Between myth and beauty in the waters of Scilla

The small coastal town of Scilla just north of Reggio on the Costa Viola was the last stop on my tour of the Calabria region. I could not wait to see this ancient and pretty site with several links to mythology, especially the story of the two monsters who terrorised sailors in the Strait of Messina: Scylla and Charybdis.

According to several ancient writers, the origins of Scilla date back to the time of the Trojan war (1260-1180 BC). It may have been founded by people migrating south from the areas of Spain and Liguria, northern Italy. Most of them were fishermen and they liked the area of Scilla as the rocks on the coast were ideal for fishing. Due to pirate invasions over the centuries, the population gradually moved higher up the slope and turned from fishing to farming and hunting. It was fortified by controlling Reggio authorities to protect the area against pirates, who continued to attack over subsequent years.

The first thing you see when you arrive is the imposing Castle Ruffo looming above you on the huge rock of Scilla. Originally built for defensive purposes, it was converted into a residence by Count Paolo Ruffo around 1533.

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We started our trip to Scilla with lunch at one of the beach-side restaurants. Among all the delicious seafood you can try here, swordfish is a local speciality. The man running the restaurant recommended we head around the rock to see the picturesque fishing village of Chinalea on the other side, where many of the houses are built right on the sea. We wandered around and had a look at some of the colourful little boats.

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In the town we saw that many of the people had their boats at the side of their homes like average people have their cars in the driveway. The turquoise and azure waters were waiting just a few metres away.

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We also saw this pretty mermaid statue in the centre, and that’s when I started to think about the mythological aspects of the place.

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In Greek mythology, Scylla was a water monster who lived on one side of a channel, opposite another monster, Charybdis. This channel became associated with the strait of Messina between the coasts of Calabria and Sicily. Sailors had to try to sail through the channel without getting caught by either Scylla or Charybdis, but if they sailed too far away from one monster, the other was likely to catch them. Scylla appears, for example, in Homer’s famous Odyssey: when Odysseus’ ship passes too near to her lair, she catches six of his companions and eats them.

In some versions of the myth, originally Scylla was a beautiful nymph that the sea god Glaucus fell for. When he made advances, she ran away, so he went to the sorceress Circe to ask for a magical potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. However, Circe liked Glaucus, so out of jealousy she gave him a poison, telling him to put it in the waters that Scylla bathed in to enchant her. When he did so however, the poison turned Scylla into a frightful sea monster with tentacle legs and dog heads around her waist. As a result she went to hide in the rock of Scilla in her shame, and only came out to terrorise sailors.

The fascinating story has been interpreted by many different painters and artists over the years. Several focus on Scylla’s beauty before she was transformed into a monster. One of my favourites is this interpretation by Flemish painter Bartholomeus Spranger, dated around 1580-82. I especially like the colours and composition, and the way the brightness in the foreground contrasts with the dark, ominous atmosphere in the back.

glaucusbartholomaus_spranger_006Glaucus and Scylla by Bartholomeus Spranger, circa 1580-82

Here’s a version by Agostino Carracci in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese (now the French embassy to Italy). This again focuses on the love Glaucus felt for Scylla, before her fateful change. This is quite unusual as it shows the two embracing, while according to the myth Scylla rejected Glaucus’s advances.

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Glaucus and Scylla by Agostino Carracci, Palazzo Farnese, Rome (circa 1597-1602)

Many artists have portrayed Glaucus’ initial attempts to pursue Scylla, and her rejection of him. Here’s one such version by Filippo Lauri (1623-94):

WES67085 Glaucus and Scylla by Lauri, Filippo (1623-94) oil on canvas 18x26.5 © The Trustees of the Weston Park Foundation, UK Italian, out of copyright
                 Glaucus and Scylla by Filippo Lauri (1623-94)

Other versions start to get to the darker moment, when pretty Scylla bathes in the poisioned water and starts to turn into a monster. Heres one by Peter Paul Rubens dated to 1636, showing the nymph’s horror as she realises what is happening to her:

Musée Bonnat - Scylla et Glaucus - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

Scylla and Glaucus by Peter Paul Rubens (circa 1636)

And here’s a slightly different interpretation by Dutch painter Eglon van der Neer, dated 1695. This shows the moment the spell is cast, in this case by the sorceress Circe in person, and poor Scylla starts becoming a monstrosity:

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Circe punishes Glaucus by turning Scylla into a monster, by Eglon van der Neer, 1695

While Scylla haunts the large rock on the Calabrian coast, on the opposite side is Charybdis, interpreted most commonly as a whirlpool or a monster that creates whirlpools by taking in water and then belching it out. The saying “between Scylla and Charybdis”, links back to the myth of these two monsters, and refers to the idea of being in the middle of two difficult situations, when avoiding one will almost certainly lead you into the arms of the other.

Once we had seen the fishing village of Chianalea, we went back around to the Marina, and there we took a dip in the glistening waters. Swimming through the waves here, I thought about all the associated myths, I imagined the nymph Scylla, and I felt amazed and also a little fearful to be bathing in such an enchanted place.

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2 thoughts on “Between myth and beauty in the waters of Scilla

  1. Thank you for a wonderfully informative post. I arrived late one May evening on the train from Metaponto near Matera and was welc omed by the dear old Mama from the little hotel accross the street fom the station…..ended up staying a week and exploring the area by bus and local trains…rewarding

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