This painting, by the Hungarian artist Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (c. 1860–1933), was inspired by one of the most famous scenes in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. It shows the harrowing choice given to Odysseus either to chart his course by Scylla (a man-eating monster living in a seaside cave) or Charybdis (a personified and deified whirlpool). Odysseus was briefed on these two obstacles by the goddess, Circe. On the first of the two Perils, she said:
“‘It is the home of Scylla, the creature with the dreadful bark. It is true that her yelp is no louder than a newborn pup’s, but she is a repulsive monster nevertheless. Nobody could look at her with delight, not even a god if he passed that way. She has twelve feet, all dangling in the air, and six long scrawny necks, each ending in a grisly head with triple rows of fangs, set thick and close, and darkly menacing death. Up to her waist she is sunk in the depths of the cave, but her heads protrude from the fearful abyss…” (Homer, The Odyssey, Book 12, approximately line 90).
Next, Circe told Odysseus of Charybdis, a foe that she claimed was much worse than Scylla. She explained, “A great fig-tree with luxuriant foliage grows upon the crag, and it is below this that dread Charybdis sucks the dark waters down. Three times a day, she spews them up, and three times a day she swallows them down once more in her horrible way” (The Odyssey, Book 12, approximately lines 100-110).
Odysseus decided to steer closer to monstrous Scylla instead of testing the unstable seas around Charybdis. He was able to successfully keep his ship intact as he sailed precariously between the two threats. Nevertheless, Scylla did not let Odysseus’ crew pass by her lair unscathed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.