The channel between Italy and Sicily is dangerous for sailors, with unexpected whirlpools and currents. These natural phenomena inspired tales of Scylla and Charybdis, terrors of the straits of Messina.
Scylla was a beautiful nymph to whom Poseidon, god of the oceans, became irresistibly drawn, at which Amphitrite, his wife, was seized by jealousy. To punish her rival, she secretly poured the juice of some poisonous herbs into the waters of the fountain where Scylla often bathed.
As soon as the nymph stepped into the pool she was transformed into a monster with 12 feet and 6 heads, each one with a mouth containing three rows of teeth. The lower part of her body was turned into a pack of dogs who barked incessantly. Terrified and appalled by her new form, Scylla hurled herself from the cliffs at the southern tip of Italy, but even this did not end her suffering. The gods confined her to a cave in the cliffs, from which she snapped at any vessels that came near her, snatching men from the decks.
Sailors were unable to avoid Scylla by steering a course further out to sea, because there Charybdis — once a woman, now a vicious whirlpool — lay in wait. she was the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, but despite this noble heritage, she was greedy, and had tried to steal Heracles’ precious oxen. Heracles complained to Zeus, his father, who struck her with a thunderbolt. She fell into the sea and continued life as a whirlpool, which three times a day sucked down vast quantities of seawater and three times a day spewed it out again. Her greedy maw could pull whole ships down into the depths.
And so “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” became a saying used to describe anyone trapped between two dangerous choices, where to avoid one peril means inevitably confronting another.