Who was Charybdis in Greek Mythology?
Charybdis, in Greek mythology, was a sea monster that dealt in the Straits of Messina, alongside the deadliest sea monster, Scylla. According to mythology, she was believed to be born a nymph who served her father, Poseidon. Her mother was known to be Gaia. Charybdis ended up being a gigantic whirlpool monster after she displeases Zeus, who then cursed her to become the much-feared sea monster residing in the Strait of Messina.
Ancient Greece had its fair share of deadly creatures and monsters, both on land and sea. If I was to ask you to name the first Greek sea monster that comes to mind, many of you would likely say Scylla.
But just opposite the cliffs that Scylla called her home, in the Straits of Messina, deep in the ocean, was an enormous whirlpool created by Charybdis—a huge sea monster that plagued the coast of Italy for years on end.
How to Pronounce Charybdis
Charybdis (kuh·rib·duhs) may be how we pronounce her name now, but in ancient Greek, it was pronounced Chárympdis (h·AA·r·ee·v·dh·ee·s), and many believe her name to have originated from the Greek word meaning “to swallow”.
How big is Charybdis?
The creature was said to be so large that she consumes so much water. When she belched, she creates an enormous whirlpool. The exact size of this whirlpool was never mentioned in Greek myths, but for it to have been big enough to swallow up an entire Greek ship, it’s been estimated that it would have had to be over 75 feet across.
Interestingly, the area where the monster is located in the Straits of Messina contains a whirlpool, but the currents meeting causes this one, and it’s too small to cause any real danger.
Origin of Charybdis
Several stories attempt to discuss the origins of Charybdis. The oldest been that she was a daughter of Gaia, the personification of the earth, and Pontus, the sea. In the years that followed, her father was naturally seen as Poseidon, as he became the ruler of the sea.
Charybdis always remained loyal to Poseidon and drew in a feud between Zeus and Poseidon over land—she aided her father in engulfing small islands and large patches of land in the water.
This, of course, left Zeus furious the land had been stolen from him. So, he captured her and chained her to the seabed. He then cursed her into the form of a hideous monster, with flippers for arms and legs and an uncontrollable thirst for the sea.
The fact that she was transformed into a hideous monster by Zeus makes it more than likely that she could have been one of the Oceanids, one of the nymphs of the sea.
Instead, there is a similar story where she is portrayed as a greedy woman who chose to steal the cattle of Heracles. Zeus, with a single thunderbolt, once again cast her into the sea, where she would literally become a whirlpool.
How does Charybdis Look Like?
The physical appearance of Charybdis, as we’ve already seen, has changed over the years. Some believe that she was nothing more than a personification of a whirlpool—a way for the ancient Greeks to explain this act of nature.
Other stories describe her as a human that was transformed into a monster, an occurrence that is not too uncommon in Greek mythology. But exactly what this monster looked like can be left down to your imagination.
Some saw her as an enormous whale-like creature. To others, she resembles something that you would expect to see in the work of H.P. Lovecraft—an enormous gaping mouth of gigantic teeth, waiting to swallow anything that came her way.
Charybdis in the Odyssey
With Charybdis being such a great monster of the sea, she appears in several noticeable works and stories as one would expect.
In Homer’s work, The Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself in quite a peculiar position, being in between Charybdis and Scylla. Odysseus ordered his men to avoid Charybdis as that would result in their ship being swallowed. Instead, they passed through Scylla, and after losing several men, they were forced to pass near Charybdis anyway.
The ship was sucked into her jaws, and Odysseus clung to a fig tree. Eventually, when she exhaled, the boat was released, and after recovering it, Odysseus made his way to safety.
Charybdis with Jason and the Argonauts
Charybdis does also feature in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. They also faced this impossible task in travelling through the narrow passage with Charybdis on one side and Scylla.
However, in this story, the goddess Hera ordered the mother of Achilles, Thetis, to guide them to safety.
These two sea monsters being so close to each other create this narrow pathway, essentially acting as a death-trap. Sailors would come across Charybdis living under a rock in a narrow channel of Messina, and Scylla on the opposite side, on Scylla’s much larger cliffs.
This meant that sailors passing through would have to choose which of the two dangers they would rather face. Many liken the term “between Scylla and Charybdis” to be between a rock and a hard place. This refers to someone being faced with two equally undesirable alternatives, which is exactly what these two monsters presented.
This monster created the nearly impossible task for sailors to chart a course that avoids both of these monsters without delay in their voyage.
With so many stories and interpretations of how Charybdis came to be and what exactly she looks like, I’d love to hear what you think.
Image Sources: Sebastian Meyer, Vella Ri, OliverInk.