FROM THE ODDYSEY, BY HOMER: Odysseus is forced to choose between the monsters Skylla (Scylla) and Charybdis
Circe warns Odysseus about his dilemma
[Circe speaks] I will tell you the two ways of it.
On one side there are overhanging rocks, and against them crashes the heavy swell of dark-eyed Amphitrite [goddess of the sea, wife of the god Poseidon]. The blessed gods call these rocks the Rovers.
By this way not even any flying thing, not even the tremulous doves, which carry ambrosia to Zeus the father, can pass through, but every time the sheer rock catches away one even of these; but the Father then adds another to keep the number right.
No ship of men that came here ever has fled through, but the waves of the sea and storms of ravening fire carry away together the ship’s timbers and the men’s bodies.
That way the only seagoing ship to get through was Argo, who is in all men’s minds, on her way home from Aietes; and even she would have been driven on the great rocks that time, but Hera saw her through, out of her great love for Jason.
But of the two rocks, one reaches up into the wide heaven with a pointed peak, and a dark cloud stands always around it, and never at any time draws away from it, nor does the sunlight ever hold that peak, either in the early or the late summer, nor could any man who was mortal climb there, or stand mounted on the summit, not if he had twenty hands and twenty feet, for the rock goes sheerly up, as if it were polished.
Halfway up the cliff there is a cave, misty-looking and turned toward Erebos and the dark, the very direction from which, O shining Odysseus, you and your men will be steering your hollow ship; and from the hollow ship no vigorous young man with a bow could shoot to the hole in the cliffside.
In that cavern Skylla lives, whose howling is terror. Her voice indeed is only as loud as a new-born puppy could make, but she herself is an evil monster. No one, not even a god encountering her, could be glad at that sight.
She has twelve feet, and all of them wave in the air. She has six necks upon her, grown to great length, and upon each neck there is a horrible head, with teeth in it, set in three rows close together and stiff, full of black death.
Her body from the waist down is holed up inside the hollow cavern, but she holds her heads poked out and away from the terrible hollow, and there she fishes, peering all over the cliffside, looking for dolphins or dogfish to catch or anything bigger, some sea monster, of whom Amphitrite keeps so many; never can sailors boast aloud that their ship has passed her without any loss of men, for with each of her heads she snatches one man away and carries him off from the dark-prowed vessel.
‘“The other cliff is lower; you will see it, Odysseus, for they lie close together, you could even cast with an arrow across. There is a great fig tree grows there, dense with foliage, and under this shining Charybdis sucks down the black water.
For three times a day she flows it up, and three times she sucks it terribly down; may you not be there when she sucks down water, for not even the Earthshaker could rescue you out of that evil. But sailing your ship swiftly drive her past and avoid her, and make for Skylla’s rock instead, since it is far better to mourn six friends lost out of your ship than the whole company.”
‘So she spoke, but I in turn said to her in answer: “Come then, goddess, answer me truthfully this: is there some way for me to escape away from deadly Charybdis, but yet fight the other one off, when she attacks my companions?”
So I spoke, and she, shining among goddesses, answered: “Hardy man, your mind is full forever of fighting and battle work. Will you not give way even to the immortals? She is no mortal thing but a mischief immortal, dangerous difficult and bloodthirsty, and there is no fighting against her, nor any force of defense.
It is best to run away from her. For if you arm for battle beside her rock and waste time there, I fear she will make another outrush and catch you with all her heads, and snatch away once more the same number of men.
Drive by as hard as you can, but invoke Krataiïs. She is the mother of Skylla and bore this mischief for mortals, and she will stay her from making another sally against you.
Odysseus recounts his adventure
[Odysseus speaks] After we had left the island behind, the next thing we saw was smoke, and a heavy surf, and we heard it thundering. The men were terrified, and they let the oars fall out of their hands, and these banged all about in the wash. The ship stopped still, with the men no longer rowing to keep way on her.
Then I going up and down the ship urged on my companions, standing beside each man and speaking to him in kind words: “Dear friends, surely we are not unlearned in evils. This is no greater evil now than it was when the Cyclops had us cooped in his hollow cave by force and violence, but even there, by my courage and counsel and my intelligence, we escaped away.
I think that all this will be remembered some day too. Then do as I say, let us all be won over. Sit well, all of you, to your oarlocks, and dash your oars deep into the breaking surf of the water, so in that way Zeus might grant that we get clear of this danger and flee away from it.
For you, steersman, I have this order; so store it deeply in your mind, as you control the steering oar of this hollow ship; you must keep her clear from where the smoke and the breakers are, and make hard for the sea rock lest, without your knowing, she might drift that way, and you bring all of us into disaster.”
So I spoke, and they quickly obeyed my words. I had not spoken yet of Skylla, a plague that could not be dealt with, for fear my companions might be terrified and give over their rowing, and take cover inside the ship.
For my part, I let go from my mind the difficult instruction that Circe had given me, for she told me not to be armed for combat; but I put on my glorious armor and, taking up two long spears in my hands, I stood bestriding the vessel’s foredeck at the prow, for I expected Skylla of the rocks to appear first from that direction, she who brought pain to my companions.
I could not make her out anywhere, and my eyes grew weary from looking everywhere on the misty face of the sea rock. So we sailed up the narrow strait lamenting.
On one side was Skylla, and on the other side was shining Charybdis, who made her terrible ebb and flow of the sea’s water. When she vomited it up, like a caldron over a strong fire, the whole sea would boil up in turbulence, and the foam flying spattered the pinnacles of the rocks in either direction; but when in turn again she sucked down the sea’s salt water, the turbulence showed all the inner sea, and the rock around it groaned terribly, and the ground showed at the sea’s bottom, black with sand; and green fear seized upon my companions.
We in fear of destruction kept our eyes on Charybdis, but meanwhile Skylla out of the hollow vessel snatched six of my companions, the best of them for strength and hands’ work, and when I turned to look at the ship, with my other companions, I saw their feet and hands from below, already lifted high above me, and they cried out to me and called me by name, the last time they ever did it, in heart’s sorrow.
And as a fisherman with a very long rod, on a jutting rock, will cast his treacherous bait for the little fishes, and sinks the horn of a field-ranging ox into the water, then hauls them up and throws them on the dry land, gasping and struggling, so they gasped and struggled as they were hoisted up the cliff.
Right in her doorway she ate them up. They were screaming and reaching out their hands to me in this horrid encounter. That was the most pitiful scene that these eyes have looked on in my sufferings as I explored the routes over the water.