Origin: Greek mythology, date unknown.

Back in the good old days, when the earth was flat and Greek mythology was de rigeur, Charybdis was a scary monster who lived on one side of a narrow channel between Italy and Sicily. Together with her awe-inspiring accomplice Scylla, she presided over the channel and instilled terror in any seafarer hoping to edge past her forbidding lair. Churning and swirling like the tempestuous beast that she was, she would draw ships into her thrall and swallow them whole.

Things didn’t always end this way. Charybdis had a soft side too. Greek mythological superhero Odysseus caught Charybdis on a good day. After drawing Odyseeus’ raft into her gaping maw and leaving Odysseus clinging desperately to a slender branch hanging over the sea, Charybdis released the raft, sparing his life.

Charybdis in the foreground with Scylla in her cave in the top left corner

Today, Charybdis is understood to have been a dangerous whirlpool in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily. The years and changing sea levels have wearied her though, or at least tempered her fury and today she is a rather benign presence referred to as Galofalo or Garofalo.

But enough of the history lesson. Aside from being a formidable sailor-devouring vortex, Charybdis is also a wonderful word. A word imbued with the romance of ancient times when seas were anthropomorphised, feared, revered.  A word with choose-your-own pronunciation options.  A word found in Shakespeare.  A word which I encountered only by chance when I found myself strung out while climbing a fierce but diminutive route hidden away on Mt Arapiles: Charybdis.

That’s right. Charybdis, once known and feared by all and sundry, has been reduced to an obscure climbing route in a poky corner of Mt Arapiles in the middle of Victoria (and apparently also a boulder problem at Fontainbleau in France). This must change.

Fortunately, Charybdis lends herself naturally to reinvention in the modern age. Life is a whirlpool, time whips by more quickly every year. Technology is advancing at a dizzying pace and the whirling and whizzing of city life is enough to discombobulate the hardiest of sailors.  Not to mention the many expressions that already exist where Charybdis can simply be substituted in to replace the tired, overused whirlpool-related nouns currently in use: it’s gone down the gurgler/down the toilet/my head is spinning . . .

So let us discuss our options:

First we have the most common, though still quite rare usage, the literary Charybdis (with a cameo by Scylla):

“When I shun Scylla your father, I fall into Charybdis your mother.”

This expression is similar to ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and can be found The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare.  What an eloquent way of stating that timeless sentiment: it’s tough with the in-laws.  When faced with two equal evils, each difficult to bypass, this expression may come in handy.

Now let us move on to three easy uses of this fine word:

The bathroom Charybdis: I lost my phone! I looked everywhere, on my bed, in the kitchen, by the bathroom sink. Nowhere to be found. It’s disappeared down the Charybdis!

The career Charybdis: The new intern is sleeping with my boss and has been promoted above me within two weeks of starting. My secretary has quit to travel to India and find herself. I just lost the biggest contract of the year and my position is up for review next Thursday. My career has gone down the Charybdis!

Artwork: Charybdis by William Pye

The relationship Charybdis: We just broke up last night and my head is spinning, I can’t think straight, sometimes it feels like I can’t even breathe. I feel like I’m in Charybdis right now!

If none of these three things have happened to you in the past, say, five years, well you’re doing better than me.  And if they have, imagine how you could have improved the state of the word if you had invoked the word Charybdis.  And how much gentler your misfortunes would have seemed when compared to a sea-sucking fleet-devouring whirlpool.  It’s not too late to start now!

That said, may you never have occasion to use Charybdis and if you do, may its use bring a momentary wry distraction from the toughness of the times!

In peace and wordliness 🙂




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