Scylla (sea monster)

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This article is about Scylla (sea monster). For other uses of the term Scylla, please see Scylla (disambiguation).
Scylla depicted on an Etruscan vase (Louvre) from 450–425 BC

Scylla was a mythological sea hazard mentioned in many ancient Greek and Latin writings. Although always depicted as a female monster, Scylla is not described consistently across works. Sometimes, she is a six-headed horror with legs made of snakes, who attacked and devoured sailors along one side of a narrow sea passage. In other sources, Scylla is a dangerous rock that ships ran aground on. The strait where Scylla resided was described as being even more dangerous because of another nearby hazard, Charybdis (a whirlpool). Boats in the strait could avoid either monster but not both. From this came the saying "to be between Scylla and Charybdis", which implies that one can avoid immediate danger only by making an unwanted, long detour through uncharted waters. The saying corresponds (though not perfectly) to the English figure of speech "to be between a rock and a hard place". Similarly, in English people might say that someone is "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea", meaning they are in a difficult situation having to choose between two equally unpleasant courses of action.

While Scylla is mentioned throughout ancient literature mainly as a hazard to be avoided, Ovid gave her a gripping origin story in his book Metamorphoses, and it is both Scylla's teamwork with Charybdis and her transformation from a young and beautiful woman into a monster that make her story so compelling.

As depicted in The Odyssey (Greek epic poem)

(to be added soon)

Scylla's transformation from human to a sea monster

Though as a sea hazard Scylla was considered vicious and a danger to anyone venturing near her, she was said by Ovid to have begun life as a shy and beautiful human maiden. Her transformation was inadvertently instigated by Glaucus, a so-called "sea god" who had himself once been fully human. Glaucus was a risk-taker whose unthinking actions led to his own unhappiness, and to Scylla's. While still a mere human, Glaucus observed that fish thrown onto a certain field of grass became enlivened and were able to jump back into the sea. He then ate some of the grass, getting a strong dose of the same herbal intoxicant that revived the fish, with the consequence that he grew gills and fins and could swim like a fish. He gained great longevity through the changes to his body, but unfortunately, his mutations now made his appearance abhorrent to most people. He started living in the sea all the time and was so long-lived that he came to be considered one of the immortals.

One day, the sea-dwelling Glaucus observed a beautiful human maiden, Scylla, bathing in a small alcove of the sea. He fell in love with her beauty and approached her, trying to converse with her, and boasting about himself. But she abhorred his looks and fled each time he appeared. Having been soundly rebuffed by Scylla, Glaucus decided to ask for an intervention from the notoriously dangerous Circe, who was known as a brilliant herbalist, or even a witch with magical abilities. The following account of Glaucus' ill-advised visit to Circe is from Bulfinch's The Age of Fable[1], which is a retelling of the account from Ovid's Metamorphoses[2].

Glaucus said to Circe: “Goddess, I entreat your pity; you alone can relieve the pain I suffer…I love Scylla. I am ashamed to tell you how I have sued and promised to her, and how scornfully she has treated me. I beseech you to use your incantations, or potent herbs, if they are more prevailing, not to cure me of my love,--for that I do not wish,--but to make her share it and yield me a like return.”

To which Circe replied, for she was not insensible to the attractions of the sea-green deity, “You had better pursue a willing object; you are worthy to be sought, instead of having to seek in vain. Be not diffident, know your own worth. I protest to you that even I, goddess though I be…should not know how to refuse you. If she scorns you scorn her; meet one who is ready to meet you half way, and thus make a due return to both at once.”

To these words Glaucus replied: “Sooner shall trees grow at the bottom of the ocean, and the sea weed at the top of the mountains, than I will cease to love Scylla, and her alone.”

The goddess was indignant, but she could not punish him, neither did she wish to do so, for she liked him too well; so she turned all her wrath against her rival, poor Scylla.

[Jumping ahead to the next time Scylla bathed in the sea, due to Circe’s powers:] The lower half of Scylla’s body was turned into a bunch of writhing sea serpents and barking monsters, still attached to her body. Scylla remained rooted to the spot. Her temper grew as ugly as her form, and she took pleasure in devouring hapless mariners who came within her grasp…till at last she was turned into a rock, and as such still continues to be a terror to mariners.

Ovid describes how Scylla ends up as a rock[3]:

Glaucus, {still} in love, bewailed {her}, and fled from an alliance with Circe, who had {thus} too hostilely employed the potency of herbs. Scylla remained on that spot; and, at the first moment that an opportunity was given, in her hatred of Circe, she deprived Ulysses of his companions. Soon after, the same {Scylla} would have overwhelmed the Trojan ships, had she not been first transformed into a rock, which even now is prominent with its crags; {this} rock the sailor, too, avoids.

As depicted in The Aeneid (Latin epic poem)

The Latin epic poem The Aeneid[4] was written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, centuries after the founding of Rome and centuries after the Homeric epics were composed in Greek. Its main protagonist is Aeneas, leader of a band of Trojan survivors of the Trojan war with Greece, a war which took place more than a millenium before Virgil's lifetime. In Virgil's epic, Aeneas and his ragged band sail around the Mediterranean for years before settling in Italy, where Aeneas' descendants later found Rome. The writing of the Aeneid was indirectly commissioned by Octavian Augustus (supposedly a descendant of Aeneas), so having Trojans found an empire which later dominated Greece was a very politically astute piece of fiction on Virgil's part.

