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Between Scylla and Charybdis

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on October 8, 2010

Hard choices in fluid situations

Greek mythology included two particular sea monsters.  Scylla was a hydra-like creature, with toothed heads on each of six long necks.  She also had twelve tentacles for legs.  If a ship approached too close to Scylla, she would seize a sailor in each of her six mouths.  Charybdis was a huge creature with a tremendous mouth and flippers for arms and legs.  Three times each day, she swallows a large volume of water and then belches it out again.  Over time, the myths evolved, with Scylla becoming a large rock and Charybdis becoming a whirlpool.  The two monsters were located very near each other, so that ships trying to pass between were in peril of one or the other or both.  In the Odyssey, the ship avoids Charybdis but passes too close to Scylla and loses six sailors.  Jason and the Argonauts are more successful in navigating the narrow strait between the two monsters.  Historians and mariners have ascribed the actual location that provided a basis for the legend as either a cape in northwestern Greece or, more famously, the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the toe of the Italian boot.   Regardless, the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” now means to be in a situation between two dangers such that moving away from one takes you closer to the other.  The phrase was made more generic as “between a rock and a whirlpool”, but is more popularly used today as “between a rock and a hard place”.  Persons successfully making the passage are considered to be either skillful navigators or very lucky.