Scylla  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In Greek mythology, Scylla 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

Scylla was a horrible sea monster with four eyes, six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. Her body consisted of twelve tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail and with four to six dog-heads ringing her waist. She was one of the children of Phorcys and Ceto. Some sources, including Stesichorus, cite her parents as Triton and Lamia.

Traditionally the strait has been associated with the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily, but more recently this theory has been challenged, and the alternative location of Cape Skilla in northwest Greece has been suggested by Tim Severin.

The idiom 'between Scylla and Charybdis' has come to mean being between two dangers, choosing either of which brings harm.

Contents

In literature

Homer's Odyssey

In Homer's Odyssey XII, Odysseus is given advice 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" she warns, and tells Odysseus to bid Scylla's mother, the river nymph Crataeis, to prevent her from pouncing more than once. Odysseus then successfully sails his ship past Scylla and Charybdis, but Scylla manages to catch six of his men, devouring 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."

Ovid

According to Ovid, Scylla was once a beautiful nymph. The fisherman-turned-sea-god Glaucus fell madly in love with her, but she fled from him onto the land where he could not follow. Despair filled his heart. He went to the sorceress Circe to ask for a love potion to melt Scylla's heart. As he told his tale of love about Scylla to Circe, she herself fell in love with him. She wooed him with her sweetest words and looks, but the sea-god would have none of her. Circe was furious, but with Scylla and not with Glaucus. She prepared a vial of very powerful poison and poured it in the pool where Scylla bathed. As soon as the nymph entered the water, she was transformed into a frightful monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth. Angry, growling wolf heads grew from her waist, and she tried to brush them off. She stood there in utter misery, unable to move, loathing and destroying everything that came into her reach, a peril to all sailors who passed near her. Whenever a ship passed, each of her heads would seize one of the crew.

Scylla is rationalised in the Aeneid as a dangerous rock outcropping.

Later Antiquity

In a late Greek myth, it was said that 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. According to John Tzetzes and Servius' commentary on the Aeneid, 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: according to him, Scylla was the daughter of the river god Crataeis and was loved by Glaucus, but Glaucus himself was also loved by Circe. When Scylla was bathing in the sea, the jealous Circe poured some potion into the sea water, which caused Scylla to transform into a monster. The fact that Scylla devoured some of Odysseus' companions is thus regarded as an act of her revenge on Circe, considering that Odysseus too was loved by the sorceress.

In European culture

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

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 the bodies all lovers who have died at sea lie. After a thousand years, she is resurrected by Endymion and reunited with Glaucus.

Paintings

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

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. 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 and the oil on canvas by Salvator Rosa in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen.

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. 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 and that of Jacques Dumont le Romain (1726) at the Musée des beaux-arts de Troyes. 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.

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

References

  • 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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