The Maiden of the Straits: Scylla in the Cultural Poetics of Greece and Rome

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In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus describes the sight of his companions devoured by Scylla as the most pitiful spectacle he ever witnessed over the course of his wanderings. Many centuries later, the fascination elicited by the “dog of the sea” still holds sway among the élite of imperial Rome, who have her occupy the central basin of the richly decorated grotto of an imperial villa near Sperlonga. This thesis explores the reasons for that fascination by reconstructing the cultural background from which Scylla derives her significance, paying special attention to the verbal and visual connotations, analogies, and metaphors associated with her. Scylla's manifestations in literature and art are manifold and seem at times unrelated. In particular, her description in the Odyssey and the type associated with her in the visual arts seem to emerge independently and to be largely shaped by their respective generic context. Yet, among the variety of those representations, three components—the woman, the dog, and the sea—recur throughout the corpus and thus can be taken to define Scylla's identity. Thanks to the rich associations that they conjure up, Scylla 5 embody dangers ranging from a voracious sea monster, through a sexually aggressive femme fatale, to an untamed maiden who fails to achieve her transition into womanhood. All three hazards involve in fact a narrow and potentially dangerous passage, be it the gullet of the sea, the female genitals, or a maiden's transition to marriage and sexuality. The liminality that characterizes these dangers mirrors Scylla's traditional location in the straits of Messina, as well as her definition as a hybrid creature that blurs categories and the intermediate status that dogs and women hold in Greek culture. The Roman reception of Scylla involves a process of systematization that strongly differentiates between previously complementary Greek traditions. However, descriptions of her in Latin poetry often conjure up the same semantics as Greek sources, sometimes using transpositions in order to convey similar meanings in a different cultural context. In spite of superficial variations, the fears associated with Scylla show remarkable coherence throughout antiquity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)584
JournalHarvard Studies in Classical Philology
StatePublished - 2007

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