Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Scylla and Charybdis

This is a cool story and is a perfect example of reading being a key to self-education. I was reading a biography about Johnny Carson when I came across a phrase with which I was unfamiliar. I caught the meaning, but not the source. So, I looked it up. The phrase was Scylla and Charybdis and was used in reference to being in an awkward situation with little choice and dire consequences. At least that is what I inferred from what I read.  I wasn't too far off, as it is usually used to denote being between a rock and a hard place. Here’s why.

Scylla and Charybdis were the sea creatures who guarded the Straits of Messina; a place I have been to many times in the Navy. The first was Scylla, who was located on the same side as the Italian mainland and took the form of a 6 headed monster. The other, Charybdis was located by the shoals off the Island of Sicily and was characterized as a whirlpool. It was a double blind of sorts, as to pass too closely to one would put you in the range of the other.

This story is all a part of Homer’s story in "The Odyssey" as he is forced to choose which of the two demons he must face to successfully navigate the Straits. (He is described as having just passed the Island of Sirens.) He decided to risk the wrath of Scylla which would cause the least amount of casualties, rather than the whirlpool of Charybdis which would have meant the loss of his entire crew.

This is the origin of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place”, which also gave rise to the more modern “from the frying pan into the fire.” In Latin the phrase is “incidit in scyllam cupiens vitare charybdis” which translates as “he runs on Scylla, wishing to avoid Charybdis.”

This is what I love the most about reading. Everything I learn is another piece of the puzzle. But here’s the problem with learning stuff on your own. Most of my life I have been reading about things I have never heard pronounced aloud. President Truman had this same problem. 

I wish I had a buck for every time I mispronounced a name or word that I have come across while reading. But I also wish I had just a thin dime for each time I have been told I was pronouncing something wrong by someone who knew the correct pronunciation, but had no clue to the meaning behind the words. Undoubtedly, I would be awash in small coin.

The photo at the top is of the Castello Scilla located on the coast of the mainland at Calabria.

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