Mermaid Monday continues this week with another mythical legend of love gone wrong. How does a beautiful young mermaid, or naiad, turn into a horrible monster? Gods and sorcerers stir the waters, to be sure, but in a surprising twist, this story has a happy ending!
As with most myths and legends of old, the origins of the tale aren’t very clear. They all start out with Scylla being a beautiful young creature, in some a watery naiad and in others a human. Here’s that list:
- In some stories, Scylla is the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto (sea gods).
- Others say she is the daughter of Triton and Lamia.
- Yet another says she was a lovely naiad who caught the eye of Poseidon. His jealous wife, Amphitrite, poisoned the water where Scylla bathed causing her to turn into a horrible monster.
- One more version: Scylla was the lovely daughter of Crataeis (river nymph). Glaucus (who was once a fisherman but somehow became a sea god) took a fancy to her then fell deeply in love. He asked the sorceress Circe to help him win Scylla’s love, but Circe was in love with Glaucus herself. So she poisoned the water where Scylla bathed and turned the poor mermaid into a monster.
Scylla’s Monstrous Appearance
Scylla’s form was described as having four eyes and six long necks each with a repulsive head atop the neck. Each head had three rows of menacing teeth.
Her waist was wreathed with the heads of six dogs and her lower body consisted of twelve legs, like tentacles. A cat’s tail waved on her backside.
Poor Scylla was doomed to attack passing ships, each grisly head snatching up a helpless sailor to his death.
In the tale of Hercules, it is reported that the hero himself slew Scylla. Then Phorcys, her father, spread flaming torches upon her body which (somehow) restored her to life in her original form.
Scylla’s story was widespread throughout the ancient world and that seems to be how these variations in her story arose. Depictions of her as a monster also varied. She appears in quite a few classic stories that you might recognize:
- Homer’s Odyssey
- Ovid’s Metamorphoses
- Keats’ Endymion
(Image right, Scylla, Paestan red-figure krater C4th B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.)
Scylla has also been immortalized in modern era paintings from the 9th through 19th centuries:
- In a wall painting in the Carolingian Abbey of Corvey in Westphalia UK
- In “The Loves of the Gods” by Agostino Carracci
- In Oil on copper painting by Fillipo Lauri
- Oil on Canvas by Salvator Rosa
- Painting by Bartholomaus Spranger
- Painting by Laurent de la Hyre
- Painting by Jacques Dumont le Romain
- Painting by J.M.W. Turner
- Painting by Peter Paul Rubens
- Painting by Eglon van der Neer
- Painting by John Melhuish Strudwick
- Painting by John William Waterhouse
Believe it or not, Scylla is sort of making news today. Florida State University has been excavating an ancient well in Cianti, Italy that they believe has existed for over 1500 years. A fragment of pottery they found in the well shows an image of Scylla on its side. (Fragment below left.)
According to Nancy de Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics at Florida State, “One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla.”
If you’d like to read that one page article, you’ll find it here:
Was Scylla Real?
I have to wonder if once upon a time, very long ago, a beautiful young woman named Scylla lived somewhere in Greece. And I wonder if her beauty caused a lot of trouble for her and her family as suitors vied for her hand. Could that have been the basis for some love-sick poet who then began to create a legend that would spread throughout the ancient world and fascinate readers for centuries?
Who knows? But it’s an interesting tale, and I’m pleased that in at least one version, it has a happy ending!
Til next Monday, Tail Slap!