so all the tales about scylla & charybdis follow the odyssey, which is a story that’s really anxious about women. you’ve got the beautiful powerful witch circe, who turns odysseus’ crew into pigs; helen, for whom the kingdoms went to war and were washed red; penelope, who’ll destroy her husband’s livelihood if she’s unfaithful; clytemnestra, who saw her king and husband dead; the maids in odysseus’ house who sleep with his enemies; the sirens, whose voices enchant & ruin men.
scylla and charybdis are homer’s most monstrous women, lurking in a narrow strait in the tyrrhenian sea. on one side there’s charybdis, who swallows the sea, gurgling in delight as she retches water up and wrecks ships on the rocks. charybdis is a place and a person, she’s the sea as devouring space, as voracious woman
and on the other side there’s scylla, she-dog of the sea, a six-headed woman with rows of shining teeth and a snarling pack of dogs below her waist. her voice is like dogs howling. she’s a dozen male fears about women, a monster made of appetite and power and ruthlessness (when clytaemnestra murders her husband in agamemnon, she’s called a hateful biting beast, a scylla living in the rocks). in ancient greek mythology, women–especially dreadful and powerful women–are often associated with dogs: the canine goddess hecate, the harpies, the erinyes (furies). dog is also an insult thrown at frightening women: in agamemnon, clytemnestra is called dog (κύων); in the iliad and odyssey helen is called dog; in hesiod pandora has the mind of a dog. it implies deceit, violence, and shamelessness, lust. but beneath the insult there’s fear: of women who can’t be controlled, who dupe and defy and emasculate men
circe warns odysseus that scylla can’t be fought, but he doesn’t listen. then there’s a scene that could’ve come from the iliad, where odysseus puts on his shining armour and readies himself to fight. you think there’s going to be a great battle and aristeia, a hero’s glorious rampage against his enemies. there isn’t. scylla can’t be fought, evaded, deceived, placated; he can’t fool her like he fooled the cyclops because the roaring of charybdis drowns out all his clever words. if anything, the aristeia is scylla’s: in one swoop she eats six of odysseus’ men, and he’s lucky to survive. when his ship slinks away it’s not glorious, it’s humiliating
the word used to describe scylla’s voice, λελακυῖα (from λάσκω, “shriek”), is used for dogs but also people; specifically, women crying funeral laments. scylla seems like the fitting downfall for the achaean schemer who conceived of the trojan horse–an artificial monster of war with many heads and many arms in its belly–the man who made possible the sacking of troy and all the death after
so basically i like to think of the two of them, yearless and undying, old monsters from a gone world that was never kind to women, admiring each other across that narrow strait, together wrecking and eating all the men who dare to trespass in their strange wild hidden corner of the sea