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What does It Mean to be Caught Between the "Scylla and Charybdis"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Being caught between the Scylla and Charybdis means to be caught in a situation that is extremely challenging. There is no good way to get through the situation, and any choice one makes will engender losses. The metaphor is comparable to the phrase being caught between a rock and a hard place, or a rock and a whirlpool.

The origin of the phrase can be traced to Homer’s Odyssey. On the journey home, Odysseus must navigate a narrow strait. On one side of the strait is a monster called Scylla, which will happily eat any sailors within her grasp. On the other side, is Charybdis, a whirlpool monster that will suck a ship down into the depths of the sea.

Odysseus is fairly stuck in trying to successfully navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis. In order to avoid the whirlpool, he must maneuver close enough to the Scylla for his sailors to be devoured. The Scylla is described as having six heads, which each grab a soldier and eat it. However, his alternative would be to sacrifice all his men by facing Charybdis.

Homer’s description relates directly to its present meaning in common usage. There is no way to be stuck between the Scylla and Charybdis without suffering some kind of loss. The question one asks in a difficult situation must be: "In what way can I encounter the fewest losses?" Odysseus chooses to navigate the difficult choice in this fashion. He faces death for some, but not all of his men.

A less deadly example of the phrase occurs in the first Harry Potter novel. Harry, Ron and Hermione face such a choice while playing a game of chess. Ron realizes the game is only winnable if he sacrifices himself. However, since this is wizard chess, Ron risks his own life through the sacrifice, in the hopes that Harry and Hermione will advance forward and confront Voldemort. In fact, most chess games work on this principle. One has to make calculated sacrifices in order to win.

Since Troy certainly existed, many scholars have actually tried to find a physical location that corresponds to the Scylla and Charybdis. Until recently, most people identified the Strait of Messina as closest to Homer’s description, minus the monsters. It is a narrow strait, and is opposite a rock called the Scylla, and also includes a whirlpool. However, the whirlpool is not particularly strong and rarely poses a danger.

Others have identified the location as Cape Skilla. Cape Skilla is closer to Greece and has geographical features in keeping with Homer’s description. Regardless of an actual physical location that might have inspired Homer’s imagination, the phrase is commonly used, as meaning a challenging situation which one cannot escape without great difficulty and loss. There is no easy choice when one is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis, and no simple solution to the tangle.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By sherlock87 — On May 16, 2011

Many literary works use these sorts of instances. Harry Potter has several other examples besides the chess game in the first novel; the accidental death of a classmate in the fourth book is just one of them, when Harry survives but at the cost of someone else.

I think they are popular devices in plots because they make it seem like all is lost unless the hero is able to make some sort of choice or sacrifice- even if it's by accident.

By watson42 — On May 15, 2011

I don't know that I've ever seen this as a saying, outside of maybe a couple of really high-brow literary works or commentaries.

Most people use terms like "rock and a hard place" or "from frying pan and into the fire". If you were to use the phrase of being caught between Charybdis and Scylla, though, it would probably make you seem smarter, or maybe just pretentious, but either way it would be a conversation starter.

By poorman — On Dec 03, 2009

Aristotle in his great writing "Poetics" chapter 26, refers to scylla, as a song or an instrument or I do not know may be something else; do you know what he means? he talks about a bad flute player and then he mentions scylla.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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