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The Story and Meaning of the Idiom 'between Scylla and Charybdis'

Priyanka Athavale May 10, 2019
The idiom 'between Scylla and Charybdis' has its origins in Greek mythology, and has a legendary story behind it that gave it an idiomatic meaning. This Penlighten post narrates the story and gives the explanation and meaning of this phrase.

Metaphorically Lyrical!

The Florida heavy metal band, Trivium, has made use of the idiom of Scylla and Charybdis as a name for one of their popular songs, Torn Between Scylla and Charybdis.
You must have heard of the phrase 'stuck between Scylla and Charybdis'. Did you ever wonder what it means? There must have been many instances where you were stuck between two options, possibilities, or courses of action and did not know what to do. One way to put it is that you were in a 'dilemma'.
There must have also been instances where you faced a similar dilemma between two equally unpleasant outcomes, one of them inevitably coming to pass. You may have put it as being stuck 'between a rock and a hard place', or 'between two evils', or even 'between the devil and the deep blue sea'.
These are some phrases that we use many times in our daily lives, but this concept has its roots deep set in history; in the legend of Scylla and Charybdis. These were two literal evils, one a monster and the other a whirlpool.
Just like the proverbial dilemmas we face everyday, Odysseus, as the legend says, had to make a choice between these two. The following paragraphs tell the story of how this idiom came to be.

The Legend of Scylla and Charybdis

This story is a part of Homer's Odyssey, Book XII. The hero of this story is Odysseus. And so the legend goes as follows.

Scylla - The Monster

Long ago, in Italy, lived a beautiful nymph by the name of Scylla. She was the daughter of Phorcys, a sea god. Another sea god Glaucus, had fallen in love with her; but sadly, she did not return his feelings.
So madly had he fallen for her and so desperately did he want her to love him back, that he paid a visit to Circe, the sorceress, asking for a love potion. However, there was something else going on in Circe's mind; she had fallen in love with Glaucus and tried to convince him to forget about Scylla, but he would not relent.
Overcome with jealousy, Circe poisoned Scylla's bath water, thereby turning her into a monster with six heads, each having three rows of teeth, 12 feet, and a body covered with heads of barking dogs.
Angry, Scylla began to live under the sea, in a cliff. Every time a ship passed by, she would lash out at it, capture the men aboard in each of her heads, and eat them.

Charybdis - The Whirlpool

On the other side, in Sicily, lived the beautiful Charybdis, daughter of the legendary sea god, Poseidon. She was the apple of her father's eye. When Poseidon went to war with Zeus, Charybdis helped him capture a lot of land by riding waves and crashing them onto the villages.
Enraged, Zeus turned her into a monster having a very wide mouth and fish-like arms and legs. She began to live in a cave near the sea. Three times a day, she would swallow large amounts of seawater and then throw it back out after a few hours. This swallowing and spewing of water gave rise to whirlpools, which caused many ships to drown in the sea.

Odysseus - The Hero

These two monsters lived on the opposite sides of the Strait of Messina, so close to each other that trying to avoid getting caught by one would inadvertently push a person into the perilous jaws of the other. When Odysseus set sail on one fateful day through the strait, he knew of the dangers it possessed.
However, despite being on the lookout for either of the monsters, six of his men were caught by Scylla. When he moved his ship to avoid her again, he found himself swirling down the mouth of Charybdis. Thinking quickly, he jumped up and grabbed onto the branch of a tree as his ship disappeared into the swirling whirlpool.
There he waited; as predicted, Charybdis spewed the water out again, and with it the remnants of his ship. He found a piece of wood big enough to carry him, and hand-pedaled his way to safety. According to the legend, he is the only one to have survived the monsters. This is said to be the origin of the idiom 'torn between Scylla and Charybdis'.

Popular Cultural References

The idiomatic use of this phrase has been done many times. For example, James Gillray's 1700s' painting, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis, shows Britannia sailing in the ship Constitution, caught between a rock of democratic republicanism and a whirlpool of autocracy.
Victor Hugo uses the French version of the idiom in his book Les Miserables. It goes - tomber de Charybde en Scylla, meaning 'going from bad to worse'. The phrase has also been used in the song Wrapped Around Your Finger, belonging to the popular '70s' band, The Police.
The line goes,
'You consider me the young apprentice,
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis,
Hypnotized by you if I should linger...'
This was the meaning of the phrase 'between Scylla and Charybdis', and the story behind it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as 'being caught between two evils'. So the next time you're tired of saying 'between a rock and a hard place' or 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', use this legendary historical idiom.