Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and Charybdis

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Scylla and Charybdis were monsters from Greek mythology thought to inhabit the Straits of Messina, the narrow sea between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Preying on passing mariners, Scylla was a terrible creature with six heads and twelve feet, while Charybdis, living on the opposite side of the straits, was another monster who, over time, was transformed in the imagination of the ancients into a more rational, but no less lethal, whirlpool. Odysseus famously had to negotiate a passage through their deadly clutches in Homer's Odyssey.


According to Hesiod, Scylla (or Skylla) was the daughter of Hecate who was associated with the Moon and the Underworld, and especially with ferocious hounds. Homer, however, names Scylla's mother as Crataiis. Her father is the sea god Phorcys but may also be Typhon, Triton, or Tyrrhenius, all figures with a sea connection. A later tradition makes her a beautiful mortal human who has affairs with Poseidon, Minos of Crete, and the sea god Glaucus until she is transformed either by the sorceress Circe or Poseidon's consort, the sea nymph Amphitrite, into a monster out of jealousy. The girl is caught unawares in her bathing pool, and when magic herbs are thrown into the waters, she turns into the hideous creature.

'Scylla was not born for death: she is a thing of terror, intractable, ferocious & impossible to fight.' - Homer

Scylla, whose name means 'she who rends' or 'puppy,' could only make the noise of a puppy dog, but she was well-endowed in other areas with six legs and six heads springing from various parts of her body, each with three vicious rows of teeth, so that her bite was definitely worse than her bark. Inhabiting a cave high up in the cliffs of the straits, Scylla would wait for unsuspecting prey – fish, dolphins, and men – to pass her way and then dart out one of her heads to drag the victim back into her lair to be crushed and eaten at leisure. Homer describes this fearful creature thus,

Nobody could look at her with delight, not even a god if he passed that way. She has twelve feet, all dangling in the air, and six long scrawny necks, each ending in a grisly head with triple row of fangs, set thick and close, and darkly menacing death. Up to her waist she is sunk in the depths of the cave, but her heads protrude from the fearful abyss, and thus she fishes from her own abode, groping greedily around the rock. (Odyssey, 12:87-95)

Homer, again through the warning voice of Circe, also describes the cliff where Scylla lives:

Its sharp capped by black clouds that never stream away nor leave clear weather round the top, even in summer or at harvest time. No man on earth could climb to the top of it or even get a foothold on it, not even if he had twenty hands and feet to help him, because the rock is as smooth as if it had been polished. But halfway up the crag there is a murky cavern, facing the West and running down to Erebus...Even a strong young bowman could not reach the gaping mouth of the cave with an arrow shot from a ship below...No crew can boast that they ever sailed their ship past Scylla unscathed...Scylla was not born for death: she is a thing of terror, intractable, ferocious and impossible to fight. (ibid, 12:75-120)

The 3rd-century BCE Greek tragedy poet Lycophron tells of a tradition that she was killed by the specialist in monster-slaying, Hercules, but, otherwise, Scylla's fate is unknown. Scylla appeared on the 5th-century BCE coins of both Cumae and Acragas (modern Agrigento on Sicily) and on numerous red-figure pottery vessels during the 5th and 4th century BCE, notably those of Attic and southern Italian red-figure pottery. She is typically portrayed as a type of mermaid with dogs heads coming from her waistline.


A monster of unknown description, Charybdis was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia (Earth) and to dwell opposite Scylla in the same straits. She was thrown there after being struck by Zeus' thunderbolt, perhaps as punishment for her lustful character. Rationalised into a whirlpool or maelstrom, her waters were considered to suck in and blow out three times each day. Such was the powerful force of this turbulence that no ship could survive Charybdis' attentions.

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In Homer's Odyssey, the swirling waters of Charybdis famously wrecked the ship of the hero Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War. Having just survived the sirens, the ship, in trying to avoid Charybdis, went a little too close to Scylla's lair. Six members of Odysseus' crew, the six best, were grabbed by the six heads of Scylla as they went through the turbulent waters of the narrow straits. The ship passed the still screaming victims and made it through the passage, but the escape was only temporary.

Landing on Sicily, Odysseus' men ignored strict instructions and cooked some sacred cattle which belonged to Hyperion. As punishment, Zeus then sent a storm and one of his thunderbolts which smashed the mast, killing the helmsman as it toppled. The ship was wrecked, the crew drowned, and only Odysseus survived by lashing together bits of flotsam. The gods were not quite finished, though, as another storm came and swept the hero right back into Charybdis. Odysseus was knocked about for a good while until he managed to escape by grabbing onto the overhanging limb of a wild fig tree. He then timed his exit by waiting for the waters to spew him out and away to safety along with the wreckage of his ship. After nine days adrift the hero's luck changed, and he landed on the island of Ogygia where the lovely Calypso aided his rest and recuperation for the next seven years.

Scylla and Charybdis

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters who guarded the narrow passage through which the hero Odysseus had to sail in his wanderings. The monsters could neither be resisted nor killed. They are described in Homer’s Odyssey.

The waters troubled by Scylla and Charybdis are now identified with the Strait of Messina, the channel in the Mediterranean Sea separating Sicily from mainland Italy. On one shore was Scylla, a creature with six heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of sharklike teeth. She had 12 feet, and her abdomen was encircled by baying dogs. From her lair in a cave, Scylla devoured whatever ventured within reach. She seized and ate six of Odysseus’s companions. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Scylla was said to have been originally human in appearance. She was transformed into her fearful shape by the sorceress Circe, who was jealous of Scylla.

Charybdis lurked under a fig tree on the opposite shore of the channel. Fatal to shipping, she drank down and belched forth the waters three times a day. Charybdis was most likely the personification of a whirlpool. She swallowed the raft of the shipwrecked Odysseus. He barely escaped her clutches by clinging to a tree for many hours, until his raft floated to the surface again.

