Scylla – Six-Headed Sea Monster

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Scylla (pronounced sa-ee-la) is one of Greek mythology’s feistiest sea monsters, known for preying near a famous narrow sea channel accompanied by the sea monster Charybdis. With her numerous heads and her sharp teeth, Scylla was a monster that no mariner wanted to find on his journeys. Here’s a closer look.

Scylla’s Parentage

Scylla’s origins have several variations depending on the author. According to Homer in the Odyssey, Scylla was born from Crataeis as a monster.

However, Hesiod proposed that the monster was the offspring of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, and Phorcys, one of the sea gods. Some other sources maintain that she comes from the union of Typhon and Echidna, two ferocious monsters.

Other sources refer to a transformation from a human mortal to the dreadful sea monster through witchcraft.

Scylla’s Transformation

Scylla fountain of neptune
Statue believed to be of Scylla

Some myths, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, say that she was the human daughter of Crataeis.

Accordingly, Scylla was one of the most beautiful maidens. Glaucus, a god of the sea, fell in love with the lady, but she rejected him for his liquid looks.

The sea god then visited the enchantress Circe to request her help to make Scylla fall in love with him. However, Circe herself fell in love with Glaucus, and full of jealousy, she poisoned Scylla’s water to turn her into the monster she wound up being for the rest of her days. 

Scylla was transformed into a hideous creature – dog heads sprang from her thighs, big teeth emerged, and her transformation was complete. In the Greek vase paintings of antiquity, there are several depictions of the monster with dog heads on her lower limbs.

In other versions, the love story is between Scylla and Poseidon. In these tales, Poseidon’s consort, Amphitrite is the one to turn Scylla into a monster out of jealousy. 

Why Was Scylla Feared?

Scylla is said to have had six snake-like long necks and six heads, somewhat like the Hydra. According to Homer, she devoured fish, men, and every other creature who came too near her three rows of sharp teeth. Her body was fully submerged in the water, and only her heads came out of the water to prey on passers-by.

Scylla dwelt on a cave in a high cliff, from where she came out to eat the sailors who transited the narrow channel. On one side of the channel, there was Scylla, on the other side, Charybdis. This is why the saying to be between Scylla and Charybdis means being compelled to choose between two dangerous choices.

Later authors defined the narrow channel of water as the passage that separated Sicily from Italy, known as Messina. According to the myths, the strait had to be sailed carefully in order not to transit too near Scylla, since she could eat the men on the deck.

Scylla and Odysseus 

Charibdys and scylla
Charybdis and Scylla in the Strait of Messina (1920)

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tries to return to his homeland, Ithaca, after having fought in the War of Troy. On his journey, he encounters different obstacles; one of them was to cross the straits of Messina, home to Scylla and Charybdis. 

The enchantress, Circe describes the two cliffs which surround the strait and tells Odysseus to sail closer to the high cliff where Scylla lives. In contrast to Scylla, Charybdis didn’t have a body, but was instead a mighty whirlpool that wrecks any ship. Circe tells Odysseus that it was better to lose six men to the jaws of Scylla than to lose all of them to the forces of Charybdis.

While trying to follow Circe’s advice, Odysseus ended up too close to Scylla’s lair; the monster came out of her cave, and with her six heads, she ate six men from the ship.

Scylla’s Other Stories

  • Various authors refer to Scylla as one of the many monsters who dwelt in the underworld and guarded its doors.
  • There are other myths of voyages that refer to Scylla causing trouble to the sailors of the strait. 

In the myth of the Argonauts, Hera commands Thetis to guide them through the strait and requests her to be wary of the two monsters who dwell there. Hera gives special attention to Scylla since she refers to the ability of the monster to lurk out of her lair, pick her prey, and devour it with her monstrous teeth. 

Virgil wrote about the voyage of the Aenas; in his description of the monster, she is a mermaid-like monster with dogs on her thighs. In his writings, he advised taking a longer route to avoid coming near Scylla.

  • Although most sources state that Scylla was immortal, the poet Lycrophon wrote that she was slain by Heracles. Besides this, the destiny of the monster is unknown and unreported.
  • The Megarian Scylla, the daughter of Nisius, is a different character in Greek mythology, but the same themes of sea, dogs, and women are related to her story.

Scylla Facts

1- Was Scylla a goddess?

Scylla was a sea monster.

2- How many heads does Scylla have?

Scylla had six heads, each of which could eat a person.

3- What are Scylla’s powers?

Scylla didn’t have special powers, but she was frightening in appearance, strong and could eat humans. She’s also believed to have tentacles that could take down ships.

4- Was Scylla born a monster?

No, she was an attractive nymph who was turned into a monster by Circe out of jealousy.

5- Was Scylla related to Charybdis?

No, Charybdis is believed to be the offspring of Poseidon and Gaia. Charybdis dwelt opposite to Scylla.

6- How does Scylla die?

In a later myth, Heracles kills Scylla while on his way to Sicily.

7- What does the saying Between Scylla and Charybdis mean?

This saying refers to being in an impossible situation where you’re forced to choose between two equally dangerous choices.

Scylla origins myth

To Sum Up

The myth of Scylla may not be one of the most known nowadays, but in antiquity, there was no sailor who didn’t know the story of the fierce Scylla, who could eat men by handfuls with her six heads. The passage between Sicily and Italy which once homed two of Greek mythology scariest monsters, is today a busy route through which vessels move every day.