A Possible Origin for the Scylla and Charybdis Myth

Posted on / by Alex Berger

Greek Vista from Nafplio

There is an ancient Greek Myth that recounts the existence of two terrible sea monsters.  The ancient stories tell a tale which describes the narrow straight in which these two monsters dwelt. One was possessed of a great maw through which it would take great gulps of water, sucking in anything and everything nearby three times a day.  The other monster, who lived just across the straight and was also anchored in place possessed great heads that would quickly snatch at and kill any sailor who wandered within range.

Minoan Ruins of Knossos

Sound familiar?  They should! Scylla and Charybdis have become two of the great myths of Greco-Roman Mythology.  They were made famous by Homer in the Odyssey, mentioned in Jason and the Argonauts and vividly described in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Underwater Scene in Museum

For those who enjoy mythology, there’s typically a second – equally fascinating – element that being the often factual inspiration for the myth.  Though originally assumed to be uninspired fairy-tales pulled straight from the author’s mind – history has shown us that many of the great events outlined in ancient myths may actually have a factual origin.  A prime example is the re-discovery of Troy. Once thought to be nothing more than myth, archeologists were able to use Homer’s descriptions to not only prove Troy’s existence but re-discover it.

Another example is one of my personal favorites. Though still fairly contested the “Black Sea Deluge Theory” suggests that the Great Flood which appears in a number of religious creation myths may very well have been caused by the relatively sudden collapse of a land dam.  The flooding that ensued would have drastically altered the landscape, and may have claimed entire cities which in turn would have generated the myth that the entire world had been flooded as part of God’s wrath.

Greek Statue of Poseidon

The common opinion surrounding Scylla and Charybdis focuses mostly on the straight that these two sea monsters dwelt in, and does little to take into account what inspired the monsters themselves.  To this end, most believe that the straight mentioned in the myth is the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, in Italy. Frankly, I haven’t thought too much about the myth or its origins since I visited Greece in 2007.

Until, that is, earlier today when I stumbled onto a video clip of the Kavachi Volcano in the Solomon Islands.  Kavachi is one of the most active submarine volcanoes in the world and has been toying with the idea of breaking the surface and becoming a full fledged island for nearly 100 years.  As I watched the footage of eruption as it broke the surface in what appeared to be the middle of the ocean it hit me from somewhere deep in my subconscious.

If I was floating along in a boat thousands of years ago, didn’t know better, and suddenly found myself face to face with hissing, steaming, smelly water boiling up towards the surface with tons of dirt and mud in tow I’d have been more than willing to believe I was coming face to face with a sea monster.  Especially if the undersea eruption damaged the boat, or broke the surface long enough to launch molten lava bombs towards the ship.  I was quite possibly looking at a very probable inspiration for Scylla and Charybdis.

The Acropolis

As I toyed with the idea I quickly started to put two and two together.  Was there volcanic activity in the area and during the period of time leading up to the writing of the Odyssey? You better believe it.  One need only look to what’s left of the Island of Santorini for confirmation that Greece had a volcanic history. A volcanic history that had been fairly active in the period leading up to Homer’s writing.   Though less likely, there’s also a similar history of volcanism in the area around Napals and Sicily adding to the possibility of some sort of underwater eruption several thousand years ago.  No doubt most are familiar with the land based eruption of the volcano near Pompeii, and others may be familiar with the current eruptions of the Sicilian volcano Mt. Etna.

What’s your take?  Have information of your own to share?  Chime in and leave a comment!

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


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