Scylla and Charybdis gave poetic expression to the dangers confronting Greek sailors when they first ventured into the uncharted waters of the western Mediterranean. In ancient times, Scylla was often identified with a rock or reef. Today, to be “between Scylla and Charybdis” means to be caught between two equally unpleasant alternatives.


Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, on the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Calabrian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer's account, Odysseus was advised to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool. [3]

Because of such stories, the bad result of having to navigate between the two hazards eventually entered proverbial use. Erasmus recorded it in his Adagia (1515) under the Latin form of evitata Charybdi in Scyllam incidi (having escaped Charybdis I fell into Scylla) and also provided a Greek equivalent. After relating the Homeric account and reviewing other connected uses, he went on to explain that the proverb could be applied in three different ways. In circumstances where there is no escape without some cost, the correct course is to "choose the lesser of two evils". Alternatively it may signify that the risks are equally great, whatever one does. A third use is in circumstances where a person has gone too far in avoiding one extreme and has tumbled into its opposite. In this context Erasmus quoted another line that had become proverbial, incidit in Scyllam cupiēns vītāre Charybdem (into Scylla he fell, wishing to avoid Charybdis). [4] This final example was a line from the Alexandreis, a 12th-century Latin epic poem by Walter of Châtillon. [5]

The myth was later given an allegorical interpretation by the French poet Barthélemy Aneau in his emblem book Picta Poesis (1552). There one is advised, much in the spirit of the commentary of Erasmus, that the risk of being envied for wealth or reputation is preferable to being swallowed by the Charybdis of poverty: "Choose the lesser of these evils. A wise man would rather be envied than miserable." [6] Erasmus too had associated the proverb about choosing the lesser of two evils, as well as Walter of Châtillon’s line, with the Classical adage. A later English translation glossed the adage's meaning with a third proverb, that of "falling, as we say, out of the frying pan into the fire, in which form the proverb has been adopted by the French, the Italians and the Spanish." [7] Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable also treated the English proverb as an established equivalent of the allusion to falling from Scylla into Charybdis. [8]

The story was often applied to political situations at a later date. In James Gillray's cartoon, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis (3 June 1793), [9] 'William Pitt helms the ship Constitution, containing an alarmed Britannia, between the rock of democracy (with the liberty cap on its summit) and the whirlpool of arbitrary power (in the shape of an inverted crown), to the distant haven of liberty'. [10] This was in the context of the effect of the French Revolution on politics in Britain. That the dilemma had still to be resolved in the aftermath of the revolution is suggested by Percy Bysshe Shelley's returning to the idiom in his 1820 essay A Defence of Poetry: "The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism." [11]

A later Punch caricature by John Tenniel, dated 10 October 1863, pictures the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston carefully steering the British ship of state between the perils of Scylla, a craggy rock in the form of a grim-visaged Abraham Lincoln, and Charybdis, a whirlpool which foams and froths into a likeness of Jefferson Davis. A shield emblazoned "Neutrality" hangs on the ship's thwarts, referring to how Palmerston tried to maintain a strict impartiality towards both combatants in the American Civil War. [12] American satirical magazine Puck also used the myth in a caricature by F. Graetz, dated November 26, 1884, in which the unmarried President-elect Grover Cleveland rows desperately between snarling monsters captioned "Mother-in-law" and "Office Seekers". [13]

Victor Hugo uses the equivalent French idiom (tomber de Charybde en Scylla) in his novel Les Miserables (1862), again in a political context, as a metaphor for the staging of two rebel barricades during the climactic uprising in Paris, around which the final events of the book culminate. The first chapter of the final volume is entitled "The Charybdis of the Faubourg Saint Antoine and the Scylla of the Faubourg du Temple".

By the time of Nicholas Monsarrat's 1951 war novel, The Cruel Sea, however, the upper-class junior officer, Morell, is teased by his middle-class peer, Lockhart, for using such a phrase. [14] Nevertheless, the idiom has since taken on new life in pop lyrics. In The Police's 1983 single "Wrapped Around Your Finger", the second line uses it as a metaphor for being in a dangerous relationship this is reinforced by a later mention of the similar idiom of "the devil and the deep blue sea". [15] [16] American heavy metal band Trivium also referenced the idiom in "Torn Between Scylla and Charybdis", a track from their 2008 album Shogun, in which the lyrics are about having to choose "between death and doom". [17]

In 2014 Graham Waterhouse composed a piano quartet, Skylla and Charybdis, premiered at the Gasteig in Munich. According to his programme note, though its four movements "do not refer specifically to the protagonists or to events connected with the famous legend", their dynamic is linked subjectively to images connected with it "conjoured up in the composer's mind during the writing". [18]

The Real Whirlpool Charybdis

Like many Greek monsters, Charybdis represented a real danger that could be encountered in the world.

Charybdis was a giant whirlpool, large enough to suck in an entire ship. She lived in a narrow channel of water that was also home to the devouring monster Scylla.

When passing through this strait, sailors had to make a choice of which monster they would sail closest to. The way was so narrow that, without the assistance of the gods, it was impossible to go through without being attacked by one of them.

Of the two, Charybdis was generally regarded as the more deadly because she could destroy an entire ship in an instant. Scylla’s six heads were terrifying, but by sailing quickly enough a ship could lose only a few men to her before getting out of reach.

Modern and ancient sources place the home of Scylla and Charybdis in the real Strait of Messina, a narrow stretch of sea that separates Southern Italy and Sicily.

Scylla probably embodied the dangerous, jutting rocks that could harm a ship that got to close. Charybdis, however, was a literal whirlpool.

