Sea Monsters

Scylla And Charybdis

In the description given by Homer, in the twelfth book of the 'Odyssey,' of the unfortunate nymph Scylla, transformed by the arts of Circe into a frightful monster, the same typical idea as in the case of

the Hydra is perceptible. The lurking octopus, having its lair in the cranny of a rock, watching in ambush for passing prey, seizing anything coming within its reach with one or more of its prehensile arms, even brandishing these fear-inspiring weapons out of water in a threatening manner, and known in some localities to be dangerous to boats and their occupants, is transformed into a many-headed sea monster, seizing in its mouths, instead of by the adhesive suckers of its numerous arms, the helpless sailors from passing vessels, and devouring them in the abysses of its cavernous den.

Circe, prophesying to Ulysses the dangers he had still to encounter, warned him especially of Scylla and Charybdis, within the power of one of whom he must fall in passing through the narrow strait (between Italy and Sicily) where they had their horrid abode. Describing the lofty rock of Scylla, she tells him:

"Full in the centre of this rock displayed  A yawning cavern casts a dreadful shade,  Nor the fleet arrow from the twanging bow  Sent with full force, could reach the depth below.  Wide to the west the horrid gulf extends,  And the dire passage down to hell descends.  O fly the dreadful sight! expand thy sails,  Ply the strong oar, and catch the nimble gales;  Here Scylla bellows from her dire abodes;  Tremendous pest! abhorred by man and gods!  Hideous her voice, and with less terrors roar  The whelps of lions in the midnight hour.  Twelve feet deformed and foul the fiend dispreads;  Six horrid necks she rears, and six terrific heads;

 When stung with hunger she embroils the flood,  The sea-dog and the dolphin are her food;  She makes the huge leviathan her prey,  And all the monsters of the wat'ry way;  The swiftest racer of the azure plain  Here fills her sails and spreads her oars in vain;  Fell Scylla rises, in her fury roars,  At once six mouths expands, at once six men devours."

Circe then describes the perils of the whirling waters of Charybdis as still more dreadful; and, admonishing Ulysses that once in her power all must perish, she advises him to choose the lesser of the two evils, and to

"shun the horrid gulf, by Scylla fly; 'Tis better six to lose than all to die."

Ulysses continues his voyage; and as his ship enters the ominous strait,

"Struck with despair, with trembling hearts we viewed  The yawning dungeon, and the tumbling flood;  When, lo! fierce Scylla stooped to seize her prey,  Stretched her dire jaws, and swept six men away.  Chiefs of renown! loud echoing shrieks arise;  I turn, and view them quivering in the skies;  They call, and aid, with outstretched arms, implore,  In vain they call! those arms are stretched no more.  As from some rock that overhangs the flood,  The silent fisher casts th' insidious food;  With fraudful care he waits the finny prize,  And sudden lifts it quivering to the skies;  So the foul monster lifts her prey on high,  So pant the wretches, struggling in the sky;  In the wide dungeon she devours her food,  And the flesh trembles while she churns the blood."

Previous: The Lernean Hydra
Next: The Spouting Of Whales

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