There is no shortage of fantastic beasts in Greek mythology. Many recognizable monsters challenge famous figures like Odysseus, Heracles, and more. One monster that’s inspired creatures throughout history is Scylla.
Scylla is a sea monster that guards one side of a narrow strait. While most versions leave the exact location up to interpretation, some say that Scylla lives on one side of the strait of Messina in Italy. For this reason, the female monster lends her name to many things from the area. These include the city of Scillia, the Scilla flower, and more.
The Origins of Scylla
How this monster came to be is still up for debate. Many great poets describe her, but variations among her history exist between them.
One version of the tale says that her mother is Crataeis. Not much is known about Crataeis, as her only appearance in Greek mythology revolves around Scylla.
The identity of her father varies as well. According to Apollodorus, her father was either Triton or Phorcys (Phorkys, Phorcus). Triton was the Greek god of the sea and the son of Poseidon. Meanwhile, Phorcys was a primordial god of the sea.
In other retellings, the parents of the beast were Hecate and Phorcys. Hecate is a primordial goddess, making the connection with Phorcys more reasonable. To provide some clarity, later retellings mentioned that the name “Crataeis” was another moniker for Hecate. However, scholars believe that the point was only to fix conflicting accounts of Scylla’s history.
Multiple authors, including Homer and Ovid, claim that Scylla’s mother is Keto (also known as Crataeis), goddess of dangers of the sea. Some stories tell of Keto mating with her brother Phorcys, with whom she had Scylla, Ekhidna (a she-dragon), the Graeae (three sisters – Deino, Enyo, and Pemphredo – who shared one eye between all of them), Ladon (a serpent with one-hundred heads), and the Gorgons (Stheno the Mighty, Euryale the Far Springer, and MEDUSA, Queen of the Gorgons). There is some confusion between scholars about HECATE being the mother of Scylla. Apollonius of Rhodes claims that Crataeis is another name for Hecate.
The Transformation of Scylla
As if the beast’s origins weren’t confusing enough, later retellings of the Greek myth by John Tzetzes expanded upon her story. Instead of being the monstrous progeny of primordial deities, Scylla was a water nymph.
Scylla changed from a beautiful nymph into the iconic beast out of jealousy in this account. She was reportedly claimed by Poseidon, which created envy from other water spirits. One water fairy, Amphitrite, poisoned the spring water that Scylla bathed in, resulting in her transformation.
A similar story of metamorphosis occurred in works by Hyginus and Ovid. In this tale, Scylla started life as a nymph who would attract attention everywhere she went. But despite their best efforts, Scylla never showed interest in others. However, one figure could help but chase her.
Glaucus, a minor sea god, loved Scylla so much that he wanted to use magic to capture her attention and love. So, he went to the sorceress Circe. Circe was in love with Glaucus, so she flew into a jealous rage upon learning that he loved Scylla. To get revenge, she used her potion expertise to poison the waters where Scylla lived.
The poison turned her into a terrifying monster, which turned Glaucus away and made her the stuff of legends!
Depictions of Scylla
The female monster first appeared in Ancient Greek art on pottery. However, she continued to inspire works of art well into the Renaissance period.
The earliest depictions used the description by Homer. He said she had a crab-like shell and twelve feet. Six necks sprung from her protective body. There, menacing heads with three rows of teeth scared unwitting sailors!
In some reports, Scylla was a mismatched array of different animal parts. She reportedly had 12 tentacles for her legs. Around her waist were six dog heads. The triple row of teeth remains, but a curious cat tail accompanies them!
Scylla’s appearance changed quite a bit from one artist to the next. In addition to the animalistic qualities she carried, some artists showed her human-like elements. For example, some pottery makers made her upper half look like the nymph before the transformation. Greek reliefs from Melos show the same thing.
Stories of Scylla
Scylla appears in many different tales. In most cases, she presents a danger to the central figure.
One of Scylla’s most popular stories is in Homer’s epic poem “Odyssey.” Odysseus and his crew encounter the beast on their way back to Ithaca after the Trojan War. As they stop at Circe’s island, they heed a warning from the enchantress.
She tells them to sail closer to Scylla to minimize casualties. At this point, Scylla guarded one side of a narrow strait. On the opposing end was Charybdis. Circe said that Charybdis would destroy Odysseus’ entire shop. However, the witch thought Scylla would only eat a few of the crew.
Odysseus followed her advice, sticking closer to Scylla’s side. They successfully evaded Charybdis. But, the beast on the other end distracted the ship crew. As they were paying attention to Charybdis, Scylla snuck up and ate six of Odysseus’ men.
The description is quite grim! Moving towards Charybdis would lead to an untimely end and vice versa. However, Scylla threw the captured men up a cliff, devouring them raw. Homer describes the screams of the men as they died at the hands of a terrifying beast.
Scylla and Heracles
One familiar Greek myth describes the end of Scylla. According to a commentary by John Tzetzes on the works of Homer, Heracles was the one to end the monster’s life once and for all. A similar account appears in works by the poet Lycophron during the Hellenistic period.
The hero reportedly encountered Scylla as he headed to Sicily. The demigod slew her because she allegedly stole oxen. Either way, she was no match for Heracles. Upon her death, her father brought her back to life. The sea-god Phorcys burnt her body with torches, which restored her life.
Scylla is also known as “Skylla.”
The parentage of Scylla is hotly debated. Some poets say her mother is Crataeis. Meanwhile, others believe she is the progeny of Hecate and Phorcys.
Some versions of Scylla’s myth say she was once a beautiful sea nymph. However, she was transformed by Circe into the monster form.
Scylla’s most retold appearance is in Homer’s Odyssey. However, she’s also mentioned in works by Ovid, Apollodorus, Servius, and more.
Scylla’s counterpart is Charybdis. Together, they guard opposite sides of a narrow strait and present danger for mariners. Scylla lived across from Charybdis’ whirlpool.
According to the “Aenid” by Virgil, the straight in question is the Strait of Messina.
Legend says that Scylla lived on “The Rock of Scilla.” It’s a large rock formation that the Castello di Ruffo sits on.
Scylla reportedly died at the hands of Heracles. This connection resulted in modern interpretations in cartoons and books.
In one Greek epic, Scylla had an affair with Poseidon, which led to her ultimate transformation into a beast.
Earlier depictions show Scylla with numerous tentacles, long necks with multiple faces, and a waist of dog heads.
Later, Scylla took on a more humanistic look. Her upper body was that of a maiden. However, her lower body retained the serpent-like characteristics she’s most known for.
Scylla is thought to have inspired the name of a popular flower and a city in Italy.
This beast and her counterpart inspired the idiom of “Scylla and Charybdis.” To be between Scylla and Charybdis means that you have to choose between one of two equally dangerous situations.
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