The Rock And The Hard Place Of Homer
    By Patrick Lockerby | April 12th 2009 07:17 PM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The Rock And The Hard Place Of Homer

    The well-known expression: 'between a rock and a hard place' almost certainly has its earliest origins in Homer's Odyssey. In that saga, Ulysses has to take his ship between Scylla and Charybdis, two rock-monsters which are a bow-shot apart. It is impossible to avoid both monsters - a course must be steered which leads to the least loss of life.

    Unravelling Homer's Yarn

    It is strange how many words which describe the art of story-telling are derived from spinning, weaving and the use of fibres. Perhaps, before the invention of writing, people would tell stories whilst spinning a yarn.   In Greek mythology, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, provides the literal thread to the story of Theseus and the labyrinth.  Also in Greek mythology, the three Moirae, or fates, are three sisters: Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it.  Three is a mystic number in many mythologies.

    In the Odyssey, a strange tale is woven, with threads of mythological gods and creatures affecting the lives of humans as they journey to strange, yet familiar seeming places. Many attempts have been made to locate the places mentioned in the Odyssey. It has been suggested that Scylla and Charybdis refer to the Strait of Messina, a location between Sicily and Italy noted for its whirlpool.

    Is Sicily Thrinacia?

    Perhaps the origin of the idea that Sicily is Homer's Thrinacia lies at the feet of the ancient Romans. It certainly appears that the names Thrinacea and Trinacria are superficially similar, and both carry an element of 'three', at least in a Latin perspective of their etymology.  Is Sicily Thrinacia?  Or was the name Trinacria designed by some ancient Roman tourism comittee? 

    The Romans would often name the countries they ruled, giving the country a Latinised version of the name of the inhabiting tribes.  According to that naming convention, Sicily would be Sicilia.  So whence the name Trinacria?  perhaps the Romans, like people of all ages, wanted to boast of an heroic ancestry.  What better for any citizen of Sicily than to 'prove' a genealogical link with the greatest heros of the age?

    I propose to show that Sicily is not and cannot be the Thrinacia of Homer's Odyssey.  The association with 'three' is not with a device on a flag, but with three mountains and three regions of an island which was famous to the ancient Greeks.

    The Attributes of Scylla and Charybdis described

    These rocks are two; one lifts his summit sharp
    High as the spacious heav'ns, wrapt in dun clouds
    Perpetual, which nor autumn sees dispers'd
    Nor summer, for the sun shines never there;
    No mortal man might climb it or descend,
    Though twice ten hands and twice ten feet he own'd,
    For it is levigated as by art.
    Down scoop'd to Erebus, a cavern drear
    Yawns in the centre of its western side;
    Pass it, renown'd Ulysses! but aloof
    So far, that a keen arrow smartly sent
    Forth from thy bark should fail to reach the cave.
    There Scylla dwells, and thence her howl is heard
    Tremendous; shrill her voice is as the note
    Of hound new-whelp'd, but hideous her aspect,
    Such as no mortal man, nor ev'n a God
    Encount'ring her, should with delight survey.
    Her feet are twelve, all fore-feet; six her necks
    Of hideous length, each clubb'd into a head
    Terrific, and each head with fangs is arm'd
    In triple row, thick planted, stored with death.
    Plunged to her middle in the hollow den
    She lurks, protruding from the black abyss
    Her heads, with which the rav'ning monster dives
    In quest of dolphins, dog-fish, or of prey
    More bulky, such as in the roaring gulphs
    Of Amphitrite without end abounds.
    It is no seaman's boast that e'er he slipp'd
    Her cavern by, unharm'd. In ev'ry mouth
    She bears upcaught a mariner away.
    The other rock, Ulysses, thou shalt find
    Humbler, a bow-shot only from the first;
    On this a wild fig grows broad-leav'd, and here
    Charybdis dire ingulphs the sable flood.
    Each day she thrice disgorges, and each day
    Thrice swallows it. Ah! well forewarn'd, beware
    What time she swallows, that thou come not nigh,
    For not himself, Neptune, could snatch thee thence.
    Close passing Scylla's rock, shoot swift thy bark
    Beyond it, since the loss of six alone
    Is better far than shipwreck made of all.
    So Circe spake, to whom I thus replied.
    Tell me, O Goddess, next, and tell me true!
    If, chance, from fell Charybdis I escape,
    May I not also save from Scylla's force
    My people; should the monster threaten them?
    I said, and quick the Goddess in return.
    Unhappy! can exploits and toils of war
    Still please thee? yield'st not to the Gods themselves?
    She is no mortal, but a deathless pest,
    Impracticable, savage, battle-proof.
    Defence is vain; flight is thy sole resource.
    For should'st thou linger putting on thy arms
    Beside the rock, beware, lest darting forth
    Her num'rous heads, she seize with ev'ry mouth
    A Greecian, and with others, even thee.
    Pass therefore swift, and passing, loud invoke
    Cratais, mother of this plague of man,
    Who will forbid her to assail thee more.
    Thou, next, shalt reach Thrinacia; there, the beeves
    And fatted flocks graze num'rous of the Sun;
    Project Gutenberg Homer

    The Attributes of Scylla and Charybdis analysed

    Clearly, Scylla and Charybdis are two rocks. From the story as a whole, and various translations, it appears that two rocky coasts are being described. They lie a bow-shot apart. If we suppose a Greek bow to have had an extreme range of 100 meters, we shall be conservative in any estimate based on a 50 meter bow-shot.

