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CHARYBDIS (Χάρυβδις), a celebrated whirlpool in the Sicilian Straits, between Messana and Rhegium, but much nearer to the former. The prominent part which it assumes (together with the rock of Scylla on the opposite coast) in the Homeric narrative of the wanderings of Odysseus (Hom. Od. xii.) sufficiently proves the alarm which it excited in the minds of the earliest navigators of these seas, and the exaggerated accounts of its dangers which they brought home. But with full allowance for such exaggeration, there can be no doubt that the tales of Charybdis and Scylla were really associated with the dangers that beset the navigation of the Sicilian Straits, and that in this instance the identification of the localities mentioned in the Odyssey may be safely relied on. Nor were these perils by any means imaginary: and in the case of Charybdis especially had more foundation than in regard to Scylla. Captain Smyth says of it:--“To the undecked boats of the Greeks it must have been formidable: for even in the present day small craft are sometimes endangered by it, and I have seen several men-of-war, and even a seventy-four gun ship, whirled round on its surface: but by using due caution there is generally very little danger or inconvenience to be apprehended. It appears to be an agitated water, of from 70 to 90 fathoms in depth, circling in quick eddies. It is owing probably to the meeting of the harbour and lateral currents with the opposite point of Pezzo.” (Smyth's Sicily, p. 123.)

Thucydides appears not to have been aware of the existence of this local vortex or whirlpool, and regards the Homeric Charybdis as only an exaggerated account of the fluctuations and agitations caused in the Straits of Messana generally by the alternations of the currents and tides from the two seas, the Tyrrhenian and Sicilian, communicating by so narrow an opening. (Thuc. 4.24.) The agitations arising from this cause are no doubt considerable, and might often be attended with danger to the frail vessels of the ancient navigators, but the actual whirlpool is a completely local phenomenon, and is situated, as described by Strabo, a short distance from the town of Messana, just outside the low tongue of land that forms the harbour of that city. It is now called the Galofaro. (Strab. vi. p.268; Smyth's Sicily, l.c.

Homer indeed appears to describe the two dangers of Scylla and Charybdis as lying immediately opposite one another, on the two sides of the actual strait, and on this account some writers have supposed that the whirlpool was in ancient times situated near Cape Pelorus, or the Faro Point, which is full 9 miles from Messana. Local accuracy on such a point is certainly not to be expected from Homer, or the poets who have adopted his description. But it is not impossible that there was really some foundation for this view. Cluver, who made careful inquiries on the spot, and has given a very accurate description of the Galofaro, off the port of Messina, adds that there existed another vortex immediately on the S. side of Cape Pelorus, which had been known to produce similar effects. (Cluver, Sicil. p. 70.) It is evident, however, that Strabo knew only of the whirlpool off Messana, and this seems to be much the most considerable and permanent phenomenon of the kind: and must therefore be regarded as the true Charybdis. Strabo supposed its fluctuations to be periodical, and connected with the tides (the influence of which is strongly felt in the Straits), and that Homer only erred in describing them as occurring three times a day instead of twice (Strab. i. pp. 43, 44): but this is erroneous. The action of the whirlpool depends much more upon the wind than the tides, and is very irregular and uncertain. Seneca alludes to its [p. 1.605]intervals of tranquillity when not agitated by the south-east wind, and Juvenal represents it as even frequented by fishermen during these periods of repose. (Seneca, Cons. ad Marc. 17; Juv. 5.102.) The fact stated by Strabo, and alluded to by Seneca, that the wrecks of the vessels lost in the Charybdis were first thrown up on the coast near Tauromenium, is connected with the strong currents which exist along this coast. (Strab. vi. p.268; Senec. Ep. 79.)

Pliny and Mela content themselves with a mere passing notice of the once celebrated dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. (Plin. Nat. 3.8. s. 14; Mela 2.7.14.) The Latin poets, as well as the Greek ones, abound in allusions to the latter: but these almost all relate to the Homeric or fabulous account of the phenomenon: and no value can be attached to their expressions or descriptions. (Verg. A. 3.420; Ovid. Met. 13.730; Tib. 4.1, 73; Apollon. 4.923; Lycophr. Alex. 743; Tzetz. Chil. 10.969; Eustath. ad Odyss. 12.104; Cic. Ver. 5.56) The name appears to have early become proverbial, in the sense of anything utterly destructive, or insatiably greedy. (Aristoph. Kn. 248; Lycophr. Alex. 668; Cic. Phil. 2.27)


hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Aristophanes, Knights, 248
    • Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 4.923
    • Cicero, Philippics, 2.27
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 3.420
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.8
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.24
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