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For other uses, see Scylla (disambiguation).
The Rock of Scilla, Calabria

In Greek mythology, Scylla[1] (/ˈsɪlə/ SIL; Greek: Σκύλλα, pronounced [skýl̚la], Skylla) was a monster that lived on one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite its counterpart Charybdis. The two sides of the strait were within an arrow's range of each other—so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa.

The strait has been associated with the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily. The idiom "between Scylla and Charybdis" has come to mean being forced to choose between two equally dangerous situations.


Various Greek myths account for Scylla's origins and fate. According to some, she was one of the children of Phorcys and Ceto. Other sources, including Stesichorus, cite her parents as Triton and Lamia. According to John Tzetzes[2] and Servius' commentary on the Aeneid,[3] Scylla was a beautiful naiad who was claimed by Poseidon, but the jealous Amphitrite turned her into a monster by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe.

A similar story is found in Hyginus,[4] according to whom Scylla was the daughter of the river god Crataeis and was loved by Glaucus, but Glaucus himself was also loved by the sorceress Circe. While Scylla was bathing in the sea, the jealous Circe poured a potion into the sea water which caused Scylla to transform into a monster with four eyes and six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. Her body consisted of 12 tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while four to six dog-heads ringed her waist. In this form, she attacked the ships of passing sailors, seizing one of the crew with each of her heads.

In a late Greek myth, recorded in Eustathius' commentary on Homer and John Tzetzes,[5] Heracles encountered Scylla during a journey to Sicily and slew her. Her father, the sea-god Phorcys, then applied flaming torches to her body and restored her to life.

In literature[edit]

Scylla. Detail from a red-figure bell-crater in the Louvre, 450–425 BC

Homer's Odyssey[edit]

In Homer's Odyssey XII, Odysseus is advised by Circe to sail closer to Scylla, for Charybdis could drown his whole ship: "Hug Scylla's crag—sail on past her—top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew,"[6] She also tells Odysseus to ask Scylla's mother, the river nymph Crataeis, to prevent Scylla from pouncing more than once. Odysseus successfully navigates the strait, but when he and his crew are momentarily distracted by Charybdis, Scylla snatches six sailors off the deck and devours them alive.

"...they writhed
gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there
at her cavern's mouth she bolted them down raw—
screaming out, flinging their arms toward me,
lost in that mortal struggle."[7]

Ovid's Metamorphoses[edit]

According to Ovid,[8] the fisherman-turned-sea-god Glaucus fell in love with the beautiful Scylla, but she was repulsed by his fishy tail and fled onto the land where he could not follow. When he went to Circe to ask for a love potion to win her, the sorceress herself fell in love with him. Meeting with no success, she prepared a vial of poison and poured it in the sea-pool where her rival bathed, turning her into a thing of terror even to herself.

In vain she offers from herself to run
And drags about her what she strives to shun.[9]

The story was later adapted into a five-act tragic opera, Scylla et Glaucus (1746), by the French composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

Keats' Endymion[edit]

In John Keats' loose retelling of Ovid's version of the myth of Scylla and Glaucus in Book 3 of Endymion (1818), the evil Circe does not transform Scylla into a monster but merely murders the beautiful nymph. Glaucus then takes her corpse to a crystal palace at the bottom of the ocean where lie the bodies of all lovers who have died at sea. After a thousand years, she is resurrected by Endymion and reunited with Glaucus.[10]


J. M. W. Turner's painting of Scylla flying inland from the advances of Glaucus, 1841

At the Carolingian abbey of Corvey in Westphalia, a unique ninth-century wall painting depicts, among other things, Odysseus' fight with Scylla,[11] an illustration not noted elsewhere in medieval arts.[12]

In the Renaissance and after, it was the story of Glaucus and Scylla that caught the imagination of painters across Europe. In Agostino Carracci's 1597 fresco cycle of The Loves of the Gods in the Farnese Gallery, the two are shown embracing, a conjunction that is not sanctioned by the myth.[13] More orthodox versions show the maiden scrambling away from the amorous arms of the god, as in the oil on copper painting of Fillipo Lauri[14] and the oil on canvas by Salvator Rosa in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen.[15]

Other painters picture them divided by their respective elements of land and water, as in the paintings of the Flemish Bartholomäus Spranger (1587), now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.[16] Some add the detail of Cupid aiming at the sea-god with his bow, as in the painting of Laurent de la Hyre (1640/4) in the J. Paul Getty Museum[17] and that of Jacques Dumont le Romain (1726) at the Musée des beaux-arts de Troyes.[18] Two cupids can also be seen fluttering around the fleeing Scylla in the late painting of the scene by J.M.W. Turner (1841), now in the Kimbell Art Museum.[19]

Peter Paul Rubens shows the moment when the horrified Scylla first begins to change, under the gaze of Glaucus (c.1636),[20] while Eglon van der Neer's 1695 painting in the Rijksmuseum shows Circe poisoning the water as Scylla prepares to bathe.[21] There are also two Pre-Raphaelite treatments of the latter scene by John Melhuish Strudwick (1886)[22] and John William Waterhouse (Circe Invidiosa, 1892).[23]


  1. ^ The Middle English Scylle (/ˈsɪl/, reflecting Greek: Σκύλλη), is obsolete.
  2. ^ John Tzetzes, On Lycophron 45
  3. ^ Servius on Aeneid III. 420.
  4. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 199
  5. ^ On Lycophron 45
  6. ^ Robert Fagles, The Odyssey 1996, XII.119ff.
  7. ^ Fagles 1996 XII.275–79.
  8. ^ (Ovid, Metamorphoses xiii. 732ff., 905; xiv. 40ff.; the translation by Nicholas Rowe and Samuel Garth is in GoogleBooks
  9. ^ Metamorphoses XIV.51-2
  10. ^ Endymion Book III, line 401ff
  11. ^ Available in Wikimedia
  12. ^ UNESCO: Corvey Abbey and Castle
  13. ^ Available in Wikimedia
  14. ^ View online at Magnoliabox
  15. ^ View on the Reproarte site; a preliminary drawing in MFA Boston is dated 1661
  16. ^ Available in Wikimedia
  17. ^ View on the museum website
  18. ^ View on Flickr
  19. ^ There is a more conventional print from around 1810/15 in the Tate Gallery
  20. ^ Musée Bonat, available in Wikimedia
  21. ^ View on Flickr
  22. ^ View on Wikimedia
  23. ^ Available on the website devoted to the artist.


  • Hanfmann, George M. A., "The Scylla of Corvey and Her Ancestors" Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 "Studies on Art and Archeology in Honor of Ernst Kitzinger on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday" (1987), pp. 249–260. Hanfman assembles Classical and Christian literary and visual testimony of Scylla, from Mesopotamian origins to his ostensible subject, a ninth-century wall painting at Corvey Abbey.

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