Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.
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Ἔνθεν μὲν Σκύλλη, ἑτέρωθι δὲ δῖα Χάρυβδις.
Énthen mèn Skúllē, hetérōthi de dîa Khárubdis.
On one side lay Scylla and on the other divine Charybdis
At one time, being an educated Westerner meant knowing this saying.
It means something like either “between a rock and a hard place” or “the lesser of two evils.” It refers to a moment in Homer’s The Odyssey, wherein brave Odysseus must choose between a pair of monster. From Wiki:
Being between Scylla and Charybdis is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology, which has been associated with the proverbial advice “to choose the lesser of two evils”. Several other idioms, such as “on the horns of a dilemma“, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and “between a rock and a hard place” express similar meanings. The mythical situation also developed a proverbial use in which seeking to choose between equally dangerous extremes is seen as leading inevitably to disaster.
Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer; Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, on the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Calabrian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer’s account, Odysseus was advised to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.
Because of such stories, the bad result of having to navigate between the two hazards eventually entered proverbial use. Erasmus recorded it in his Adagia (1515) under the Latin form of evitata Charybdi in Scyllam incidi (having escaped Charybdis I fell into Scylla) and also provided a Greek equivalent. After relating the Homeric account and reviewing other connected uses, he went on to explain that the proverb could be applied in three different ways. In circumstances where there is no escape without some cost, the correct course is to “choose the lesser of two evils”. Alternatively it may signify that the risks are equally great, whatever one does. A third use is in circumstances where a person has gone too far in avoiding one extreme and has tumbled into its opposite. In this context Erasmus quoted another line that had become proverbial, incidit in Scyllam cupiēns vītāre Charybdem (into Scylla he fell, wishing to avoid Charybdis). This final example was a line from the Alexandreis, a 12th-century Latin epic poem by Walter of Châtillon.
The myth was later given an allegorical interpretation by the French poet Barthélemy Aneau in his emblem book Picta Poesis (1552). There one is advised, much in the spirit of the commentary of Erasmus, that the risk of being envied for wealth or reputation is preferable to being swallowed by the Charybdis of poverty: “Choose the lesser of these evils. A wise man would rather be envied than miserable.” Erasmus too had associated the proverb about choosing the lesser of two evils, as well as Walter of Châtillon’s line, with the Classical adage. A later English translation glossed the adage’s meaning with a third proverb, that of “falling, as we say, out of the frying pan into the fire, in which form the proverb has been adopted by the French, the Italians and the Spanish.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable also treated the English proverb as an established equivalent of the allusion to falling from Scylla into Charybdis.