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Scylla and Charibdis

Original version
According to ancient mythology, the Strait of Messina between the isle of Sicily and the mainland, was home to two terrible monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. Both Scylla and Charibdis were two beautiful girls who were transformed into horrible and terrifying monsters after offending the gods. Scylla was a beautiful nymph who lived in the city of Reggio Calabria. She was the daughter of Tifone (a giant) and Echidna; she used to walk along the shore near the rocks and near the crystalline water of the Tyrrenian Sea. She used to bathe in the waters at night and she found her natural element in the sea and among sea creatures. One evening while she was lying on the beach, she saw a huge wave approaching the shore and transforming into a creature. The creature was half man and half fish, he had a bluish body, the face of a man with a green beard and green hair like algae. Scilla was scared by the apparition and escaped up a nearby hill. The creature was a sea god who had formerly been a sailor named Glauco. He was in love with Scylla and when he saw her escape, he called her name and told her his sad story: one day he had caught a lot of beautiful fishes; he put them in a line on the grass by the shore in order to count them. As soon as the fishes were in contact with the grass, they became alive again and ran back to the sea. Glauco was amazed by this prodigy and decided to eat some of the magic grass: he felt strange and he began to transform in a sea creature, half fish and half man. Hearing his tale, Scylla was horrified and ran away. Glauco was so in love with her that he decided to ask the sorceress Circe for help. Circe refused to help him and tried to seduce him, but Glauco rejected her. Circe then had her revenge : she prepared a magic potion and poured it in the sea waters near the beach where Scylla used to have her bath. Scylla plunged in the water, but after a short time she saw that she was surrounded by fierce animals. She got out of the sea and reached the shore and then she understood that her body had been transformed: she was now a horrible monster with six snake-like legs and twelve feet. Scilla was so disgusted with her transformation that she decided to hide in the caves on the mainland side of the Strait and when sailors came near her she would attack and devour them. Charybdis was a nymph, the daughter of Poseidon, the god of the sea, and of Gea, the goddess of the earth. Charybdis was afflicted by an insatiable voracity. Once she devoured Heracles’ s herd of oxen and Jupiter punished her transforming her into a horrible sea monster. Charybdis used to hide on the Sicilian side of the Strait. When she got thirsty she used to go to the sea and drink huge quantities of water, thus provoking terrible whirlpools which sucked the ships and crews and destroyed them. Sailors were terrified when they had to go through the Strait because of the presence of the two monsters on opposite sides.
Main characters
Nymphs and gods Circe, a sorceress Scylla and Charibdis, two beautiful girls who are transformed in two terrible Sea monsters
Connected artistic / architectonic / historical heritage
The Strait of Messina is geographically between Sicily and the mainland of Italy. It is a very narrow strait, only three kilometres long, whose waters are often rough and dangerous due to the strong sea winds which blow along the opposite coasts Today, currents can sometimes reach up to 9 Km/h, they clash and create some dangerous vortex which in the past must have frightened every sailor. The most famous vortex has always been in front of “spiaggia del Faro” (the lighthouse beach), called Cariddi (Charibdis) by ancient populations inhabiting the area. The name means “ (the monster) who sucks”. The other famous vortex forms in front of the opposite coast on the mainland between Alta Fiumara and Punto Pizzo, its name is Scilla, meaning “(the monster) who shreds”. These two famous vortexes are created by the waters clashing against the rocks of Punta Peloro and Punta Torre Cavallo Since ancient times, the Strait has always been a place inspiring awe and fascination. It inspired great authors and poets who created famous myths and legends. During ancient times, sailing in the Strait was considered very dangerous because of the underwater currents which were often unexpected and strong and because of the violent winds. Among the authors who drew inspiration from the legends of the Strait of Messina, we remember Homer, Virgil and Ovid. Homer wrote about Scylla and Charibdis in his masterpiece The Odissey in Canto XII (ll.112-). Virgil mentioned the legends in The Aeneid in Canto III (681-689). Ovid referred to the transformation of the two beautiful girls into mosters in The Metamorphosis in Canto XIII (ll.924 -)
Local traditions or historical connections
This myth was the source of famous sayings like ‘to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis’, meaning having to choose between two equal dangers. A similar modern saying which derives from the old one is “to be caught between a rock and a hard place’.
Didactical Relevance
The legend allows the students to study some very famous texts by worldwide authors and to discover one of the most fascinating geographical places in Italy
Didactical Activity
Step 1. Start the didactical activity with Geography: start with a study of the island of Sicily and the region Calabria. Move on to a geolocalization of the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria and focus on their geographical and economic importance in the economy of the region and of Southern Italy. Consider the network of connections (the railways, the highways, the airports) which make the city a “hub” for tourism, economy, culture. Find all the European and International destinations which can be easily reached from Messina and Reggio Calabria. Find out the resources for tourism offered by the city, such as the museums, the monuments, the parks, the exhibitions, the theatres and opera house, the churches, the shopping districts and others. Step 2. History: focus on the two Italian regions of Sicily and Calabria and some important events in Italian history which took place in these regions (example; Garibaldi and his 1000 men landing in Marsala) Step 3. Classical literature: study of the classical authors who described the legend of Scylla and Charybdis. Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis Step 4.Literature : It is important to teach the students how to read a legend and to connect it to local traditions and history. Ask the students to read the legend and reflect on it. The presence of the “beautiful girl” who is transformed in a monster is common to many other legends all over Europe, ask the students to read the other legends by the partners on this “Parsifal” portal and to select those which have a girl as one of the characters, then ask them to find common elements and differences. To develop their creative writing ability, it is possible to ask the students to write their own version of the legend. Step 5: A class trip to the Strait of Messina, to either one of the two cities (full day)


Homer's Odissey
Reading of the passage from Homer’s Odyssey in English
Scylla and Charibdis, the story
The story of the myth narrated with reference to Greek mythology


The strait of Messina
The photo shows the Strait of Messina from above, It is possible to see how close the island of Sicily is to the mainland
Ulysses fighting the monsters
This famous painting by J.H. Füssli represents Ulysses fighting against the two monsters.

External Sources

The legend
Site of the Comenius project Ethno Treasure Hunt, with the legend
Tourism in Sicily
The site gives information and tips on the island and how to enjoy a visit there

PDF version of the legend in national language