Scylla is a great sea goddess often dismissed as a mere sea monster. She is the subject of many often contradictory myths. Scylla is most famous from her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. She dwells in the Straits of Messina, the narrow channel that divides Sicily from Italy. Although Scylla is the subject of Greek mythology, she is sometimes called “the Etruscan” and may originally derive from Etruria or Sicily.
Scylla’s father is Phorkys. Her mother may be Hekate, Lamia, or Keto. Scylla’s appearance includes human, canine, and marine components. Unlike the Egyptians, classical Greeks did not find hybrid creatures attractive; they did not respect deities in the form of animals or partial animals, among the reasons why Scylla is considered a monster. (Her bad temper and inclination to cause shipwrecks is another.)
The problem is not that Scylla appears to be a monster: it is that she always appears to be a monster. She lacks the power to change form. That said, various descriptions of her exist, some more horrific than others. Part of this may derive from the inclination of storytellers to improve their stories with enhanced detail. Greek myths and images tend to depict Scylla as more grotesque than Sicilian variations.
Various versions of how she gained her appearance and apparently lost the shape-shifting powers common to so many water spirits, including members of her family, exist:
• Circe, Queen of Transformation, is usually held responsible. In the most famous version, Scylla is a beautiful Nymph loved by Glaucus, a fisherman. Unfortunately, Circe had her eye on him and decided to eliminate her competition by permanently adding canine and fish components to Scylla’s body.
• Alternatively Amphitrite, sick of Scylla’s relationship with Poseidon, caused the transformation.
• Scylla is Lamia’s sole surviving child, transformed into a monster by Hera.
• It’s also possible that this is just her true form, that legends of transformation by jealous goddesses may be attempts to explain what was incomprehensible to the Greeks: that this hybrid goddess was worshipped. If indeed Hekate is Scylla’s mother, that would explain her intense identification with dogs.
Scylla is a spirit of erotic power. Myths attempting to explain her perplexing appearance involve other goddesses feeling sexually threatened.
From the waist up, Scylla resembles a beautiful woman. She lurks in waist-deep water in a cave. She seems innocuous, but her hands reach out to grab passing mariners. She’s no vegetarian, devouring people as well as land and sea creatures, or at least so goes the Greek version. Homer describes her as having twelve feet and six long necks, each neck ending in a grisly head with three rows of teeth. Alternatively, she has six heads on one long neck, each with those three rows of sharp teeth. She is also portrayed in much less gruesome form:
• Scylla has the head and bosom of a beautiful woman, a canine torso, and a dolphin’s tail.
• Scylla is a mermaid with six dog heads growing out of her waist.
When she attempted to steal (and eat) Heracles’ red oxen, he killed her. Her father, Phorkys, magically resurrected Scylla via fire and water, burning and boiling her so that she would be reborn without fear. Scylla fears nothing.
Scylla appears on many ancient coins. She is depicted in Etruscan carvings with wings, wielding a sword. She sometimes brandishes a steering paddle as a weapon.
Home: Scylla lives in a cave between two high cliffs by the Straits of Messina.
Creatures: Seals, dogs, dolphins, wolves, fish. Scylla has a pack of sea-hounds—mer-dogs with canine heads and teeth but fish tails.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
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