We’re all familiar with the expression “caught between a rock and a hard place”, but do you know where the expression comes from? We use it to indicate a situation wherein a difficult decision has to be made, indeed, when we must choose the lesser of two evils, or at least the one we perceive to be the lesser.
The expression comes from Greek mythology. The rock and the hard place are Scylla and Charybdis, two sea monsters who were situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, in Italy. They were located in close enough proximity to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too closely to Scylla and vice versa.
The story is from The Odyssey. It concerns the voyage of Odysseus. During Odysseus’ long and perilous journey home, he must pass the two monsters, Scylla & Charybdis because it is the only way around the ship-wreaking Drifters. Only one ship had ever made it past the Drifters unharmed and that was because Hera had pulled them through. That was The Argo, of Jason and the Argonauts fame. Odysseus wasn’t going to take the chance. Instead he would go through the narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy and past the two monsters.
Scylla has twelve great tentacle-like legs and six heads on snake-like necks, each with three rows of sharp fangs. She lives in a cave on one side of the narrow crossing. She makes horrible sounds and will eat any sailors that come close enough for her to snake her necks out and grab them.
Charybdis was a sea-monster, who three times a day drew up the water of the sea and then spouted it again, forming a whirlpool.
Circe tells Odysseus that he must stay out of Scylla’s reach when passing through the Strait and they must row as fast as humanly possible in order to get away before Charybdis swallows all the water up. She says that it would be better to lose a couple of men due to over exhaustion than the whole ship in the whirlpool created by Charybdis.
When Odysseus and his crew finally come to the Strait of Messina, he does not tell them what they will be up against in fear that they will all drop their oars in fear. All he tells them is that they must row as hard as possible and head for the mainland, or they will all drown. As they are trying to get away from the whirlpool created by Charybdis, Scylla strikes with the speed of a snake and grabs six men from the ship to devour in her cave.
Then Zeus punishes Odysseus’ men for eating Helios, the Sun God’s, cattle. He strikes their ships with lightning bolts and the ship is torn to pieces and scattered all over the place. All the men get lost and scattered. Odysseus climbs onto the remaining part of the ship. Then, Odysseus is blown towards Charybdis. As he comes closer and closer to getting sucked into the whirlpool, he grabbed onto a branch of a fig tree and holds on for an eternity. Charybdis finally spits the ocean back out and he sighs with relief as he lets go. He swims to the remaining ship pieces and sails past Scylla without harm only because the Gods hide her eyes from him. Then he drifts across the open sea again unknowingly headed for the island where Calypso lives.
Scylla and Charybdis have been mentioned many times since the days of the ancient Greeks. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley used Scylla and Charybdis in an analogy of how society is poised between anarchy and despotism in his work, in defence of poetry.
The Police referenced Scylla and Charybdis in their 1983 hit single “Wrapped Around Your Finger” from Synchronicity, as many of you will know. Anyway, that’s the origin of “between a rock and hard place.” So now you know. If you didn’t already. 🙂