    The waters are thrice swallowed each day, and thrice disgorged. Depending on our definition of a tide as a full cycle or half a cycle, we are looking for a place with three to six tides per day.

    The rocks are active, dynamic  in the drama. Could this be a depiction of an earthquake? Perhaps we are looking for a region prone to earthquakes with paleogeological evidence of a major event in the correct historical time-frame.

    After passing through this dangerous passage, Ulysses arives at an island where numerous sheep and cattle are found.

    Does Sicily Have These Attributes?

    Sicily was, in the times of the Greeks and Romans, a major source of wheat.

    The Strait of Messina is not very dangerous. It is regularly navigated by ships large and small. The only marine navigation regulation of note for the strait is a prohibition on oil tankers. The Strait of Messina is about 3km wide. A proposed bridge across the strait would be the world's longest suspension bridge.  That is hardly a bow-shot.

    Scylla and Charybdis, being two extreme hazards clearly stated as being within a bow-shot of each other, cannot be referenced to such a navigable and wide strait.

    There is a sill at a depth of 80m at the narrowest part of the strait, over which the tides must flow. The tides are semidiurnal with amplifications due to phase opposition. The current velocities in the Strait of Messina can attain values as high as 3.0 m/s in the sill region.
    Source: Wave Atlas Messina pdf

    Sicily is in a seismically active region. In 1908, an earthquake equivalent to 7.5 on the Richter scale in the Strait of Messina triggered a tsunami and caused massive loss of life.

    Sicily is roughly triangular.

    In summary, of the attributes of Scylla and Charybdis, Sicily has only three.

    What location best matches all of these attributes?

    There is only one place in the world, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, which fits the description of two coasts within bow-shot and having extremely turbulent waters: The Euripus Strait   This strait separates the island of Euboea from mainland Greece. Euboea was an important centre of commerce in ancient Greece. The Euboic scale of weights and measures was in use in Athens until the reforms of Solon, and was used in trading between the Ionic cities.

    Euboea was famous for its beef and sheep.

    The narrowest point of the Euripus Strait is a mere 38 m (125 ft) wide, well within the maximum range of a bow. The port of Chalcis lies there on the island of Euboea. It may be that Charybdis is a distortion of Chalcis.  The Euripus Strait would have been notorious to the well travelled of ancient Greece.

    The Euripus Strait is today, and was to the Greeks, notorious for having tide-induced flow reversals six times per day, some reports say seven.  But that is only during periods of 'normal' palindromic flow.  The tidal system at the narrowest point is exceedingly chaotic over a period of lunar phases.  Discharges of groundwater into this narrow channel also strongly influence the flows and turbulence.  The tidal effects are so great as to produce a detectable gradient in the water across the strait.
    The analysis of sea-level time series from tide gauges located near the narrowest part of the Strait show that the amplitude of the semi-diurnal tides at the north side of the Strait is four times the amplitude at the south side of the Strait. The two tide gauges are located a few hundred metres apart.
    The strong currents are driven by the gradient in sea level across the Strait.
    Source: Tidal currents in the Straits of Euripus
    Additional reading:
    The problem of the tide of Euripus.
    groundwater discharges
    Tides Surges and Mean Sea level pdf

    Seismic activity in the region of Euboea.

    There was seismic activity in the region roughly coinciding with two significant events in Greek history:  the onset of the Greek dark ages and the period bounding the archaic and classical periods.
    Remains of fossil shorelines up to 70 kilometers long on rocky, nearly tideless coasts of the Aegean testify to a relative sea level drop of up to 1 meter in Euboea, one of the largest islands of Greece, at around 1000 BC and 400 BC
    Source: 'Aseismic' area

    Finally, Euboea has three prominent mountain peaks and three broad regions.


    Euripus Strait has all of the attributes of Scylla and Charybdis, as against the three of Sicily.  Given the importance of Euboea in ancient Greek trade, history and mythology, it is reasonable to conclude that Euboea is the most likely candidate for the  Thrinacea of Homer's  Odyssey.


    May I include this NASA image (available through Wikimedia Commons) of Euboea (Εὔβοια, or in Modern Greek Évia).  It is easy to see where the Évripos (Εύριπος) strait is.

    To the South-West lies Boeotia, whose inhabitants developed an unfortunate reputation for stupidity.  The philosopher Kant had stated that Euclidean geometry was the only one possible, but the great mathematician Gauss had privately made great headway in the development of Non-Euclidean geometry.  However, he kept this quiet because he did not want to get involved in controversy with the "Boeotian" followers of Kant.

    When I was a lad, I imagined Scylla as a six-headed Brontosaurus, and Charybdis as something like an Ichthyosaur but with a vacuum-cleaner snout.  Alas, the dear old Bronto itself has now been consigned to mythology.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Robert: thanks for posting the satellite image.  All we need now is a sound track for this article about the ancient world's famous  Dire Straits.