contradicts what is said by Circe after Odysseus asks if it is possible for him to fight Scylla: "Must you have battle in your heart forever? The bloody toil of combat? Old contender, will you not yield to the immortal gods? That nightmare cannot die, being eternal evil itself—horror, and pain, and chaos; there is no fighting her, no power can fight her, all that avails is flight." Considering that Circe transformed her in the first place, though, her claims cannot be said to be objective.
It is said that by the time Aeneas' fleet came through the strait after the fall of Troy, Scylla had been changed into a dangerous rock outcropping which still stands there to this day.
The character of Sin from John Milton's Paradise Lost is similar to Scylla. Scylla and Charybdis are actually mentioned at one point in the poem.
- Hanfmann, George M. A., "The Scylla of Corvey and Her Ancestors" Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 "Studies on Art and Archeology in Honor of Ernst Kitzinger on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday" (1987), pp. 249-260. Hanfman assembles Classical and Christian literary and visual testimony of Scylla, from Mesopotamian origins to his ostensible subject, a ninth-century wall painting at Corvey Abbey.