Scylla — The Story Behind the Deadliest Sea Monster in Greek Mythology

Scylla — The Story Behind the Deadliest Sea Monster in Greek Mythology

Who is Scylla in Greek Mythology?

SCYLLA, a six-headed sea monster, fished for dolphins, sea-dogs and sailors—including the crew of Odysseus as his ship sails past her cavern—in the Strait of Messina. According to one myth, she was originally a beautiful sea nymph, loved by Zeus and Poseidon in turn, until changed by the jealousy of Circe into a snapping, barking monster.

“I tried, I tried to warn them. I told them this path was not safe but did they listen? No, of course not.
‘If we cut through the Straits of Messina, we’re back in Cephalonia (Kefalonia), with time to spare,’ the captain told me. That’s the thing with merchants, always so greedy.
I told them this path is not safe. There’s not a single ship to be seen. The local fishermen never came this way because they knew what horrors awaited.
I can hear their screams now as she tears them in this ship apart, plank by plank and limb by limb.
It is too late for this crew and me, but anyone reading this message, heed my warning.
Turn back, turn back the way you came and do not think of this place again. For this path is not safe.
For those who do not believe the stories, once you reach her rock, you will know true terror, for you are now in Scylla’s domain.”

Introduction to Scylla

When we think of Greek mythology, some certain beasts and monsters come to mind. Some of these are slightly misunderstood, and others were rightfully feared. Today, we will look at Scylla, which we may have mentioned in other articles here on Mythology Explained, but never really covered in her article.

For those who’ve never heard of Scylla or who may be unfamiliar with her tale, she was largely regarded as a hideous monster, found off the coast of mainland Italy, in the Straits of Messina—a narrow stretch of water was where Scylla located atop the rocks on one side, and the Whirlpool monster, known as Charybdis on the other.

Any ship that dares to cross the Straits of Messina would be torn apart by Scylla, as she played the seas for years on end. With the exact number of sailors slain by Scylla being unknown, we can assume that out of all of the creatures in Greek myth; her kill count must have been among the highest.

Origins of Her Name—Scylla Pronunciation

Like most things in Greek mythology, Scylla’s appearance has certainly undergone some changes over the years. Before examining these changes, we should first examine the origins of her name because that offers us some insight into what she may have looked like.

The most commonly used version in English is Scylla, with a soft sound in the ‘C’. But as we already know, the soft-sounding C replaced the K in many Greek words, and sometimes these still sound quite similar. But Scylla (pronounced as Sii-ah) in Greek is pronounced Skylla (pronounced as Skee-lah).

Her name was believed to have originated from the word SKYLLAROS, which means Hermit Crab. Some of you may already know that Skylos in Greek means Dog, which was quite often one of our defining characteristics.

Scylla’s Depictions

Scylla’s Depictions

Scylla’s classical depiction is portrayed as a goddess of the sea, with a fishtail and numerous dogs emerging from around her waist. So, it’s clear to us that she wasn’t always regarded as a monster. There are even accounts where she was described as a beautiful nymph.

However, in these stories, beauty often comes with consequences, bid in the form of hubris or jealousy. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Greek mythology, it’s that beautiful nymphs on maidens may not remain very beautiful for long.

Scylla was another example of transmutation as a form of punishment. Another unfortunate individual that we can add to the list of those transformed from something that was once a symbol of beauty into a monster.

Over time she became less and less human. She was described as having 6 Serpentine-like heads, and her fishtail was completely taken away. She lost all traces of her humanity in several accounts, and she resembled something closer to a hydra than a fishtail goddess.

There are some other interesting interpretations of Scylla that painted her as a monster but still implements some of her appearance’s classical aspects. These serpent-like heads became a mixture between the serpent and a canine, and they were now attached to a grotesque human body, painting a stark contrast between the once beautiful woman and the curse deformed, the hideous monster she became.

Why and How was Scylla Turned into a Monster?

Now that we have a rough idea of who or what Scylla was, we can move onto our next obvious question. What did she do that was so bad for her to be transformed into this monster? There isn’t one clear answer because we have several different tales that attempt to tell how and why she became what she did.