In The Aeneid, during the long voyage seeking a new home, Aeneas was advised to avoid many of the same hazards appearing in Homer's The Odyssey, including the Sirens, the Cyclops, and Scylla and Charybdis:

But when at thy departure the wind hath borne thee to the Sicilian coast, and the barred straits of Pelorus [a cape in Sicily] open out, steer for the left-hand country and the long circuit of the seas on the left hand; shun the shore and water on thy right. These lands, they say, of old broke asunder, torn and upheaved by vast force, when either country was one and undivided; the ocean burst in between, cutting off with its waves the Hesperian [ancient Greek name for Italy] from the Sicilian coast, and with narrow tide washes tilth and town along the severance of shore. On the right Scylla keeps guard, on the left unassuaged Charybdis, who thrice swallows the vast flood sheer down her swirling gulf, and ever again hurls it upward, lashing the sky with water. But Scylla lies prisoned in her cavern's blind recesses, thrusting forth her mouth and drawing ships upon the rocks. In front her face is human, and her breast fair as a maiden's to the waist down; behind she is a sea-dragon of monstrous frame, with dolphins' tails joined on her wolf-girt belly. Better to track the goal of Trinacrian Pachynus [sail all the way around Sicily], lingering and wheeling round through long spaces, than once catch sight of misshapen Scylla deep in her dreary cavern, and of the rocks that ring to her sea-coloured hounds.

When Aeneas' ships first come close to Scylla, they narrowly avoid her by sailing the long way around the island which formed one side of the strait where she is situated. Virgil cannily locates Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina, well known to his local audience, but earlier references to Scylla could well be located in the Greek islands instead.

(immediately after escaping the Cyclops on the island of Sicily) Yet Helenus' [Aeneas' mentor prior to the journey] commands counsel that our course keep not the way between Scylla and Charybdis, the very edge of death on either hand. We are resolved to turn our canvas back. And lo! from the narrow fastness of Pelorus [NE promontory of Sicily] the North wind comes down and reaches us. I sail past Pantagias' [a Sicilian river] mouth with its living stone, the Megarian bay [in Greece], and low-lying Thapsus [a Tunisian port]. Such names did Achemenides, of luckless Ulysses' company, point out as he retraced his wanderings along the returning shores.

But later, the small fleet gets swept into the same strait, and while trying to speed past Scylla, she devours six sailors (one with each of her six voracious heads).

to be added

Virgil portrays Scylla as a natural hazard deliberately utilized by Aeneas' enemy, the goddess Juno, who is in the midst of a marital spat with her husband Jupiter about Aeneas' fate. After Aeneas and his surviving band have made it to their intended home in Italy, Juno justifies stirring up another war in hopes of killing off Aeneas, lamenting that none of her intended impediments have yet managed to thwart his intended fate as founder of Rome:

Ah, hated brood, and doom of the Phrygians [ancient Trojan predecessors] that thwarts our doom! Could they perish on the Sigean [near Troy] plains? Could they be ensnared when taken? Did the fires of Troy consume her people? Through the midst of armies and through the midst of flames they have found their is I who have been fierce to follow them over the waves when hurled from their country, and on all the seas have crossed their flight. Against the Teucrians [Trojan predecessors] the forces of sky and sea are spent. What hath availed me Syrtes [a dangerous sandbank] or Scylla, what desolate Charybdis? they find shelter in their desired Tiber-bed [Italian river], careless of ocean and of me.

Scylla's possible locations

In some accounts, Scylla was referred to as a hazardous rock, and Charybdis as a whirlpool, and many mariners were reputed to have been wrecked between the two sea hazards. Tradition has it that the narrow passage was the strait of Messina, and the alternate route was to sail around Sicily. Metamorphoses translator Henry Riley's commentary on Scylla the rock's location and danger, along with neighboring Charybdis[5]:

According to some authors, Scylla was the daughter of Phorcys and Hecate; but as other writers say, of Typhon. Homer describes her in the following terms:-- ‘She had a voice like that of a young whelp; no man, not even a God, could behold her without horror. She had twelve feet, six long necks, and at the end of each a monstrous head, whose mouth was provided with a triple row of teeth.’ Another ancient writer says, that these heads were those of an insect, a dog, a lion, a whale, a Gorgon, and a human being. Virgil has in a great measure followed the description given by Homer. Between Messina and Reggio there is a narrow strait, where high crags project into the sea on each side. The part on the Sicilian side was called Charybdis, and that on the Italian shore was named Scylla. This spot has ever been famous for its dangerous whirlpools, and the extreme difficulty of its navigation. Several rapid currents meeting there, and the tide running through the strait with great impetuosity, the sea sends forth a dismal noise, not unlike that of the howling or barking of dogs, as Virgil has expressed it, in the words, ‘Multis circum latrantibus undis.’


  1. Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch, 1855, Chapter VII, from Project Gutenberg, last access 1/10/2021
  2. Metamorphoses XIV.1-74 by Ovid, translated with notes by Henry Riley, from Project Gutenberg, last access 1/10/2021
  3. Metamorphoses XIV.1-74 by Ovid, translated with notes by Henry Riley, from Project Gutenberg, last access 1/10/2021
  4. The Aeneid of Virgil, translated by J. W. MacKail, 1885; online via Project Gutenberg, last access 1/25/2021
  5. Metamorphoses XIV.1-74 by Ovid, translated with notes by Henry Riley, from Project Gutenberg, last access 1/10/2021