The sea monster Charybdis lives under a small rock on one side of a narrow channel. Opposite her is Scylla, another sea-monster, that lives inside a much larger rock. The sides of the strait are within an arrow shot of each other, and sailors attempting to avoid one of them will come in reach of the other. 'Between Scylla and Charybdis' thus means to having to choose between two dangers, either of which brings harm. Three times a day, Charybdis swallows a huge amount of water, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. In some variations of the story, Charybdis is simply a large whirlpool instead of a sea monster.
The theoretical size of Charybdis remains unknown, yet in order to consume Greek ships the whirlpool can be estimated to about 75 feet across. Charybdis has been associated with the Strait of Messina, off the coast of Sicily and opposite a rock on the mainland identified with Scylla. Were Charybdis to be located in the Strait of Messina it would in fact have the size to accommodate the whirlpool. A whirlpool does exist there, caused by currents meeting, but it is seldom dangerous.
References in ancient literature
At many points within the poem, Odysseus is hindered by the efforts of Poseidon and the sea monsters throughout the ocean. Odysseus faced both Charybdis and Scylla in Homer's Odyssey while rowing through a narrow channel. He ordered his men to avoid Charybdis thus forcing them to pass near Scylla, which resulted in the death of six of his men.
Later, stranded on a raft, Odysseus was swept back through the strait to face Scylla and Charybdis once more. This time, Odysseus passed near Charybdis. His raft was sucked into Charybdis' maw, but he survived by clinging to a fig tree growing on a rock over her lair. On the next outflow of water, his raft was expelled. Odysseus recovered it and paddled away safely.
Jason and The Argonauts
Aristotle tells a story of Aesop in conflict with a ferryman and relating to him a myth about Charybdis. She took one gulp of the sea and brought the mountains to view; islands appeared after another. The third will dry the sea altogether.
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- W.H. Roscher, ed. (1886). "Charybdis". Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie 1.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War 4.24.5.
- Gert-Jan van Dijk, Ainoi, logoi, mythoi: fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature, Brill NL 1997, pp.351-3; available in Google Books