Both Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō (known in English as Ovid) and a Latin author, Gaius Julius Hyginus, believed that Scylla was a beautiful maiden. And in these interpretations, the fisherman turned god of the sea, Glaucus, had fallen in love with her, but when he finally approached her, she was repulsed because he had the body of a fish

Out of ideas, Glucose turned to the enchantress Circe, asking her to make him a potion that would cause Scylla to fall in love with him. However, Circe herself had fallen in love with Glaucus, and she did her best to convince him to forget Scylla and marry her instead.

But glucose replied that the trees would grow in the ocean floor, and seaweed would grow in the highest mountain before he would stop loving Scylla.

Circe, furious at his rejection, did not wish Glaucus any harm, so she decided that Scylla would ultimately pay the price. She took her noxious roots and sprinkled them into the pool where Scylla would bathe. When she came wading into the pool, Circe began muttering her incantations.

Transformation of Scylla in Greek Mythology
Scylla as a maiden 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.|Wikipedia

The transformation had begun, and canine sprang from her waist, described as having gaping jaws, like those of Hades’ vile hound, Cerberus. She looked down where her legs once were, but there was nothing—only the midriff of a pack of barking dogs.

Glaucus saw his love transformed into a monster, weeping at the cruelty shown by Circe.

Ovid further describes Scylla having a sweet girl’s face, with a pack of raging dogs at her waist, luring sailors in with her innocence, only to murder them. Hyginus, instead, describes her as a monster with four eyes, six grizzly heads, each lined with three rows of sharp teeth, 12 tentacle-like legs, and a cat’s tail.

The Different Stories of Scylla

1818 — John Keats

In the 1818 retelling of Scylla’s story by John Keats, instead of poisoning Scylla, Circe instead murders her. Glaucus then takes her corpse to his Crystal Palace, located at the bottom of the sea—a place where lovers who died at sea can be found.

However, Keats’ story has somewhat of a happier ending; as thousands of years later, Scylla is resurrected and reunited with Glaucus.

Dionysiaca by Nonnus

There is another popular rendition of Scylla’s transformation story, and this comes from the Greek poem Dionysiaca, written by Nonnus. This story is somewhat similar to that of Glaucus and Circe, only with different characters.

Instead, it’s Poseidon who assumes the role of her lover, and after sleeping with Scylla, Poseidon transforms her into a Cliff in the water—the same Cliffs were told the monster resides in. As to why Poseidon did this, honestly, your guess is as good as mine, as Poseidon’s motives are at times quite similar to Zeus’s—because he felt like it or because he could.

Poet, John Ted

This version and Poseidon’s involvement were further explained by the third-century poet, John Ted, who believes Scylla was a beautiful nymph of the sea who had an affair with Poseidon. It was then, Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite, out of jealousy, poison the spring where she would bathe, transforming her into the monster that we know today.

Scylla’s Parentage

With her appearance and how she became a monster out of the way, we’re left with her parentage and the stories she was involved in. In an article we made about Lamia, we discussed how many interpretations where Lamia was regarded as an enormous shark. She was seen as a potential mother to Scylla, as parts of Scylla’s name translated to mean dog-shark—but this is a theory that is not often explored and one that seems far less plausible than the others.

The most common explanation we have about who Scylla’s mother was, comes from a collection of authors, including Ovid, Homer, Servius and Plato, who all agreed her mother was Crataeis (Krataiis) which was one of the names given to the sea goddess Ceto.

Nevertheless, Homer never mentioned Scylla’s father. But the others seem to believe it was either Triton, the son of Poseidon, or Phorcys, another one of the primordial sea deities. With Phorcys being Ceto’s husband and the two being responsible for creating many of the sea’s female spirits, creatures and monsters, Ceto and Phorcys being Scylla’s parents do make sense. So, we’ll stick to this version.

Hyginus, on the other hand, believed that she was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, and, judging by her monstrous appearance, that would be a fair argument to make. But then you would also have to disregard the idea that she was a maiden, turned into a monster.

Another name you’ll see mentioned a fair amount when discussing Scylla’s mother is Hecate. But this is one I don’t understand the reasoning behind.

