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  • Down through the Gaping Hole—and up the Fig Tree
  • Han Tran (bio)

‘Well!’ thought Alice to herself. ‘After such a fall as this,I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs!How brave they’ll all think me at home!’

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

As the Odyssey’s Circe turns from treacherous witch to helpful advisor and takes it upon herself to warn Odysseus against, first, the Sirens, and, second, the twin dangers that are Scylla and Charybdis, she curiously does not immediately proceed to discuss the latter pair. In her preamble, Circe begins by claiming that Odysseus’s path is a matter of choice: one leads to the Clashing Rocks or Planctae, the other to Scylla and Charybdis (Od. 12.56–8). It quickly emerges, however, that Odysseus does not, in fact, have a choice: the Planctae, which spare not even the doves carrying ambrosia to Zeus, have only once been successfully crossed, and even so, only thanks to Hera’s direct intervention (Od. 12.69–72). How formidable these rocks are can be glimpsed in the fact that the Planctae are known only by a name the gods have given them. In only one other instance does the Odyssey refer to this divine taxonomy—what scholars have called the “language of the gods”; it is when Hermes introduces the molu plant to Odysseus and discusses what makes it unique:1 2 (And the gods call it “molu”; for mortal men / It is hard to dig up; the gods, however, are capable of everything, Od. 10.305–6). Like steering a ship through the treacherous Planctae, to find and dig up the molu is a simple matter for the gods; for mortals, the same task is not so easy. It is implicit in Odysseus’s subsequent questions to Circe about how best to tackle Scylla that he does not for a moment consider the Planctae to be a real alternative.3 Odysseus thus gives up beforehand on a trajectory that is doomed to failure as it leaves no room for him, as a mortal, as a hero without the direct divine protection enjoyed by the likes of Jason, to exercise his famed resourcefulness. There is a strong suggestion here that the Clashing Rocks may belong to a heroic past that cannot be revisited by Odysseus. [End Page 179]

Circe’s introduction is thus significant, for it frames the hero’s encounter with Scylla and her counterpart as, unlike the Planctae, a challenge that is not beyond remedy—provided he follows her advice to steer clear of Charybdis and thus stay closer to Scylla. And not only did Odysseus follow the advice, so have most commentators. The pair has been the object of many fruitful studies, but common to these treatments is a stress on Scylla, often to the neglect of Charybdis. Both monsters are, scholars agree, female, engulfing mouths, but Homer’s own tendency to humanize Scylla while leaving Charybdis as landscape rather than fully gendered creature has slanted the traditional reading, favoring an interpretive close-up of Scylla.4 Scholarly discourse, at its most fleshed-out, interprets the whirlpool as an extreme example of the anthropophagous, one of the Odyssey’s main structuring themes, and largely leaves it at that. Yet, equally central to the description of Charybdis as a voracious mouth is the tall fig tree perched atop the lower crag that lies in the middle of the vortex. I argue in this paper that a close analysis of Charybdis, and of her unique combination of whirlpool, rock, and fig tree is essential for making sense, first, of the pair of which she is part, and, second, of the role that these two interconnected monsters play in shaping Odysseus as a distinctive kind of epic hero.5 I suggest that Charybdis’s importance lies not merely in being a danger of greater magnitude than Scylla, but in embodying a new type of monster. Charybdis is the threatening (although not absolutely fatal) landscape that Greek navigators must contend with in the real world, the world Odysseus seeks to return to. Scylla, by contrast, represents the old, perhaps even obsolete, model of the nightmarish monster...


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pp. 179-207
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