The ancient Greeks had a very complicated relationship with the sea. On the one hand, the sea was respected as a source of life, food, transportation, and trade. However, the ancient Greeks also harbored a deep fear of the sea’s incredible power and unpredictability. Many of their myths and legends tell stories of the complex nature of the sea, filled with capricious deities and dangerous sea creatures like Charybdis. Let’s take a closer look at Charybdis, a legendary sea monster who could create whirlpools and destroy entire fleets!
Who Is Charybdis?
In ancient Greek mythology, Charybdis (or Kharybdis) was a legendary sea monster who lived on one side of a narrow channel of the sea. She is almost always mentioned beside the monster Scylla, who lived on the opposite side of the channel. Sailors who wished to pass through the narrow channel had to confront at least one of these monsters, as the passage was too narrow to avoid them. Today, you may hear the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” as a way to express being caught between two equally difficult choices.
Although terrible, most captains chose to sail nearer to Scylla’s side of the narrow channel. Scylla was a hideous monster with six heads and 12 limbs. This allowed her to snatch up and devour anyone standing on the deck of a ship. Choosing to sail past Scylla meant losing several men to the monster. However, most believed this was a much better alternative to Charybdis.
Charybdis lived beneath a rock and a large fig tree on the other side of the narrow channel. Although not as hideous, she was nonetheless much more dangerous than even the terrifying Scylla. Three times each day, Charybdis would suck in all the water from the channel and spew it back up, creating a gigantic whirlpool. In contrast to losing just five or six men to Scylla, Charybdis’ whirlpool sucked in the entire ship, leaving no survivors.
What Does Charybdis Look Like?
Although Charybdis was an important character in many of their stories, the ancient Greeks never offered an explicit description of what she actually looked like. However, they did explain that she was a powerful monster who lived on the coast of Sicily and created monstrous whirlpools from which there was no escape. In many writings, they also used Charybdis as a potent metaphor for the dangers of the ocean. Charybdis served as a cautionary reminder of the many perils and devastation that sailors encountered on their journeys.
According to modern scholars, the sea monster Charybdis lived in the Strait of Messina, a 25-mile-long channel that separates Italy’s Calabria Peninsula from Sicily. The Strait connects the Ionian Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It serves as a border between Sicily and the Appennine Peninsula. It is a narrow and dangerous channel, however, just 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point. In addition, while its main current runs south to north, another smaller current runs north to south. The Strait’s complex wave patterns alternate every six hours, and you can even see them from space!
Where Do Charybdis Legends Originate?
In the older myths, there wasn’t really an origin story to explain where Charybdis came from. However, later myths said that she was the daughter of Gaia (earth) and Poseidon (god of the seas). In one story, Charybdis was very loyal to her father and helped flood various Islands and land masses to help expand Poseidon’s domain. Another tale explains that she stole sacred oxen from Heracles because of her insatiable nature. In both myths, Zeus punished Charybdis and cast her into the sea. She was then transformed into a monster with an unquenchable appetite.
Charybdis in the Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks
The legendary sea monster Charybdis features in many Greek tales, like Homer’s Odyssey and the story of Jason and the Argonauts. She also shows up in the fables of Aesop, Aristotle’s Meteorologica, and even the Latin epic poem, the Aeneid.
Jason and the Argonauts had to pass through the narrow channel where Scylla and Charybdis lived. However, Achilles’ mother, Thetis — a Nereid daughter of a sea god — safely guided them through. In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil explains that Helenus warned Aeneus and his crew of Scylla and Charybdis on their journey from Troy to Italy.
The most famous example of Charybdis in ancient myth, however, comes from Homer’s epic, the Odyssey. As Odysseus attempts to sail home following the Trojan War, he is continually met with obstacles that delay his journey for years on end. At one point, he and his crew sail through the Strait of Messina. Odysseus makes the impossible choice to avoid Charybdis and instead sail closer to Scylla.
As expected, Scylla’s six heads snatch up six of Odysseus’ men, but the rest of the crew make it through unharmed. However, Odysseus once again encounters Charybdis and Scylla later on during his journey.
Having safely evaded (mostly) the clutches of the legendary sea monsters, Odysseus and his men sail to Thrinacia, the Island of the Sun. While on the island, Odysseus’ starving crew cook up some of Hyperion’s sacred cattle. As punishment, Zeus sends a storm to destroy Odysseus’ ship and drown all his men. Odysseus barely escapes with his life, but the storm sweeps him back to Charybdis again! Fortunately, he was able to grab onto the fig tree just above the sea monster’s lair and eventually escaped.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Leonid Ikan/Shutterstock.com
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