Scylla and Charybdis are a famous pair of sea monsters from ancient Greece. They live on opposite sides of the narrow Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily. They contacted me early this morning to offer their birthday wishes for Daniel Deming, who turns 33 today.
According to Ovid (tr. Gregory):
Even brave sailors fear rock-caved Charybdis
Who drinks the waves, vomits them out again,
And Scylla with her barking dogs around her
Churning the waves that circle Sicily.
Sailors who needed to pass through the strait were screwed: go too close to Scylla and she would eat their crew, steer toward Charybdis and a powerful whirlpool would destroy the ship. The two have come to signify, according to Brewer's Phrase and Fable, "being caught between two dangers or fatal works."
(It's hard based on my shoddy Internet research to figure out if "between a rock and a hard place" and "between the devil and the deep blue sea" are directly descended from the myth of Scylla and Charybdis. Brewer's says of the latter, "The allusion seems to be to the herd of swine and the devils called Legion." Whatever that means.)
As usual, both monsters are pretty sympathetic if you get to know them. Scylla started her life as a lovely sea nymph. The sea god Glaucus fell in love with her and accosted her as she strolled naked along the beach (more Ovid tr. Gregory):
When Glaucus saw the girl, he turned to fire,
And said things - anything - to hold her there
Yet she escaped; she climbed a sheet of rock;
It was a mountain that looked out to sea
And cast its shadow over trembling waters,
Nor did she stop till she stood high enough
To stand at proper distance from the man.
She gazed at him and saw a blue-green creature,
Longhaired, and where his manly thighs should be
She saw a scaled and twisted fishy member
Was he a god? Or some acquatic devil?
He looked at her and leaned upon a rock.
"Dear girl," he said, "I'm neither fish nor fowl;
But something better..."
But Glaucus's wooing does not impress Scylla, who coldly runs away. Glaucus swims off for the island of Aeaea, home of the powerful sorceress Circe. Aeaea is thought to correspond to Mount Circo on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. It looks like a nice place to visit, as long as you don't fall into Circe's hands and get turned into a pig.
Glaucus begs the powerful sorceress to give him herbs to charm Scylla and make her love him,
But Circe said (and no one more than she
Was ready to make love at any hour-
Whether she had an innate liking for it,
Or whether Venus, angry at Circe's father
Because he had betrayed her love for Mars,
Gave Circe more than ladylike desires,
We cannot say-Except that she replied),
"Go find a girl or woman who's inclined
To be warm-hearted as yourself and eager--
And more than that, you need a full-grown goddess,
Even myself, a daughter of the sun,
Who has all charms to please you, songs and herbs
And much besides. I'll take you as you are.
As for that girl, treat her as she treats you;
Take me to bed, and in one loving gesture
You'll give two women all that they deserve.
When Glaucus refuses Circe, avowing eternal love for Scylla, the goddess is furious. But, as she loves Glaucus too much to strike out against him, she concocts a poison for Scylla instead, which she sneaks into the pool Scylla uses for her afternoon baths:
When Scylla came, she splashed waist-deep in coolness,
Then to her horror found her legs were gone,
And where her thighs should be, she saw a girdle
Of barking dogs' heads round her naked belly.
At first she tried to shake them off, to loose them,
Tear them away, but found
They grew out of the tender flesh below
Her breasts, as though wild Cerberus had twined
Himself a dozen times around her waist.
And there she sat, half naked girl, half monster
With mad dogs barking round her lower regions.
Greek, c. 340 BCE (via VROMA)
Charybdis's origin is harder to pin down. Some sources say she was a fierce daughter of Poseidon who acted as her father's lieutenant in his battle for supremacy against his brother Zeus, flooding hundreds of coastal towns to reclaim them for the sea. When Zeus won the struggle, he changed her into a ravenous monster, all mouth, who swallows water eternally, then belches it out. An alternate version has Charybdis stealing the cattle of Geryon from Hercules, and being thrown into the sea by Zeus as punishment. Some other sources (such as Ovid) simply describe Charybdis as a maelstrom.
Olaus Magnus, 1555 (via the wonderful Northern Lights)
Several heroes face off against this famous double-bind, and deal with the choice in characteristic ways. Wily and morally flexible Odysseus follows Circe's advice and steers well clear of the whirlpool, since Circe tells him it is better that he lose a few men to Scylla than his whole ship to Charybdis. Six of his friends are dragged off screaming by Scylla's many heads, and Odysseus mourns: "The most pitiful thing was this that mine eyes have seen of all my travail in searching out the paths of the sea."
Aeneas, my least favorite epic hero, sidesteps the question altogether and sails off around Sicily, where Hera hits him with some heavy weather.
The dreamy Jason navigates the monsters in the coolest way of all, with an escort of sea nymphs who frolic around his ship like dolphins and steer it through the dangerous waters. The whole Argonautica is online as is the entire Harryhausen monster-licious movie!
It's interesting that both Scylla and Charybdis were women, and that they were both punished for inappropriate appetites, Scylla having too little and Charybdis too much. In the olden days, nymphs were caught between a rock and a hard place.