The whirlpool in the Strait of Messina is a real feature, although it is not nearly as dangerous as the Charybdis of legend. The actual whirlpool in the strait is only a danger to very small vessels, and even then only in extreme circumstances.

The stories of the ancient world made the whirlpool into a much more deadly threat. From the early writings of Homer to the later Roman works of Virgil and Ovid, it was agreed that Charybdis was wide enough to swallow a ship and so deep that the ocean floor could be seen in its center.

Sometimes Charybdis was characterized as a monster, a living counterpart to Scylla. In other stories, though, it was simply a name given to a natural feature of the sea.

The Dangerous Tides

One of the characteristics of Charybdis was that she swallowed sea water on a regular schedule. She was given the name Trienos, or Three-Times, because of this cycle.

This description has given scholars another interpretation of the nature of Charybdis. Instead of a whirlpool, they believe she may have represented the tide.

Sucking in water would explain the three low tides of the day, while its expulsion explained high tide. Instead of a single feature, Charybdis would have been seen as the source of a world-wide phenomenon that happened several times a day.

The changing water level could hide dangerous rocks under the surface of the water, making them invisible to sailors even though they could pierce the hull of a ship. And even the slightest shift in position caused by changing tides could drive a ship into the rocks in a strait so narrow.

Most readings of Scylla and Charybdis lead to the conclusion that ships were forced to sail closer to Scylla, who represented the rocks, to avoid being sucked into a whirlpool. But interpreting Charybdis as the force of the tides means that her power forced ships to go closer to rocks they would ordinarily avoid.

This interpretation is also supported by the way in which Scylla leaps out of her cave when attacking passing ships. Like rocks hidden beneath a higher tide, she catches ships unaware.

The Origin of Charybdis

Charybdis represented a natural phenomenon. Like many Greek monsters, she initially had no concrete origin story.

As with many other beasts in Greek mythology, however, later writers created a story to explain how Charybdis came to be. Like many of these later additions to the mythology, they imagined Charybdis to have once been a beautiful maiden.

In this case, she was a daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. Charybdis was loyal to her father and used her power over water to serve him.

Poseidon and Zeus often quarreled in many legends. They would use their respective powers to hurt one another by causing damage to the people and lands that the other had claimed.

In some of these arguments, Poseidon sought to get the upper hand over Zeus by flooding land that the king of the gods had claimed. This drove away worshippers there and caused crops to fail so that Zeus received fewer sacrifices.

In the origin story of Charybdis, the young goddess had helped her father in these efforts. She had the power to raise water levels, which she used to aid Poseidon in his efforts to hurt Zeus.

Zeus was angry that his niece had crossed him, so he punished her harshly. He turned Charybdis into a monster that swallowed and expelled huge amounts of water three times a day.

An alternate story retains Charybdis as the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia and has her punished by Zeus. The reason, however, is different.

In this story, Charybdis was a greedy woman. She stole cattle that belonged to Heracles, so the king of the gods punished her for offending his favorite son.

Zeus sent a thunderbolt to strike her and sent her flying into the sea.

These stories were later additions to the mythology and were never widely believed among the Greeks. They illustrate, however, the way in which characters in the myths continued to change and evolve over time.

Charybdis also evolved in her relationship with her neighbor, Scylla. Homer and other writers made no mention of how the two monsters came to live in such close proximity to one another, but a Greek writer from the 2nd century AD sought to provide an explanation:

Skylla (Scylla), daughter of Krataiis (Crataeis) (of the Rocks) or Trienos (Three-Times) and Phorkos (Phorcus).

-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E7. 20 (trans. Aldrich)

This single line from Pseudo-Apollodorus is the only one in which Charybdis is described as related to Scylla. Using her epithet Trienos, the late Greek writer claimed that the whirlpool had, with the legendary sea god Phorcus, given birth to the monster that she shared her narrow strait with.

Heroes Who Faced the Whirlpool

Charybdis is not best remembered as the child of Poseidon or mother of Scylla, though. The whirlpool is famous for the role it played in many of Greece’s most famous legends.

The twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis were faced by some of Greece’s most famous heroes. Each dealt with the danger in a different way.

  • Odysseus sailed through the strait after leaving the island of Circe. Heading her advice, he took his ship past Scylla so that he would only lose six crew members instead of risking the entire vessel.
  • He faced Charybdis again, however, while alone on a raft. He survived the whirlpool by clinging to the branches of a fig tree that grew over the site where Charybdis wrecked his small raft.
  • Jason and the Argonauts sailed through the same channel while on their quest for the Golden Fleece. He was aided by Hera and Thetis, who safely guided his ship down the center of the strait and just out of reach of both Scylla and Charybdis.
  • In Roman legends, Aeneus also encountered the whirlpool. He sailed around the southern edge of Sicily to avoid passing through the channel, but later was nearly sucked in by Charybdis when sailing near Etna.

The first of these stories, the Odyssey, was written in the 8th century BC. Homer’s epic work was the basis for much of later mythology, and his depictions of Scylla and Charybdis undoubtedly influenced the later writers of the Argonautica and Aeneid.

Aesop and Charybdis

Charybdis may have also appeared in the works of another famous Greek writer. Apart from the epic tails of sea voyages the whirlpool was popular in, it may have also been featured in Aesop’s famous fables.

These stories were short and often humorous, almost always having a moral lesson to impart. Many of Aesop’s fables are still popular around the world today.

Some, however, are less well remembered and less documented. One of these was the story that featured Charybdis.

Aesop’s stories have a murkier history than those of great epic poets like Homer and Virgil. They were not collected and written in a definitive text.

In fact, there is some doubt as to whether Aesop existed at all. The piecemeal way in which the fables were collected and passed on may indicate that the writer himself was a fictional character.

Instead of being a writer, Aesop may have just been a character to whom popular tales were credited.

