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Scylla and Charybdis Embodied Male Fears in Greek Mythology

Scylla and charybdis
The mythological Greek monster Scylla, who was said to haunt the straits of Messina and to have killed six of Odysseus’ men. She is shown with a kētos tail and dog heads sprouting from her body. Detail from a red-figure bell-crater in the Louvre, 450–425 B.C. This form of Scylla was prevalent in ancient depictions, though very different from the description in Homer, where she is land-based and more dragon-like. The monsters of Greek mythology form the very concepts of terror for us. The creatures Scylla and Charybdis are no exceptions to this rule. Photo Credit: Jastrow (2006)/ Public Domain

Through the great power and influence of Greek literary works, the monsters of Greek mythology have come to form the very concepts of terror in the imagination of Western European peoples. The creatures Scylla and Charybdis are no exceptions to this rule.

It is worthwhile then to wonder why there are so many of these beings that are female and what that says about the basic dichotomy of men and women. Were ancient storytellers and writers so scared of females deep down that they had to give them horrifying attributes, portraying them as threatening?

And how has this portrayal affected the present day, influencing our worldviews, and in particular our concept of the female?

In a recent article in Smithsonian, Norah McGreevy posits that “Monsters reveal more about humans than one might think.”

“What counts as human?”

“As figments of the imagination, the alien, creepy-crawly, fanged, winged and otherwise-terrifying creatures that populate myths,” McGreevy says, “have long helped societies define cultural boundaries and answer an age-old question: What counts as human, and what counts as monstrous?”

Scylla greek mythology
Scylla, the female monster who guarded the straits of Messina in Greek mythology, was portrayed with a beautiful face and voluptuous figure by Bartholomeus Spranger in his 1581 painting “Glaucus and Scylla.” Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

More disturbingly, do the stories that relate men’s conquering of these monsters actually translate to an innate desire to dominate women?

Homer confronts Scylla and Charybdis

In the greatest of all Greek epic poems, Homer’s Odyssey, which was composed sometime around the seventh or eighth century B.C., on his way back home from Troy, the hero must make the impossible decision of choosing between fighting Scylla, who is portrayed as a six-headed, twelve-legged barking monster, and Charybdis, a sea creature.

Tasked with passing through what McGreevy describes interestingly as “a narrow, perilous channel fraught with danger,” Odysseus and his unsuspecting men are confronted with Scylla—a monstrous creature that varyingly has six heads and necks that extend to hideous lengths residing in a clifftop cave.

Furthermore, her jaws can catch and devour unsuspecting sailors. On the other side of the strait, sea monster Charybdis threatens to destroy the entire ship, drowning all the men on it.

The wrong woman

Can this simply be a parable for the fear men have of falling into the clutches of the wrong woman? Or—most likely—a way of saying that no matter what a man does, he will indeed fall into the clutches of the wrong woman?

In this work, at least one of the fearsome beings is described as unmistakably female with Homer describing Scylla with few human characteristics. But in the Roman poet Ovid’s retelling of the Greek myth, written approximately 700 years later, Circe, a witch, turns on Scylla in a fit of jealousy toward her “sister” goddess, transforming her legs into barking dogs.

Naturally, in the modern world of today, these fables are seen as just interesting parables that were perhaps a natural result of the tall tales that are told around the campfires of fighting men.

“Quasi-historical reality”

For ancient people, however, McGreevy says that they “reflected a quasi-historical reality,” so common in all of Greek mythology, where the gods cavorted alongside humans and of course even sometimes had offspring with them.

Anything is possible when that happens.

So it makes sense that all the fears and psychological manifestations of anger that men may have had at that time received a free rein in these stories which were recited, let us not forget, almost entirely by men.

Charybdis, which may in reality have been a whirlpool—an existential threat to any sailor— was portrayed as a woman who was a churning pit of insatiable hunger. The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C., was the first to suggest that it was indeed a whirlpool that had long threatened actual sailors along the Strait of Messina.

“In men’s hands, they have always been heroic”

Since any man who got near her would be swallowed up, it isn’t difficult to sense the fear of men who were afraid they could lose their freedom to a woman in that particular portrayal.

In The Odyssey, the greatest of all Greek heroes just barely escapes her grasp by clinging to the splinters that were left of his ship.

Journalist and critic Jess Zimmerman argues in Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology that “Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.”

It is true that frightening female creatures feature in cultural traditions the world over, but Zimmerman focused on ancient Greek and Roman works of literature and art, which have had, by far, the most influence on American culture.

Zimmerman argues convincingly that the “monstrous” qualities these female creatures had to ancient eyes can alternatively be seen by modern readers as their greatest strengths.

Instead of fearing and loathing these ancient monsters, why can’t contemporary readers today view them as heroes in their own right with all the fantastical and usually fearsome attributes that all the Greek gods had in mythology?

“The traits the [monsters] represent—aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire—are not hideous,” Zimmerman says. “In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.”

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