BMCR 2013.08.53

Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox

, Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xix, 300. ISBN 9781107026766. $99.00.

Table of Contents

At first sight we are dealing with a small mythographic subject: Scylla the sea-monster. Scylla of Megara, the daughter of Nisus, is dealt with only briefly. In fact this book tackles a larger issue at the heart of the study of mythology, the ontological status of mythological names. A puzzling thing about Scylla is the apparent inconsistency between how she appears in the Odyssey (insurmountable, horrific navigational hazard), in Greek art (anadyomene, even lovely mermaid with a few barking dogs at the waist), and again in later poetry, where she is a pretty girl, the beloved of the sea-god Glaucus, metamorphosed into the Homeric sea-monster thanks to Circe’s jealousy. What is Scylla, exactly? In the process of dealing with this question Hopman asks what any mythical name really represents. She provides a virtuosic analysis of Scylla’s appearances across media and periods from Homer up through the Augustan age, showing great originality and superb command of sources and scholarship, and of all the various theoretical approaches one might apply to this problem. Among other things this case study, with its disciplined footnotes, is a handy primer on the state of the art in post-structuralist approaches to Greek myth.

Her central idea is that the mythical symbol “Scylla” is to be thought of as a composite of three semantic realms: dog, sea, and woman. Those three concepts and related metaphors are expressed in different ways in different periods and media. The Homeric Scylla represents the voracious, threatening maw of the sea, in a hero vs. monster story where, unusually, the monster wins. According to Homer, Scylla had a voice like a puppy (the etymology from σκύλαξ was clearly felt, Od. 12.86), and her six ravenous heads eat six of Odysseus’ men (12.246). So the cultural associations of dogs (ravenous), sea (dangerous, engulfing), and to some extent woman, are active.

Surviving artistic depictions begin in the fifth century BC on vases and coins, and show her as a tripartite hybrid of attractive girl down to the waist, fishy tail below, with two or three barking dogs emerging at the join. While hardly monstrous, and having no close tie to Homer’s text, these depictions nonetheless faithfully represent the three semantic realms: dog, sea, and woman. Later textual and artistic references can be analyzed along the same three axes, and spring from culturally specific associations and fears regarding the canine, the marine, and the feminine. What Scylla is, then, is not a quasi-person with parents and a biography, or a story that fits into some existing narrative pattern, but “a complex sign that is part of a system of cultural communication.” (5) The main theoretical orientation here is semiotic-anthropological, in the tradition of Saussure and Geertz, but Hopman is appropriately eclectic in her methodology, drawing on everything from Jaussian hermeneutics, narratology, Proppian formalism, comparative mythology, historical linguistics, to good old-fashioned close reading.

A less careful scholar would probably argue that the monster Scylla is simply another reflex of the misogyny and gynophobia of Greek literate culture and leave it at that. Hopman does deal centrally with gender but takes a more subtle approach. The first four chapters deal with the Odyssey, and offer sensitive, illuminating readings of the episode, both in the broader context of the wanderings and more specifically alongside the Cyclops story, deftly bringing in the evidence of comparative mythology, and taking account of the broader concerns of literature and art from the geometric period. She emphasizes the darkness of the episode, as an instance of the failure of Odysseus’ cleverness, and argues that “Scylla’s voracity epitomizes a fundamental anxiety associated with the sea and its inhabitants in archaic thought” (65).

The emergence in art of the fifth century of the pretty Scylla is usually explained as deriving from a lost literary work that told the erotic and metamorphic version later preserved in Ovid. But in ch. 5 Hopman persuasively argues against this: it is actually a development of the preexisting merman type (bearded Triton), which also occurs on similar coins, and on vases of a type similar to the Scylla examples. Typhon is another instance of a monster fashioned through creative combination of earlier types known to the artists. And, as Hopman notes, the Sphinx, the Sirens, and the Amazons are also made more feminine and less monstrous in the classical period: “The feminization of female monsters is thus a distinctive and important feature of the fifth-century mythical imagination” (92).

The next two chapters deal with Scylla as female, first as “femme fatale.” She is seen as a threatening figure in a few references in fifth-century tragedy and in some depictions in art of the classical period. This recoding of Scylla from impregnable monster to “highly sexualized female suggests that there was at least some degree of unconscious gynophobia in ancient Greece” (140). At other times Scylla looks more virginal, a huntress like Artemis, partaking in the “unchecked eroticism of the unwed parthenos” (155–56). Maidens are conceived of as wild animals in need of taming through marriage, as Scylla is untamed with her wild dogs and untrodden straits.

The eighth chapter on rationalizing treatments of the myth was the highlight of the book for me. For certain thinkers, such as Thucydides and Lucretius, Scylla was a favorite example of poetic fiction: a logical, biological impossibility. Historicizing rationalizers, intent on saving the myth from its own absurdity, say she was, in fact, a pirate ship called Scylla that had a prow in the shape of a puppy (σκύλαξ), hence the linguistic confusion (Palaephatus); or a courtesan with gluttonous, cur-like hangers-on (Heraclitus the Paradoxographer). These “misunderstood metaphor” interpretations, Hopman notes, capture important elements of the dog-sea-woman semantics. Plato uses the hybrid monster Scylla (along with Chimaera and Cerberus) as an allegory for the hybrid nature of the soul ( Resp. 588c). Heraclitus’ allegorizing Homeric Problems sees her as shamelessness personified, her dogs representing “rapacity, recklessness, and greediness.” Meanwhile, geographers saw her as (residing in or being) a particular cliff in the straits of Messina, with Polybius connecting Homer’s description ethnographically to local fishing methods (34.2.14–16).