Whether as the original author or as a fictitious one, however, Aesop was occasionally inserted into his own stories. Aristotle mentioned one such fable in a work of astronomy.

In the story of Aesop and the Ferryman, the fabulist is teased by a ferry driver and uses the legend of Charybdis to get back at the boatman.

Aesop claimed that Charybdis did not constantly suck in and expel water, but that she would swallow the sea three times in total.

The first time she had done so, the water level lowered enough to bring the mountains into view. The second time, islands appeared that had once been covered.

The third time, Aesop claimed, was yet to come. When it did the sea would be entirely swallowed and nothing would remain.

Therefore, Aesop had no reason to pay attention to the ferryman’s taunts. Any man who worked on a boat would soon find himself out of a job.

The story imparted the lesson that it was unwise to make fun of someone who was smarter than yourself, and that anyone could find their situation reduced to the level of the people they thought themselves better than.

It also had a root in Greek philosophy, however. According to the philosopher Democritis, who wrote around 400 BC, the sea level was constantly becoming lower and someday it would be completely dried up.

Aesop’s fable may have been fictitious, but the image of Charybdis swallowing the sea until nothing was left was based on actual beliefs of the ancient world.

A Deadly Choice

In the epic poems, travelling past Scylla and Charybdis presented a difficult choice. To this day, their names are invoked to mean a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Passing through the channel that the two monsters called home was deadly no matter how one chose. Only with the direct aid of a god, like that received by Jason, could one hope to navigate the strait without coming into contact with one or the other.

Others, like Aeneis, chose to avoid the danger altogether by taking a route that was much longer but significantly safer. Even then, however, he eventually got sucked in and barely escaped the pull of Charybdis.

Scylla And Charybdis, Painted By Alessandro Allori (c. 1535–1607)

This artwork, created by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori (c. 1535–1607), depicts one of the famous scenes from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. It shows the harrowing choice given to Odysseus either to chart his course by Scylla (a man-eating monster living in a seaside cave) or Charybdis (a personified and deified whirlpool). Odysseus was briefed on these two obstacles by the goddess, Circe. On the first of the two Perils, she said:

“’It is the home of Scylla, the creature with the dreadful bark. It is true that her yelp is no louder than a newborn pup’s, but she is a repulsive monster nevertheless. Nobody could look at her with delight, not even a god if he passed that way. She has twelve feet, all dangling in the air, and six long scrawny necks, each ending in a grisly head with triple rows of fangs, set thick and close, and darkly menacing death. Up to her waist she is sunk in the depths of the cave, but her heads protrude from the fearful abyss…” (Homer, The Odyssey, Book 12, approximately line 90).

Next, Cirice told Odysseus of Charybdis, a foe that she claimed was much worse than Scylla. She explained, “A great fig-tree with luxuriant foliage grows upon the crag, and it is below this that dread Charybdis sucks the dark waters down. Three times a day, she spews them up, and three times a day she swallows them down once more in her horrible way” (The Odyssey, Book 12, approximately lines 100-110).

As depicted in Alessandro Allori’s artwork above, Odysseus decided to steer closer to monstrous Scylla instead of testing the unstable seas around Charybdis. Odysseus was able to successfully keep his ship intact as he sailed precariously between the two threats. Yet, like Alessandro Allori illustrated in his painting, the crew did not pass by Scylla unscathed.

Trafficking and Domestic Service

Domestic service, like the entertainment industry, had long been associated with prostitution. Not, in this case, because of its inherent licentiousness, but because the conditions of work and pay, and the sexual abuse young women were believed to often suffer at the hands of the men of their employing household, drove many young women into prostitution. Footnote 49 Many social investigations from the late nineteenth century showed that domestic servants often engaged in sexual labour casually or temporarily, and very often those engaged in more permanent sexual labour had once been domestic servants, a correlation that, in the case of the UK at least, went even beyond the normal rates of domestic service in the female population. Footnote 50 In 1943, the ILO published a study of “the moral protection of the woman worker” that it had prepared for the League’s renamed Committee on Social Questions. Here, they appeared willing to explore the connections between domestic service and prostitution, because “the risks of this particular occupation call for study [in the context of trafficking] by reason of the considerable place it occupies in the statistics of the former occupations of prostitutes”. Footnote 51 These connections should be unsurprising to historians of women’s migrant work: the patterns of migration of women who moved for domestic work and those who move for sex work have looked much the same for a long time, and prostitution and domestic service were shaped by the same economic, labour, and migration patterns as well as the same kinds of regional, social, racial, and gender inequalities. Footnote 52

Domestic service was very briefly discussed in the context of the monitoring of employment agencies during the international conference on white slavery, which led to the 1904 Convention, but, unlike the entertainment industry, it was the subject of very little cultural attention and almost no legislative interventions in the first three decades of the century. While cleaning work (or charring, as it was known in Britain) was the subject of some reformer’s attentions in the US in this period, where the hotel industry was increasingly employing large numbers of female immigrants, in Britain the discourse and economy of domestic service remained focused on the home. This silence on the question of the exploitative nature of domestic labour also helped to protect the economic and imperial interests of the British state, who had long been engaged in the active management of the migration of women for domestic service around their Empire and Commonwealth, and who had long contended with the “moral dangers” these women were thought to face. Emigration Societies sought to mitigate these moral risks for white women who left Britain, but did little to prevent (even encouraged) other kinds of labour abuses. In Blue China: Single Female Migration to Australia, Jan Gothard catalogues in detail the way that the Australian and UK government’s sponsored migration programmes for female domestic servants in the nineteenth century, frequently defrauded and indebted women who migrated into service. As newer work by Victoria Haskins, Claire Lowrie and others demonstrates, the line between trafficking and domestic labour within empires became even more blurred in the case of the often forced, indentured, or coerced servitude of non-white and indigenous women. Footnote 53

