Scylla and Charybdis

cross-posted from CU Women’s Resource Center’s Blog

I’m starting off this series with two of my personal favorites (even though most monster ladies are my favorites, who am I kidding?): Scylla and Charybdis. Ancient Greek monsters, they appear in Homer’s Odyssey and are a pretty spectacular duo. Scylla is a multi-headed woman monster living in caves on a cliff side, sometimes depicted as having multiple writhing dogs for a lower half. Body positivity right there. Charybdis is her counterpart, a whirlpool opposite Scylla’s cliff face, who prefers she, her, and hers.

Source Unknown

Source Unknown

  Scylla: …she yaps

                        abominably, a newborn whelp’s cry,

                        though she is huge and monstrous. God or man,

                        no one could look on her in joy. Her legs –

                        and there are twelve – are like great tentacles,

                        unjointed, and upon her serpent necks

                        are borne six heads like nightmares of ferocity,

                        with triple serried rows of fangs and deep

                        gullets of black death. Half her length, she sways

                        her heads in air, outside her horrid cleft,

                        hunting the sea around her promontory

                        for dolphins, dogfish, or what bigger game

                        thundering Amphitrite feeds in thousands.

                        And no ships company can claim

                        to have passed her without loss and grief; she takes,

                        from every ship, one man for every gullet.

           

                        The opposite point seems more a tongue of land

                        you’d touch with a good bowshot, at the narrows.

                        A great wild fig, a shaggy mass of leaves,

                        grows on it, and Kharybdis lurks below

                        to swallow down the dark sea tide. Three times

                        from dawn to dusk she spews it up

                        and sucks it down again three times, a whirling

                        maelstrom; if you come upon her then

                        the god who makes earth tremble could not save you.

                        Book XII, Lines 103-127

Scylla follows that wonderful Greek tradition of a woman being cursed into being a monster by another woman, because of men’s sexuality. According to Ovid, the god Glaucus fell in love with the nymph Scylla, who is freaked out by his fish tail and spurns his advances. Glaucus goes to the witch Circe to ask for a love potion (consent?), but Circe falls in love with him herself, and instead gives him a potion to turn Scylla hideous, chasing away his affection for her. The potion re-births Scylla in her monstrous form, dog- and snake-bodied. In another version of the myth, Poseidon is the one with affection for Scylla, and his wife Amphitrite, punishes not her husband for this, but Scylla, and turns her into a monster. Scylla’s monstrousness is then the end result of female jealousy and male lust, punished for just sort of existing, while the male doing the looking gets off free. Scylla’s devouring of sailors, generally worshipers of Poseidon, is an act of vengeance, in that light.

Charybdis is either figured as a whirlpool, or a sea monster gulping down water and creating her own whirlpools. Charybdis, like Scylla, was a nymph transformed into a monstrous state. Poseidon’s daughter, she caused tidal waves and floods, claiming more lands for her father’s kingdoms by submerging the land. This draws the anger of Zeus, who transforms her into the monster that rests adjacent to Scylla’s cliffs. Even as he seeks to punish her, Charybdis still retains control of waves, so while Zeus may have rendered her form grotesque, he was unable to destroy her power. As a whirlpool or creator of whirlpools, Charybdis exists as furious absences. Fully acknowledging that I’m reading modern theory backwards onto history: female genitalia and femaleness is often imagined by the patriarchy as absence – Freud viewed the vagina as a lack longing to be filled by a phallus. Which, as much as we’ve dismissed Freud, is still an idea with cultural currency behind it. Charybdis is unapologetically an absence, if her feminine self is going to be rendered as inconsequential by Zeus, then she’s going to be a fucking absence, and obliterate anyone who comes into her sphere of absence rendered as furious mouth.

Charybdis in the 1997 “The Odyssey” tv miniseries

Charybdis in the 1997 “The Odyssey” tv miniseries

While reading her as a monstrous and defiant embodiment of patriarchy’s desires, controlling it so that she can not be controlled again, as she was by Zeus, she is also the counter reading of the feminine as absence – the feminine as enveloping, as she envelops sailors in her mouth/waters. Charybdis is the fear of both female absence and female presence, multiplied a thousand-fold and re-embodied: if the female is marked as an absence, a void, then Charybdis will damn well be a void, if the female is stifling, then she will stifle and consume any men foolish enough to cross near her absence

The Odyssey doesn’t ever actually specify this, but I like to imagine that multi-headed Scylla and an unspeaking whirlpool named Charybdis are friends, living so close to each other, and funneling tasty humans in-between themselves to make catching them easier. Charybdis as a whirlpool tries constantly to drain the oceans, to render the lord of the seas a pitiful god with no domain for both his failure to protect her when she was only ever loyal, and for what became of her friend Scylla, day in and day out sucking down water that constantly replenishes itself. Scylla with her multiple heads speaks for both of them, now that Charybdis has lost a mouth capable of speaking. Because who else are you going to talk to when you’ve been cursed to have six dogs growing from your waist, or if you’re an immobile natural occurrence? There’s solace in retelling the myth to include friendship and alliances between (monstrous) women, and the fact that although both women are transformed by male powers, neither of them is killed or completely defeated.

Charles Mills Gayley, from “The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art”

Charles Mills Gayley, from “The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art”

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