• Joanne Mason

Scylla and Charybdis

Updated: Jul 28

Today I’m reminded of a winter break in high school, when I industriously read Homer’s Odyssey and met Scylla and Charybdis.

(Okay, I confess I scrambled to read it during the last two days of school vacation because we had a quiz coming up. But since then, the Odyssey has become one of my favorite stories.)

Scylla and Charybdis are a formidable monster duo in Greek mythology. As he continued his journey back to Ithaca, main character Odysseus was warned about their position at the Strait of Messina, the narrow channel separating the toe of Italy’s boot and the island of Sicily.

Scylla was a 6-headed beast with an appetite for sailors, ready to munch on one sailor for each head. Charybdis was a powerful whirlpool that could sink ships. The two monsters were so close to each other that you couldn’t avoid one without meeting the other.

Eventually, Odysseus’s plight became an idiom: caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Think of it as a variation of between a rock and a hard place. Neither choice is ideal, and whichever you choose, you lose.

Around the time I was reading the Odyssey, Sting mentioned Scylla and Charybdis in the Police song “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”

You consider me the young apprentice Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis

No doubt, in teenage angst style, I considered myself in a similar boat as I raced to finish the Odyssey. However, I don’t think Homer or Sting were contemplating a failed mythology quiz when they used the phrase.

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