By the 1920s, Britain faced a serious domestic labour supply crisis at home. While Britain began to close its doors to European migration after World War I, the Ministry of Labour suggested putting domestic service on a list of shortage occupations for which a permit could be granted. Footnote 54 This labour was, however, difficult to monitor and manage. As Cyril Joad, a socialist who worked as a civil servant at the Ministry, noted, the (often desperate) European domestic servants would accept “rather low wages”. Footnote 55 By the 1930s, Britain’s “servant crisis”, as it was known, had grown more acute in the face of economic depression and political upheaval in Europe. As historians Caestecker and Moore note, Britain became increasingly reliant on European foreign domestics, fleeing a harsh economic and political climate at home, to fill vacancies. The work permits they were issued disallowed the holder from seeking any other form of employment. “In this way”, argue Caestecker and Moore, “they were chained to domestic service and an unconditional leave to remain was postponed indefinitely”. Footnote 56 In an era when the contracted worker was supposed to be “free”, female migrant labour in the domestic service industry remained highly coercive. Indeed, this period, which witnessed the sharp rise in the migration of women to work in care and service industries in Britain, helped to lay the groundwork for what has today grown to be an army of foreign domestic labourers who work under exploitative conditions. Some of these women are constrained by their illicit migration status, while others are constrained by the coercive terms of their work visas, which bar them from seeking other employment and threaten them with deportation should they lose their jobs. Footnote 57

In the early twentieth century, organizations dedicated to anti-trafficking campaigns and the moral welfare of migrant women could not help but pay careful attention to the trafficking-like nature of this kind of migrant domestic work. One of the most important organizations in this regard was, somewhat ironically, the National Vigilance Association (NVA), which had been amongst the most fervent in defining “white slavery” as a specific problem of international crime control and protection. Footnote 58 They were certainly never on the vanguard of radical campaigns that emphasized the connections between prostitution and exploitative work. Yet, through their work monitoring rail stations and ports to watch for cases of “white slavery”, the NVA was also the organization most frequently exposed to the permeable borders between prostitution, trafficking, and labour exploitation on the ground. Patrolling the train stations and ports of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s meant dealing with cases where exploitation and trafficking was occurring within licit, non-sexual occupations. NVA files are filled with hundreds of cases of European domestic workers who, upon arrival in the London, were left without contacts, were boarded in squalor, were underpaid or unpaid, were prevented from leaving their positions, or were terminated without reason. As a result, the NVA found itself shifting its efforts from watching suspected brothels for cases of “white slavery” to keeping lengthy dossiers on exploitative domestic service employment agencies and employers. Footnote 59

In his sensationalized warning to “girls going to London to seek work”, NVA secretary, journalist, and former police officer FR Sempkins noted that “[p]eriodically there is an outcry about girls being lured to London and trapped by White Slavers. Those of us who deal with facts must deplore all exaggeration. It discredits the truth, and diverts attention from a situation which is sufficiently grave to need no colouring”. Domestic service, he told the readers of Tit Bits, a popular weekly paper, was as much a source of “white slavery” as was prostitution. Footnote 60 Later pamphlets produced by the NVA (renamed the British Vigilance Association and the National Committee for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons) reflected this shift from looking at trafficking as connected only to prostitution to seeing it as entwined with women’s migrant labour. The pamphlet “Coming to Work in Britain?”, which alerted female migrant workers to the danger of being trafficked and encouraged them to look for the armbands of NVA volunteers upon their arrival, depicts work in the entertainment and service industries, highlighting especially work by women of colour, and by women coming to London from rural areas of the UK.

However, as in the case of the entertainment industry, the keenest abuses within the domestic service sector were made out to be the fault of racialized foreigners. While the NVA did keep files on English, Irish and other employers and agencies, it was the Jewish employment agencies and East End Jewish employers of servants who received the bulk of their concern and attention. Sempkins elaborated: mistresses were “often slavedrivers, uncouth, un-English, totally unfitted to have servants. Before the distress [the economic crisis of the early 1930s] they could not possibly have obtained servants”. He sketched an image of London domestic service as a new form of the Jewish white slave trade, noting (incorrectly) that “ninety percent of the girls from the northeast [of England] go to Jewish families”. Footnote 61 This not only capitalized on pervasive sentiments of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but also provided a way in which to launch a critique of domestic service as trafficking without implicating themselves, and their own servant-keeping and consumption practices, at the same time.

While discourses surrounding migrant entertainment work as a cause of trafficking were primarily concerned with age, and while legislation focused on protecting young women under the age of sixteen or eighteen, a parallel conversation was largely absent in the case of domestic service within Britain. This is because the youth of servant girls had been naturalized in the West for centuries. In fact, the ideal “slavey” – or maid of all work – would be young: more able to cope with the working hours and physical demands of the labour, less likely to be insubordinate to their masters and mistresses, and less likely to have any other personal caring demands made on their time. Within the British Empire, however, age and domestic service took on new meanings in the case of the British-led campaigns around Mui Tsai: the cultural practice, known throughout South East Asia, of families selling their young daughters to wealthier households as indentured servants. It was another case where racialization – this time ideas about Chinese backwardness and uncivility – was deployed to prevent discussions of a specific kind of women’s exploited work from becoming a broader recognition of the systemic inequalities of the global – and Western – economic system. Footnote 62

The economic and political conditions of Europe in the 1930s likewise led the ILO to focus more carefully on women’s domestic service and migration in the international arena. In 1933, the ILO adopted a convention that supported the complete abolition of fee-charging employment agencies, and the supervision of all employment agencies, especially those who placed workers in foreign countries. One of the reasons they offered for supporting this rather radical convention was the “abuses which domestic servants suffer at the hands of unscrupulous agents”. Footnote 63 While the convention was ratified by only a handful of states, and was largely a dead letter, it was nonetheless clear that the ILO was starting to speak formally about the connections between trafficking and women’s domestic work.

