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Sea Monsters, Myths and the Strait of Messina

The feared Strait of Messina has myths of sea monsters and nymphs - in reality it is a treacherous narrow of water and we are about to sail through it

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Myths and Monsters of Messina Strait

We are about to sail into seas that have been feared by sailors since the beginning of maritime. The Strait of Messina is the skinny waterway that separates the eastern tip of the island of Sicily and the southern Italian mainland region of Calabria.

Due to the sudden narrowing of land forcing powerful sea to behave unpredictably, whirlpools and vortexes occur throughout  the waters of the strait.  This has fueled Greek and Roman myths and legends about sea monsters (which for some odd reason were usually always female) that inhabit these waters.  The two best known myths are of Scylla and Charybdis.  These two mythical lady sea monsters were ravenous and mean. They were said to swallow ships whole and reputedly plagued Odysseus and his crew while on their journey. 

Our approach to our anchorage where we await entering the Messina Strait

Myth of Scylla the Nymph

Scylla was said to be a stunning and most beautiful nymph. The nymphic equivalent of Cleopatra or Monroe of her day. She was said to have danced around the rocks and swum daily in the sapphire blue Tyrrhenian sea when a fisherman fell deeply in love with her. Wishing to be in the same realm, the fisherman approached the sorceress Circe hoping she would help him to charm the beautiful Scylla. But the fisherman didn’t know that Circe was a most wicked sorceress. She had fallen in love with him herself, and unbeknownst to him, she was the same jealous sorceress who had also seduced Ulysses. This means that Scylla the nymph was her rival in love. And Circe certainly did cast a spell – but it was to turn Scylla into an ugly monster of the sea with six heads and twelve feet. According to ancient legend, Scylla now hides in a cave just down the coast from where we are currently anchored, where the Sicilian Coast stretches out into the Strait of Messina.

Myth of Charybdis – daughter of Poseidon

On the opposite coast and also said to dwell in a dark cave, is the mythical Charybdis. She was also a most beautiful nymph. She was the daughter of God of the Sea, Poseidon, and Gea. Some of you may recall that we have already made an unplanned sacrifice at the Temple of Poseidon earlier this year which you can read about here.

Even with all that fish to eat in the sea, clearly Charybdis was a carnivorous nymph. The legend tells that she would have stolen and devoured all of the oxen of the divine hero Heracles. In order to punish her the King of the Gods, Zeus, would have turned her into an ugly dastardly monster. In response, she is said to suck in the water of the sea and then spit it out violently, three times a day, so as to wreck the ships that navigate the Strait. She is the vortex!

The Neptune Fountain of Scylla and Charybdis.. Regional Museum of Messina

The Truth of Being Caught Between Two Nymphs

Sailors of ancient times avoided the Straits of Messina. Myths and legends were very real to them as was their fear. No one wanted to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis. In truth, it seems this narrow body of water has always caused issues and problems for sailors. According to legend, this has the potential to be a truly dire strait.

At its narrowest the strait is only 3 km wide. We will enter the strait from the Ionian Sea and pass into the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Because the strait is where two seas meet, it is also thought that this is one of several reasons that has a profound impact on the water’s behaviour.  We have sailed these seas before – last year having a terrifying experience with nothing but thunder and lightning for hours, but we have not been this far north before.  We are taking every caution for an adventurous and safe passage through.  

The currents are so strong that it has been said that the wave patterns can be seen from space.  These currents change around every 6 hours or so.  The primary current runs from south to north – which is the direction we will be going. The predominant wind at this time of year is northerly and we have been absolutely inundated with thunder storms for days.

We’ve had lightning and thunder daily since entering the Ionian

The truth is phenomena that have impacted and fed sea monster myths and legends over time are naturally occurring. The mixing of warmer and cooler seas creates whirlpools and counter currents. The impact of tides and currents that, until these waters meet, are often circulating in opposing directions.  But one of the most impacting influences on the seas behaviour in the strait is due to the underwater terrain and profile. In more modern times, the potential for treachery is increased by the presence of many other large craft and ferries and so there are now strict rules about being in the strait waters.  

Dire Straits

The straits are obviously the smart way to go to avoid having to circumnavigate the entire island of Sicily.  At present we are weighing up whether to cruise through today or tomorrow. We will have thunder storms there and on the other side irrespective. Regardless of when we sail, we hope the only dire straits we encounter are musical.

You get a shiver in the dark
It’s a raining in the park but meantime-
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie, double four time
You feel alright when you hear the music ring”

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