Scylla in the Odyssey

Scylla in the Odyssey

Now, unto the story, Scylla appeared in as a monster. The most famous example, of course, being in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus and his crew have to sail through the Straits of Messina, with Charybdis on one side and Scylla on the other.

“Will you not bow to the deathless gods themselves? Scylla is not of mortal kind; she is a deathless monster, grim and baleful, savage, not wrestled with. Against her, there is no defence, and the best path is the path of flight. If you pause to arm beside that rock, I fear that she may dart out again, seize again with as many heads and snatch as many men as before. No, row hard and invoke Krataiis; she is Scylla’s mother; it is she who bore her to plague mankind; Krataiis will hold her from darting twice.”

The Odyssey, Homer, circa 8th or 7th century BCE, trans. Shewring, 1980.

Here, we see Odysseus being advised by Circe. She tells him that he should sail close to Scylla to avoid his ship and its crew being dragged down to the depths of the ocean by Charybdis.

She also tells Odysseus that Scylla will snatch as many men as she has heads and that he must speak to Scylla’s mother, Krataiis (or Ceto), to ensure that she will not attack the ship twice.

Odysseus, accepting that he could not defeat Scylla, chose to sail around Charybdis, and when passing Scylla, she did attack the ship, snatching endeavouring six of his men. These men served as a necessary sacrifice, with Odysseus and the rest of his crew sailed onwards. However, Odysseus would still encounter Charybdis later on in his journey.

This encounter with Scylla gave birth to the Greek idiom, “Between Scylla and Charybdis”, which refers to a situation with two undesirable outcomes—having to choose the lesser of two evils.

Some of you may still hear a version of this proverb today, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, which itself still describes the encounter with Scylla, as well as having its meaning.

When Jason and the Argonauts came across the Straits of Messina, the goddess Hera warned the Argonauts of what awaited them. She then instructed the Sea goddess Thetis to offer them safe passage, avoiding Charybdis and Scylla’s clutches.

These two stories, I think, do tell us quite a bit about Scylla and the fear surrounding her. You have Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus, some of the Greek mythology most iconic heroes, and they were both told that they have no chance in defeating her, to the point where they shouldn’t even try. Instead, the advice given to them by both Circe and Hera is to sail past Scylla.

The Death of Scylla

The Slaying of Scylla by Heracles

Like most monsters in Greek mythology, Scylla’s reign would eventually end, with several poets agreeing that Heracles killed her. The exact details were never really mentioned, so we can only guess and imagine how epic that battle would have been.

There were also a few accounts that listed Scylla—after her death—as one of the many creatures that guarded the underworld, perhaps guarding one of its many rivers.

In Conclusion

There are some similarities between Scylla and several other monsters that were once considered beautiful maidens or even human. Scylla, like many before, found herself in the middle of a conflict or even a love triangle in some cases.

And if there’s anything that Lamia and Medusa and several others have taught us, it said if you find yourself in between two deities, whether you’re in the middle of a conflict or troublesome marriage, then it’s very likely that you’re in trouble.

We don’t know much about Scylla before she was transformed, other than the fact that Glaucus’ fish-like body repulsed her. There is some irony in her classical depiction, somewhat resembling a fish or a hermit crab.

When Scylla was eventually transformed, we have a variety of different depictions. With time, she became more of a monster, which does seem to match her description. If you have a creature that even the gods are advising the Greek heroes to avoid, then you’d expect a monstrous appearance to match these fears.

To some, she may not have even been a woman or a monster at all? There is a notion that Scylla was used to rationalise dangerous rocks and reefs in uncharted areas that would take the lives of Greek Mariners who first ventured into the western Mediterranean.

There is no doubt that Scylla is one of Greek mythology’s deadliest creatures on both land and sea, and this is why we see her in so many literary works and paintings. So, let me know what you think of her. Did you happen to know any of her backstories, and do you prefer to think of her as a symbol of danger in uncharted seas rather than a monster of epic proportions?

Image Sources: Markus Stadlober, Sheppi TSRodriguez, PATCHWORK SOUL.

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