Scylla and Charybdis

Hey, folks! Alright, I know that Monday is usually Mobile Suit Monday, but I wanted to do something different today. I recently finished reading Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and, well, it’s put me in a Greek mythology kind of mood. So, today I’m doing Mythology Monday instead!

I want to talk today about one of my favorite mythological figures. Well, two, actually–but they work as a pair. Let’s chat about the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. These are two fascinating monsters with a unique dynamic that I think could turn them into a really cool encounter in a tabletop RPG.

Even if you aren’t up on your Greek myths, you may have heard of Scylla and Charybdis. It’s not a common phrase these days, but there is an idiom about being “between Scylla and Charybdis”–basically, between a rock and a hard place. See, both of these legendary monsters were located near each other in a strait, forcing sailors to make a deadly choice: you could only avoid one by sailing close to the other.

So, what exactly were Scylla and Charybdis? In the stories, Scylla is a terrifying monster that lives within the rock along one edge of a channel, while Charybdis was a creature on the sea floor that would drink such vast amounts of water that it would cause whirlpools. In real life, they were probably obstacles in the Strait of Messina–Charybdis representing an actual whirlpool, while Scylla was simply the rocky cliff-face the sailors risked running into while avoiding Charybdis.

Charybdis is, I think, the less interesting of the two. In myths that posit her as an actual creature (often, Charybdis was described as simply a whirlpool, with no magical origin or properties), she was the daughter of Poseidon. She helped her father sink islands, but doing so put her on the wrong side of Zeus, who didn’t like Poseidon moving in on his turf–Zeus ruled over the land, while Poseidon ruled the sea, so swallowing up islands was kind of like stealing Zeus’s territory. To punish Charybdis for helping her dad, Zeus cursed her to take the form of a monster; specifically, a large bladder-like thing with flippers and an unquenchable thirst for sea water. Charybdis was then chained to the bottom of the ocean. She gulps up so much water due to her thirst that it causes whirlpools.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but it means that the real threat is just the regular old danger of drowning, which I don’t find particularly interesting. She also doesn’t sound like she’d be much good in a fight unless you were, yourself, a boat. If you wanted to, say, add her to a Dungeons & Dragons game or something, you’d have to rework her a bit. My first thought: make her into some kind of sea serpent, whose constant circling beneath the waves creates the whirlpool; instead of thirsting eternally for sea water, she can be thirsty for the blood of sailors or something.

Scylla is a bit more interesting, mostly because she’s actually a scary monster. There are a few versions of Scylla’s origin myth; however, they all boil down to the idea that Scylla was a beautiful sea nymph who was favored by a sea god (either Poseidon or Glaucus) and subsequently poisoned by that god’s jealous lover (either Amphitrite or Circe), turning her into a hideous monster. I’m partial to the Glaucus and Circe version, myself, which is described in the pages of Madeline Miller’s novel Circe (which, by the way, is phenomenal).

What kind of monster is Scylla? Well, she’s got six heads on the end of snakelike necks, each equipped with shark’s teeth; she’s only got four eyes between those six heads; her body is comprised mostly of tentacles and a cat’s tail; and she has a ring of dog heads around her waist. I think it’s the dog-heads that really complete the look. I mean, snake heads and tentacles are pretty creepy, but the dog-heads are just so unexpected! Why dogs? Why just the heads? Do they have eyes, or does the “four eyes” thing mean all the dog-heads are eyeless? Regardless, “a ring of dog heads around the torso” is a terrifying image regardless of what creature it’s on.

Scylla hung out in a big rock near Charybdis; if a sailor sailed through the channel in such a way as to avoid Charybdis, they’d get close to Scylla’s rock, and her six heads would lash out and eat anyone on deck. If you were extremely lucky, you could sail through fast enough that Scylla would only get one chance to do this, so you’d only lose six crew.

You don’t have to do much, if any, alteration to fit Scylla into a D&D game. She’s already powerful and scary enough to serve as a powerful monster!

Even more than the actual myths themselves, what I love about Scylla and Charybdis is the idea of these two monsters with this sort of symbiotic relationship. It works especially well in a tabletop setting: I love the idea of having two powerful monsters that the players have to navigate, choosing which is the lesser threat.

Have you ever made your players choose between Scylla and Charybdis? How did it go?

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