The next major contribution to this discussion came in 1943, in a chapter that the ILO had prepared for the volume “The Prevention of Prostitution”, for the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Social Questions (into which, arguably to its detriment, the AC on the Traffic in Women and Children had been subsumed). The chapter, entitled “The Moral Protection of Young Women Workers”, appeared to be a culmination of many of the questions which the Advisory Committee had passed onto the ILO in the 1920s and 1930s and whose publication had ultimately be delayed by World War II. “A girl who goes to work”, the ILO’s chapter began, “may clearly be faced with other risks than those inherent in her employment”. Footnote 64 The study would therefore be concerned with “the risk of demoralization connected with the placing of young workers, those arising at the work-place itself, and lastly those to which they are exposed outside their work”: not, therefore, though it remained unsaid, with the nature of the work itself. The chapter suggested typical measures of protection, such as the barring of underage employment in potentially demoralizing environments such as hotels, bars, and theatres. It continued at some length regarding provisions for young, single, migrant women workers after working hours, suggesting that states and charities should ensure more formal provision and supervision of leisure spaces. Footnote 65

However, it proved very difficult for the ILO to maintain the division between trafficking for prostitution and other forms of exploitative migrant labour and their chief recommendation – the reiteration of the 1933 Convention that called for the abolishment of all fee-charging employment agencies, and restrictions on the numbers of foreign workers able to be recruited – applied to all workers. This was a direct response to the problem of migrant domestic workers. During their investigations, the ILO found that in most countries, domestic servants represented two thirds or more of the total workers placed by fee-charging agencies, the vast majority of these, of course, being women.

Within this chapter, the ILO recognized domestic service as an occupation that could involve significant “moral danger”, but also one whose labour structure was fundamentally conducive to exploitation. They argued, for instance, that the reasons why age regulations could not realistically be imposed on the employment of domestic servants was because making sure the age was high enough “to enable girls to enter the occupation only when in full possession of their individual powers of self-defense” would be an impediment to finding women to fill the positions, in a sector where there was already a critical labour shortage. “There is no hope”, the ILO wrote pessimistically, “of establishing in the near future an age-limit which will really protect young domestic servants against this special risk”. Footnote 66

The ILO also analysed the reasons why state and international approaches to trafficking had largely taken the form of protectionist legislation and crime control. “The negative method of protection’, they wrote, such as banning children and women from night work, from work in foreign countries, or from work in certain occupations, was successful because was simple for states to apply and administer. What the ILO authors called “positive methods of protection” required more effort: these included child welfare boards, government services to help migrants review contracts, and minimum wage and labour standard enforcement. Footnote 67 This cynical passage, which essentially said that the criminalization of prostitution and protective legislation was enacted because it was easier than the implementation of labour standards, was extremely insightful, and represented a passing but nonetheless powerful critique of the legal machinery that had grown up in the name of trafficking.

At the national level, these elusive “positive methods of protection” were largely absent. Only five countries agreed to enforce the ILO’s recommendation to abolish private, fee-charging agencies, and Britain was not one of them. It continued to grant work permits to domestic servants, without regard to the character or repute of the agencies that had recruited them. No state-sponsored effort existed to help young women considering employment abroad, and even the protective measures directed at working migrant women were left to a loose network of philanthropic and religious organizations: the only partially government funded home for trafficking victims was closed in the mid-1930s, and women in need of shelter were redistributed around the religious philanthropic sector. Trafficking itself was explicitly conceived of by the British state as a subject of crime control, and all matters related to the movement of “foreign prostitutes” – exploited or not – were relegated to the police, magistrates, and immigration officials, whose main jobs were to suggest, sign, and approve deportation orders. Footnote 68

Sailors Beware: The Story of Scylla and Charybdis

The ferocious predators Scylla and Charybdis were first introduced to the world nearly 3,000 years ago by the legendary Greek poet Homer , in his literary classic the Odyssey. The nightmarish creatures were said to lie in wait on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina, waiting to devour unsuspecting ships that traveled too close to their underwater lairs.

Scylla was represented as a six-headed beast with a voracious appetite for human flesh, who might emerge from the Mediterranean depths at any moment to smash holes in passing ships and snatch her thrashing prey from the water after they were thrown from the decks. Charybdis, on the other hand, was a more mysterious creature that was never actually seen, but could be easily identified by the frenzied whirlpools she created to swallow boats and ships of all sizes.

When Homer’s hero Odysseus was forced to pass through the Strait of Messina during his epic journey home, he was told by the sorceress Circe that it was better to pass closer to Scylla than Charybdis, since the former would only steal some of his men while the latter would consume his whole ship and all its occupants. After encountering both monsters in succession, Odysseus managed to barely escape with his life. But like others survivors who followed the same route, he never again repeated this treacherous trip through some of the most hazardous waters on Earth.

Painting of Odysseus facing the choice between Scylla and Charybdis. ( Public domain )

Odysseus's Journey

In Homer's Odyssey XII, Odysseus is given advice by Circe to sail closer to Scylla, for Charybdis could drown his whole ship. to prevent her from pouncing more than once. Odysseus then successfully sails his ship past Scylla and Charybdis, but Scylla manages to catch six of his men, devouring them alive whilethe hero, Odysseus survives & heads off to Sicily. She died by either Heracles who slew her when he was visiting Sicily or her fate was she was turned into a rock.

