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Scylla and Charybdis, the legend of the Strait of Messina

Scylla and Charybdis, the legend of the two monsters of the Strait of Messina that from Homer, crossing two millennia, has come down to us, is one of the most intriguing legends of the Sicilian mythology.  Among the most beautiful legends belonging to the cultural heritage of ancient Messina, the best known is, no doubt, the legend that recalls the existence of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, mythical personifications of vortex formed by the waters of the Strait of Messina. Let’s discover everything there is to know about this legend that still manages to catch the attention of the most curious travellers.

Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina

Calabria region seen from the beach of Faro in Messina Sicily, the nearest point of the Strait of Messina.

Before knowing the details of the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, it is necessary to know some news about the geographical context in which their history is to frame. We are talking about the Strait of Messina, a place full of charm that since ancient times has always been considered extremely difficult to navigate. The navigation of the Strait, in fact, had in the past very bad fame and even today it presents remarkable difficulties, especially for the fast and irregular currents. Even the winds blow violent and in conflict with each other. Sometimes, the currents reach a speed of 90 km per hour and colliding give rise to enormous vortices that surely terrified sailors. The best known are what the ancients called Charybdis, which is formed in front of the beach of Faro in Messina and the other Scylla, which is formed on the coast of Calabria from Alta Fiumara to Punto Pezzo.

The Pylon on the beach of Faro at Peloro Cape, Messina Sicily.

Scylla and Charybdis: the legend

Scylla and Charybdis are two terrible monsters that from ancient times live in the depth of the sea of the Strait of Messina. According to Greek mythology, to guard the Strait of Messina there would be two ravenous monsters: Scylla and Charybdis, always ready to swallow ships and boats and to provoke dangerous sea vortices (actually caused by the currents of the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian seas that meet and collide).  On the one hand, on the Calabrian shore near the current city of Reggio Calabria, once lived a beautiful nymph named Scylla, daughter of Typhon and Echidina (or according to others of Forco and Craetis). She used to go to the rocks of Zancle to walk on the beach and swim in the clear waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. One evening, in those places she met a fisherman called Glauco. According to the legend Glauco fell madly in love with the nymph. The young man turned to the sorceress Circe (the one who seduced Ulysses) in the hope of obtaining from her a filter that would help him to make a breach in the heart of Scylla. The wicked sorceress, seeing the charming young man fell in love with him and tried to charm him with his arts. To get rid of the rival she decided to turn her into a monstrous creature with six heads and twelve feet. So, Scylla went to hide near the Strait of Messina in a cave where the Calabrian coast stretches out toward Sicily. In the opposite cave, according to the legend told by Homer and Virgil, dwells Charybdis, a beautiful nymph daughter of Poseidon and Gea. It is said that she would have stolen and devoured the oxen of Heracles who had passed through the Strait with the herd of Jericho, and that Zeus, to punish her, would have turned her into a horrible monster. She sucked the water of the sea and then spit it out violently, three times a day, so as to wreck the ships that navigated the Strait.

The Strait of Messina and the currents seen from the beach of Faro. Calabria region on the left side and Messina Sicily on the right.

For this reason, and due to the fear of being caught between Scylla and Charybdis, in ancient times all the sailors stayed far from these places, with the exception of Ulysses who blocked the ears of his companions with wax plugs and made them tie him to the tree of his ship to listen to the bewitching and lethal song of sirens that crowded these seas. In fact, to be “between Scylla and Charybdis” or to be “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” is an expression which means to be caught between two unpleasant alternatives. Today a beautiful representation of Scilla and Charybdis can be admired in the fountain of Neptune in Messina.

Scylla and Charybdis, details of the Neptune fountain of Messina. Scylla on the left side and Charybdis on the right.

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