These philosophical and historical handlings of Scylla in turn inflected later poetic versions in Vergil, Ovid, and especially the Ciris. The consistent mention of Scylla’s inguen (groin or genitals) in Latin poetry, for example, reflects a philosophical tradition that saw her as representing sexual incontinence ( inguinis est vitium et veneris descripta libido, Ciris 69). (Interesting factoid: the only mention of the sexual organs in the Aeneid, pube at 3.427, refers, non-Homerically, to Scylla’s.) Geographical rationalization of Scylla as Scylaceum on the coast of Italy seems to underlie Vergil’s nauifragum Scylaceum at Aen. 3.553. Aeneas does not have to actually encounter Scylla, Hopman argues, because she has been rationalized away (193).

Ch. 9 also shows a deft understanding of the mental world of Hellenistic and Roman mythographers. Hopman argues persuasively that the love story about Scylla the maiden transformed into the sea-monster was a Hellenistic innovation, which helped fit her into a story type they could recognize and understand: “maiden transformed into animal as a result of a failed transition into active sexuality” (cp. Io, Callisto, Proetides). The story now becomes aetiological, explaining traditional features of iconography and mythology, and thus contributes to the construction of a homogeneous myth corpus. Scholarly disputes about Scylla’s parentage, and the strenuous efforts to distinguish the two Scyllae, come out of this scholarly impulse for biographical coherence and system.

Roman poets occasionally conflate the two Scyllae, which could be seen either as a colossal mythographic blunder or as an intentional strategy. Hopman adopts the currently most popular interpretive strategy for Roman poetry, that of looking for metaliterary games. When Vergil combines the two Scyllae in Ecl. 6.74–77 it is meant to signal his mixing of the genres in the Eclogues. In Propertius 4.4, the character of Tarpeia conflates the two, and it “emphasizes her moral turmoil and undermines her credibility” in a way that “prompts the reader to question the process of exemplification itself” (222–223). When Ovid conflates the two Scyllae in Amores 3.12.21–22 it “doubly illustrates the poet’s ironic stress on the fictionality of his own discourse” (213). Perhaps, but it is also plausible that there were grammatici around who claimed that the two Scyllae were identical, and that these poets preferred that version. The point was to tie Homer’s fabulous monster (emblematic of poetic fiction) to a love story (in keeping with their genres), and it didn’t matter that much whether it was the Megarian Scylla, or Glaucus’ beloved.

Chapters 10 deals with Scylla as a standard exemplum in Roman thought, illustrating variously female lust, female danger, sea-hazard, or an inhuman mother. This discussion sets the stage for a solid reading of Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.730–14.74 in chapter 11, one which assimilates and applies all the best insights of the last twenty years of Ovid scholarship. Ovid uses Scylla to reflect on questions of human psychology (gender differences, power of emotions) and on the dialectic between continuity and change in metamorphosis itself.

In the methodological epilogue, Hopman makes her own bid to unite the two Scyllae, claiming that Scylla Nisi and the sea-monster “should be included together . . . as emanations of the same mythical complex.” This seems far-fetched. The Megarian Scylla is part of a very well-attested pattern of girls who consign their fathers and homelands to military defeat, either for love or for gain. Tarpeia is the Roman analogue, and there are a dozen others (see Jacoby on FGrH 293 F 1). But this claim exposes the radical proposition at the heart of the book. For Hopman, a mythical name like Scylla is not fundamentally a narrative and does not consist in a narrative pattern. A mythical figure should be defined as “a conceptual combination rather than in relation to a particular location, genealogy, or story.” (259) The Megarian Scylla is “a localized version of the symbol,” which can be “plugged into various tale types widely attested” (263). One can, she suggests, apply the same method to other hybrid entities like Echidna, Chimaera, Typhoeus, Pegasus, Medusa, the Sirens, Cerberus, and the Sphinx.

Hopmans’ dog-sea-woman thesis, while broadly persuasive, does not really prompt us to reckon with the strangeness of some of the evidence or to consider how much we simply don’t know about the ways in which people in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds experienced their own mythology. What strange local pride was it that prompted the city fathers of Cyzicus to have Scylla stamped on their money? Scylla glared from coins struck at the behest of the Roman outlaw general and master of the Scilian waves Sextus Pompeius Magnus in the late 40s BC, which makes a certain sense. But what was in the mind of the Carian noble who had a monumental Scylla sculpture put atop his mausoleum in the Hellenistic period? What is she doing on a bronze razor in a Punic grave at Utica?1 Scylla may be conceptually divided into three parts, but what she meant to people in these various different contexts is, we must acknowledge, largely irrecoverable.


1. For these items and others, see Marie-Odile Jentel, “Skylla I,” LIMC 8.1 (1997) Suppl., 1137–45. See also Geoffrey B. Waywell, “Scilla nell’ arte antica,” in Ulisse: Il mito a la memoria (Rome: Museali Editore, 1996), 108–119.