Begriffsgeschichte : between the Scylla of Conceptual and the Charybdis of Institutional History of Economics

According to a commonly held view, doctrinal history formed a largely uncontested part of the discipline of economics in the early years of the twentieth century. Economists like Edwin Cannan, Jacob Viner, and Joseph A. Schumpeter were at the same time respected economists and historians of economics. Contemporary historians of economics, on the other hand, tend to feel defensive about their field of study. The questions of why, how, and in which discipline one should pursue the history of economics is hotly debated among practitioners, while the number of universities and curricula still offering history courses is in steady decline. This is matched by a corresponding attitude among orthodox economists aptly summarized by Frank H. Hahn (1992, p. 165): “What the dead had to say, when of value, has long since been absorbed, and when we need to say it again we can generally say it much better.”

SCP Foundation

[Excerpts from the journal of Lord Blackwood.]

August 4, 1883:

My continued journey has led me to the island known by many, though recognized by few, the home of ancient Ithaca. Delighted at my happening upon such an auspicious place, I offered a small sum of money to an agreeable resident to act as my guide. I spent that day in his company, with him telling me the local stories that were passed down to him from his grandfather, and his grandfather's grandfather before him, and so on, he claimed. Tales, if believed, that were handed down from Ulysses' own midshipman.

When the sun had hidden its face beyond the far horizon, we retired to my new companion's home, to a dinner of lamb, bread and pickled vegetables. Thereafter, we spoke over wine, and I was regailed with further stories of that ancient voyage. I shall not pen them here, for Homer is a greater poet than I, and I would leave some mysteries for this dear friend of mine to pass on to his grandchildren some day.

August 5, 1883:

As the first rays of the sun found their way through the window, I opened my eyes, and I knew then what I must do. I thanked my most hospitable friend, gathered my belongings, and let him know the quest that had been revealed to me. I would charter a ship, and follow the legendary odyssey of Ulysses myself.

My acquaintance balked at my design, warning me that it was folly, that I would tempt divine wrath. I tried to convince him to look beyond his superstition and join me on my voyage, but he would not accompany me. As we discussed my proposition well in the afternoon, he relented somewhat, informing me of an adventurous neighbor who had purchased his own schooner just weeks prior. With a final word of thanks to my host and his family, I bid them farewell and sought out their neighbor.

August 6, 1883:

Fortune shines upon me. I have met with their neighbor and spoke with him long into the evening. The Captain, for that is what he fancies himself, gave his name as Aeneas, and confided in me that he had long considered a journey such as the one I suggested.

Perhaps he saw this as a sign, an answer to his long-pondered question. Perhaps not. Perhaps it doesn't matter. I paid him a modest sum, and our deal was struck. He would gather supplies and a crew, and we were to sail within the week.

August 10, 1883:

Twelve men, myself, and the Captain. A serviceable crew. Perhaps the dream the Captain and I share isn't such an uncommon one on this propitious isle.

The provisions have arrived and are being loaded this very evening. In an endeavor to gain my sea legs early, I shall be spending this night on the craft.

August 11, 1883:

I have never in my entire wretched life felt so ungodly ill.

August 12, 1883:

By God, it started moving. I threw up carrots this morning. I haven't eaten carrots in years.

Please, lord of mercy, strike me dead.

August 15, 1883:

At long last, I have recuperated to an extent that I am able to move about the deck without keeping always to the rail.

The crew has made no end of jest and jibe at my expense, but they are good lads, experienced all. We have had no issue on our voyage save the contents of my stomach, and are well on our way to the Ottoman Empire, whence, claimed my Ithacan friend, lay the true location of mythical Troy.

We've no desire to get caught up in local affairs, and will only go as close enough to glimpse the mainland. After all, the crew seemed in agreement, 'twould not do for us to get caught up in a war like those in whose steps we follow.

August 17, 1883:

The Barrelman called out a sighting of land at the break of dawn, and, wishing to remain clear of patrolling ships, we turned swiftly north to sight Cicones. Another two days, if the weather remains fair.

I remain eager for our journey to turn back westward, where we need not fear running afoul of an Ottoman fleet. Indeed, I am told, were it not for the swiftness of our small craft, none of the crewmen would have joined our venture.

August 19, 1883:

With no city to loot, the coastline holds no lure to our crewmen as it did to those of Ulysses, and so, in short order, we had had our fill of the sight of coastlines, and headed south and west, to set out on the longest leg of our journey, south and west, to Africa. There, just off the coast of French Tunisia, is said to lie the island of Lotus Eaters.

The last of our fresh supplies have run out with today's lunch, and so we start to our rations of hardtack and rum. It did not take me long to remember why the latter is oft served with the former.

August 25, 1883:

Dark clouds on the horizon this morning, a storm to the southwest, and a big one it seems. The Captain has decided to turn our course north. By my reckoning, we are two days west of Crete, and at the worst this storm could push our course off northwards perhaps to Malta, or, at worst, the southern coast of Sicily. No great loss, as we will be able to correct our course in short order.

August 29, 1883:

Fortune doesn't fain to smile on us, as this blasted storm has continued northward along with us unabated. At this rate, if we wish to continue westward, we must needs turn more sharply north, making our way towards the northern coast of Sicily lest we risk running aground along her eastern shores.

I pray the storm breaks across the island's southern shore, that our journey might continue in peace.

August 30, 1883:

Roiling waters off the shore of the Sicilian isle. Fortune would not favor us this day. Oh but if only the storm would have been the end of it.

Not another ship in sight, nor soul on the land, but from beneath the waves, just off the coast the waters began to chrun and boil in great lines, hundreds of yards long. The crew turned us aside, to keep us far abreast of these uneasy waters, and as we watched, I swear on my honor as an Englishman, we saw a host of warriors rise from beneath the tides. All hefting bronzen arms and chanting as one with a berserk fury.

Even near to a mile away from the nearest of their ranks, we could hear their war cry. My studies of the classics had me here stood in good stead, as I recognized the language of the Greeks.

