According to Greek mythology, Charybdis (in ancient Greek Χάρυϐδις / Khárubdis) was the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. For the Greeks, Poseidon is the god of the seas and oceans, while Gaia symbolizes the Earth and is considered the mother goddess.
Charybdis was a young girl, living on a rock that borders the Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily. However, she had a voracious appetite and had the unfortunate habit of stealing animals to eat them.
However, Charybdis owes its transformation into a monster to one of its bad actions. Indeed, the tenth of Heracles’ work was to bring back Geryon’s herd. For having stolen part of the herd in question from Heracles (whose animals had the reputation of being particularly beautiful), she was punished by Zeus (the first of the gods of Olympus), who struck her down and turned her into a sea abyss.
Charybdis was condemned to swallow huge quantities of water three times a day, including ships, sailors and fish. It devours everything and throws away water, as well as that which is not edible and terrifies sailors.
Thus, within Greek mythology, Charybdis is often represented as a huge, devastating marine whirlwind, sucking everything in its path and killing sailors by the dozen.
Charybdis engulfing a ship
Ulysses and the Odyssey
Charybdis appeared briefly in the Odyssey, where Ulysses was confronted with it twice.
The first time, he chose to avoid it and preferred to pass his boat near his neighbor Scylla, choosing the loss of six of his sailors over that of his ship and the entire crew. Indeed, approaching Charybdis meant for all of them certain destruction. After fleeing, Ulysses docked in Sicily, where Helios was quietly grazing his cows. But despite the prohibition he gave his men to touch the herd, some, while he slept, managed to capture some of them, dragging Helios into a monster rage.
They had to flee quickly, but could not escape Zeus. Furious, he triggered a storm that caused the boat to sink, in order to punish the thieves. Only Ulysses was rescued on a raft, which in turn was pushed towards Charybdis. To escape him, Ulysses clung to the fig tree growing on a rock above the monster’s mouth. Then, when Charybdis spat out his raft, Ulysses recovered it and continued on his way, the only survivor.
Jason and the Argonauts
Charybdis also appears in the epic of Jason and the Argonauts. Indeed, when Jason and his brave companions embarked on the quest for the Golden Fleece, they went to Colchis to recover it. After facing a series of tougher challenges (dragon, harpies, etc.), they left the island in a hurry aboard their ship, the Argo. On the way back, the Argonauts also escaped from Charybdis and Scylla and crossed the strait with the help of Thetis, one of the Nereids (marine nymph, daughter of Nereus).
Charybdis represents the one who sucks, is often associated with Scylla, the one who vomits. These two figures were a metaphor for the dangers faced by the first Greek sailors when crossing a strait considered in ancient times to be that of Messina, off the coast of Sicily. A whirlwind is caused by the confluence of currents. Other theses also propose an origin in the vicinity of Greece, on its northwest coast, near Lefkada Island, or in the Bosporus.
Charybdis gave its name to an order of Cubomedusae, the Carybdeida, including the Carybdea marsupialis, a jellyfish of the Carybdeidae family.
The expression “Falling from Charybdis to Scylla” (in Latin “incidit in scyllam, cupiens vitare charybdim“) means nowadays ” to avoid danger by exposing oneself to another even worse” and has become popular.
More precisely, Charybdis symbolizes in a way the expression “all or nothing”, that is, death for all or life for all, according to a game of probability. Because, as Ulysses has understood, Scylla embodies certain death for part of the crew, but life for the others. Charybdis, on the other hand, represents the certain destruction of the ship, and therefore the tragic death of all. It is, therefore, a difficult choice, between the calculated sacrifice of a few (however painful it may be) or the uncertain future of the life of the entire crew.