"Great Mother Halyna, scourge the world of Iron. Fix your wrathful gaze on man, grant them not your spurn. Strip away flesh from flesh, flay alive her foes. Pull them into Mother's grasp, and take away their toes!"

We stood, transfixed to a man. Yet before we could ponder as to what sorcery was afoot to conjure such an army, we beheld Her. Hair as black as midnight, she rose from their midst. Her face was the very image of rage, and as she crested the waves, her myriad tentacles burst forth from beneath the surf, writhing to and fro. With a single shriek, she bade her army forward, across the waves, towards Italy.

My breath caught in my throat, I cast my gaze around the crewmen, men I have grown to know well these past weeks. Finally, my eyes turned to the Captain, whose stern mask had begun to crack, betrayed by the panic in his eyes. We had brought a small handful of rifles to arm the crew as a last holdout against privateers, and my measure of the Captain's bravery was not misplaced as I saw his gaze towards the locked hold where we had the munitions stored. He meant to strike out against this unexpected horror. Thinking quickly, I called out, rallying the crewmen, whose visages belied not but horror.

"Brothers! Hearken unto me! Fate has deigned to set upon us a collision course with a monster— with a legion of monsters! And yet, do not falter! Look around you! We, and we alone are here, chosen to bear witness to this monstrosity, and burdened with the sole responsibility of preventing this dread host from reaching land and bringing her horror down the innocent."

Scant, ragged cheers soon found themselves strengthened to great war cries when bolstered by the sturdy stock of a rifle. In short time, the Captain began moving us towards the advancing host. Roughly a mile wide, and perhaps a dozen ranks deep, her army marched across the surface of the water. As we neared, we could finally see the myriad horrors that replaced her army's legs. From writhing tentacle-like masses of veins, to featureless, porpoise-like flippers, each had had their feet, and oft their entire legs, removed. Removed and replaced, lovingly it seemed, by some new and mad replacement. No two of her soldiers could boast the same form, and yet it seems in their elation of their 'mother', they cared not.

Closer and closer we came, barreling head-on towards them, until, just over a hundred yards from them, we turned broadside. The men were quick to their positions we would have precious few volleys before we must needs retreat.

"Aim for the witch that commands them!" I called to them. "Rend her from her tentacles! Send her back once more to the briny depths!" A resounding retort answered, rifles firing true, rending the sea witch's body with wounds. A cheer went up among the crew.

In an instant, however, the cheer was drained, as the bleeding witch cackled, lashing out with her many tentacles, pulling her own soldiers into her grasp. She uttered a foul sorcery, and twisted their flesh, pulling them into her. One by one, she plucked them from their march and added their mass to hers. By the time the men had aimed for a second volley, she had grown to the size of an African Elephant.

Screams erupted as her titanic visage turned towards the ship. Rage, a hot red light, shot from her eyes, falling over the Barrelman. We watched in horror as it reduced him to naught but a quivering pool of flesh, dripping from the crow's nest. We adjusted our tack, fleeing this horror, desperate for retreat. Yet whatever speed the craft could muster, the sea witch's growth threatened to overtake. Indeed, her foremost tentacles found their way onto the deck of the ship, pulling the Midshipman and First Mate away, screaming as their legs melted.

A fortuitous wind caught our sails, billowing us out ahead, and yet Neptune does not cast a favor without tempering it with a curse. Before us, not half a mile, began swirling a vast whirlpool, spraying froth two dozen feet high. The crew lamented, fearing this a new spell summoned up by the witch, and yet, to our amazement, something began to emerge from the whorl.

A metal shell, polished like burnished brass, and twice the width of our craft broke from the surf, risen aloft atop six gleaming legs, long and slender. Graceful, like a dancer, they moved. Emerging from the front of this metal titan loomed two tremendous claws, either well capable of reducing our craft to so much driftwood.

And yet, for reasons I confess I do not know with certainty, we were spared its wrath. As a great grinding noise and a burst of hot steam emerged from within the titanic brazen crustacean, the witch issued forth a scream of most primal rage as to shake every man to his core.

Water fell down from above as we passed beneath the long, spindly legs of the metal titan. The Captain gripped tight to the wheel, navigating to avoid crashing into bronzen doom.

Our breath was stolen from our lungs as the machine lunged forward, surging up a great wave which carried us away, towards the distant shores of Italy. We dared not question our luck, and could do little but watch in awe as the titans collided. Massive tentacles twisted and fought for purchase around the hardened metal carapace, while razor-sharp claw tore at the flesh of the titanic witch's breast. Searing blasts of steam shot from cleverly concealed holes atop its carapace to meet the withering rage emanating from her countenance. Their clash is, in my estimation, the most spectacular event to have taken place upon this green Earth. I shall meditate on what I have seen and transcribe every most minute detail of this epic battle on the morrow.

August 31, 1883:

September 1, 1883:

We have arrived safely upon the shores of Italy. Our respects have been paid, and now we shall make inland, to recount what we have seen. I fear the crew have lost their stomach for adventure at sea, as, I believe, have I, for the time.

As I reflect upon the spectacle I have borne witness to, I can come to only one conclusion. Sometimes adventure isn't merely afoot. Sometimes, adventure is the entire damned leg.

Watch the video: The Odyssey: Scylla and Charybdis Study Guide (July 2022).


  1. Talib

    I absolutely agree with you. There is something in this and the idea is good, I support it.

  2. Gorisar

    Damn it! Cool! You answered yourself. The meaning of life and everything else. Resolved, no kidding.

  3. JoJojin

    I think you are wrong. I propose to discuss it.

  4. Reginheraht

    Bravo, what is the right phrase ... a wonderful thought

  5. Mazusar

    Between us while speaking, I would not do so.

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